As a 13-year-old, I made an announcement to my mother: “When I grow up I want to be a war correspondent in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
I can’t remember her exact response, but I do remember the look of horror on her face. Dodging bullets in the desert was clearly not what she had in mind for her youngest daughter.
Undeterred by my mother’s disapproval, I dreamed of conflict reporting for the next 10 years. Propelled by both an admirable desire to speak truth to injustice and a more shallow urge to do dangerous work, I was set on interviewing combatants, embedding with troops and reporting on humanitarian crises around the world. But as a young person with no experience of war, my dream job’s title soon eclipsed thoughts of the actual work itself, which I could only piece together from movies and books. Part of my fascination with the job was that I liked the way it sounded, and I clung to the name of my aspiration long after I forgot the reasons that led me there in the first place.
Perhaps it’s because, in a place as career and achievement-oriented as the U.S., dream jobs have become part of our collective consciousness. From the time we’re very young, adults ask what we want to be when we grow up. When I was six, the answer to that question was, “I want to live on a farm with 20 flying pigs.” Of course, no one took that literally — it was more an indication that I should focus on putting my imagination to use than search the world for a flying pig. In that way, dreams are useful starting points; ideals that set us on the beginning of one journey or another. But that line of thinking can get lost as we get older and more specific with our answers: fiction writer, theater actor, young entrepreneur. Instead of using the question to examine our more general skills or objectives or desired impacts, we aim for titles. That’s when dreams begin to limit instead of liberate.
The first job I landed out of college was as a breaking news reporter covering Europe. I got to write about everything from protests in Greece to an intense debate over French cheese in Russia. While I was passionate about the work, I still measured each assignment by primarily one rubric: Is this bringing me closer or further away from conflict reporting? When I later transitioned into freelance work and started covering a much wider range of topics, I continued thinking of my work in the same terms. I felt guilty writing about subjects that simply interested me or weren’t related to my long-term goal.
In some ways, my intense focus was understandable — we are faced with immense pressure to find and land our dream jobs. Entire cottage industries have sprung up around the emphasis our society places on them, from career coaches to websites devoted purely to job advice. Movies, TV shows and books all promote the idea both that a perfect job exists and that landing it is an irascible part of happiness. Remember The Devil Wears Prada and “the job a million girls would kill for?” Or how about Rory Gilmore wanting to be Christiane Amanpour at age 15?
Of course, the vision painted by Hollywood is often an unrealistic one. Not every successful person sits in a corner office or buys $1,200 Jimmy Choos. The fact that fictional dream jobs so often include a big title or a perfect office is evidence that the notion itself might be more about status than about fulfillment. It’s cute when a kid dreams of becoming a firefighter or an astronaut because they like the associated wardrobes, but an adult dreaming of a career based solely on its cache seems a fast path to unfulfillment.
My own disenchantment with dream jobs caught me by surprise. In my time covering European breaking news, my first assignment abroad was in Paris following the November 2015 attacks. It was very far from war, and I would never compare it to what journalists experience in Iraq or Syria, but witnessing the police raids following the attacks, looking through the bullet holes in café windows, and eventually feeling a small explosion go off next to me made me realize how truly naïve my 13-year-old dream had been. The reality of this job was grim, and I felt ashamed at not having realized that before. It didn’t make me want to stop doing this kind of reporting entirely, but I no longer idealized it in the way I once had.
There are so many ways to be a journalist, so many ways to tell stories that matter, but I only came to this realization after breaking out of the confines of my previous mode of thinking. Finally learning to focus less on a specific dream and more on what inspired that dream in the first place — telling unusual stories, speaking to passionate people — helped me see opportunities on their own merits. Not working toward the singular goal of obtaining my “dream job” allowed me to more easily find contentment in the present and to embrace opportunities that I might not have otherwise taken.
Part of the stress of the dream job narrative is to hurry up and get everything right the first time. To do that right thing at the right time so you can open the right doors. But that approach limited my vision to a pinhole. When I redefined my success in terms of how I wanted to feel when working or what I wanted to achieve, I found that I was in many ways already doing the kind of work I had dreamed of.
Jess McHugh is a New York-based journalist writing about the intersection of culture, politics and other things that strike her fancy. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review, The Nation, TIME.com, Village Voice, International Business Times, CNN, and The Believer, among others. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
Collage by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.