Your Dream Job Disappeared: How to Redirect a Career
Taking a big view of doing good and of who might help connect you
More than any other generation before or since, millennials took to heart the advice to “follow your dreams.” In a 2015 poll, some 57% of younger Americans said they’d chosen their career primarily because they enjoyed it or thought it was a good way to make a difference. (Older Americans were more likely to think pragmatically: In the same poll, about 64% said they’d chosen their first job to make as much money as possible or learn new skills.)
Fast forward to perhaps the bleakest moment in modern U.S. economic history, and a whole lot of dream-seekers are left wondering what to do. Smaller museums, arts organizations and nonprofits have been forced to lay off workers or simply close up shop altogether. More than 20 million people lost their jobs in March and April. Some will return to work as the country reopens; millions of others will find their positions gone for good. Those same laid off workers are now pondering an uncertain future, and what on Earth they’re going to do next.
Selling out is unfathomable — but so is accepting the same amount of insecurity, especially as milestones like home ownership or having a family begin to look more pressing. How do you find the sweet spot between personal satisfaction and not feeling like it might all vanish at a moment’s notice?
If you’re contemplating a career change, you probably aren’t going to be able to leapfrog from, say, running a community theater to curing cancer. Instead, expect an incremental move that uses the same skills in a slightly more market-friendly setting.
HR professionals sometimes refer to a “jagged resume” — someone who may not necessarily slide neatly into a box, with extraordinary skills but potentially some deficits. People who fit this description may have bounced around in unexpected ways. In the process, they’ve often picked up a fantastic constellation of skills and expertise that end up being really useful for their next job, in ways they might not have anticipated. If this sounds like you, before making your next move, take a step back and examine your skill set dispassionately. Perhaps you’re good at bringing creative projects over the finish line, or empathizing with and understanding people. If you’ve previously been involved in technical or arts-related research, consider where else you might be able to apply your skills in synthesizing complicated material.
Often, official job descriptions are a little hard to parse. Peel back the jargon, and you may find that you do have the skills required, albeit by a different name. Anthropology majors, for instance, might not be able to make a living going into traditional societies to study how people live, but their skills are gold dust in the tech world, applied to the science of user design or user experience.
That said, be prepared for a wait. Because jagged resumes are harder to “read,” it’s not always easy to get a foot in the door. It’s here that your connections can really come to the fore. In 1973, sociologists from the University of Chicago published their research on what they called the “strength of weak ties.” They found that the best leads for job opportunities tend not to come from your closest friends, who often only know about the same leads as you.
Instead, look to your more distant acquaintances (your weak ties) for options outside your immediate social circle. These might be previous colleagues or friends of friends — people who recognize your skills and may be happy to put you forward for an unexpected gig. (It’s also a good lesson in maintaining friendly relationships with your colleagues, regardless of their position in the hierarchy. Those same junior folk you worked with five or 10 years ago may now be in prominent positions elsewhere and able to help you out.)
In the same way, approach people you know who are highly successful and ask if they know of projects you might be a good fit for. Chances are they have more work than they know what to do with and ample connections. Their discards could be your way in.
Of course, none of this actually helps you figure out where to apply your interests, especially if you’re concerned about not being fulfilled in your next career. Not following your dream exactly doesn’t equate to chasing a dollar for its own sake.
One approach to this problem might be looking at other happy, fulfilled folk and following their lead. A national survey of 27,000 people, carried out by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center identified the 12 jobs with the highest job satisfaction. Clergy topped the list, followed by physical therapists and firefighters.
While some of the careers had a certain creative sparkle — painters, sculptors, authors — others were far more middle of the road, such as office supervisors, operating engineers, special ed teachers, and security and financial services salespersons. The linking factor? Almost every profession on the list involved serving others — caring for them, teaching them, protecting them or making things for them.
Another alternative might be looking at key industries where there’s lots of potential to do good. Healthcare is one obvious example. This is an incredibly varied and growing field where your work may very well improve lives. Working for a health insurance company might not sound glamorous, but helping strangers navigate an incredibly stressful system with kindness and compassion could be more rewarding than you anticipate. Meanwhile, skills in marketing, managing people, scouting out talent or crunching numbers can all be put to work to improve critical but deeply inefficient institutions and systems.
Whatever your next step is, look for ethical organizations being run by smart, diligent people. If you like your co-workers and believe in what you’re doing, you’ll likely find things to like in your job, even if it isn’t exactly what you envisaged when you launched your career.