By Ben Sands – For additional insights, tools, and leadership resources, click here
A reader recently wrote to ask: “What is a “dream” career? And how do I create one?”
This seemed like a simple enough question but, as I began my reply, it occurred to me that the word “dream” is not one that we – a community of smart, high-potential young men and women – throw around liberally anymore.
Sure, back in the day we loved dreams and dream-ing…but now?
Well, now we are responsible adults!
We are pragmatic! We are realistic.
There is little room for dreaming in our busy, busy, busy lives. Today we reserve the word “dream” for our children, our Olympic men’s basketball team…and our therapist. As smart, rational adults, we simply can’t indulge in such semantic silliness.
That said we still wake up every day expecting – wanting – to have our own dream career. Don’t we?
In his book, Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt describes three buckets of work options: jobs, careers, callings.
Most people approach their work in one of three ways: as a job, a career, or a calling.
- If you see your work as a job, you do it only for the money, you look at the clock frequently while dreaming about the weekend ahead, and you probably pursue hobbies, which satisfy your effectance needs more thoroughly than does your work.
- If you see your work as a career, you have larger goals of advancement, promotion, and prestige.
- If you see your work as a calling…you find your work intrinsically fulfilling you are not doing it to achieve something else. You see your work as contributing to the greater good or as playing a role in some larger enterprise the worth of which seems obvious to you. You have frequent experiences of flow during the work day, and you neither look forward to “quitting time” nor feel the desire to shout, “Thank God it’s Friday!”
You would continue to work, perhaps even without pay, if you suddenly became very wealthy.
A “DREAM CAREER” DEFINED
OK, you say, interesting. But what then, is a “dream career”? Great question!
And an important one. In fact, it’s a critical question because, as I’ve said many times, if we don’t know what specifically we want, then there’s no way to get there.
Here’s my definition of “dream career:”
A professional life with all the characteristics of of a calling (intrinsically fulfilling, contributing to the greater good, producing ‘flow’), and all the benefits of a successful career (advancement, promotion and prestige).
That’s easy enough, right?
Of course not.
In truth, it’s really freaking hard.
But, if that’s the goal, then let’s find someone who has done it and see what we can learn…
How about, say, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger?
Kissinger, considered by many to be one of the greatest statesmen of all time, had an undeniably impressive career.
As Secretary of State and, before that, National Security Advisor, he had achieved the highest levels of professional accomplishment. In addition, he has been recognized with every prestigious award including The Nobel Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and even a National Book Award.
So, clearly his plan to create a “dream career” worked!
But, then again, what exactly was his plan? And what can we learn from it?
THE SECRET OF “OUTLIERS”
Writer Malcolm Gladwell does a great job of dispelling the notion that dream careers (as defined above) can truly be planned.
He studied the trajectories of dozens of dream career exemplars; people like Bill Gates, Robert Oppenheimer and The Beatles.
Over the course of his research he identified a very interesting pattern: that 1) every “dream career” required some element of great skill (the culmination, Gladwell argues, of at least 10,000 hours of practice and/or study), but also 2) some set of fortunate circumstances that allowed the individual to deploy that skill in a way that created a disproportionate impact on the world.
Like Gates and the others, Kissinger’s story fits this framework well:
Heinz Alfred Kissinger was born in Germany and spent the first 15 years of his life there – leaving in 1938, with his family, to flee Nazi persecution. Shortly after becoming a naturalized US citizen in 1943, Kissinger was drafted to serve in World War II. Once back from the war, he entered Harvard in 1946 and completed the “Triple Crown” – a Bachelors degree, Masters and Ph.D – in 1954.
He remained on the Harvard faculty and, for the next 15 years (10,000+ hours!) he wrote, taught, advised and researched; becoming a bona fide expert on international affairs. During that time Kissinger became an advisor to NY Senator Nelson Rockefeller and, through Rockefeller, Kissinger was introduced to Richard Nixon. Kissinger’s big break (as Gladwell might identify it) was when Nixon won the Presidency and named him National Security Advisor and then Secretary of State. Had Nixon not won in ’68, Kissinger would have still been an extremely accomplished academic, but he might not be the globally recognized statesman that he is today.
So, again, what can we learn from Kissinger?
As I asked my audience of 70+ young men and women: How likely is it that you can do what Kissinger has done?
The simple answer: not likely.
It’s not that you can’t devote yourself to the study of foreign affairs – you can. But, the recipe for “dream” career requires more than just skill – it requires a fair amount of luck and timing, too.
As Gladwell concludes in Outliers, the extraordinary success that we are so quick to idolize and aspire to, is rarely one’s own doing – it requires a very fortunate set of circumstances as well.
“The biggest misconception about success,” says Gladwell, “is that we do it solely on our smarts, ambition, hustle and hard work.”
Without luck, posits Gladwell, Bill Gates would have likely become a “highly intelligent, driven, charming person and a successful professional”— but likely not the world’s richest man.
So, should we spend time planning our “dream” career?
My advice: no.
All things being equal, we’d all take a calling (work that is intrinsically fulfilling, contributing to the greater good, producing ‘flow’) even if they don’t, one day, name battleships or football stadiums in our honor.
Of course, to even have a calling would imply that you love something so much that you’d do it for free. At this point in your life, you may laugh at the inanity of that idea.
So, over to you. What do you do?
How do you think about the difference between job, career and calling…and how do you choose among the options (recognizing that, sometimes, eventually, you have to choose)?