04/01/2013 04:54 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2013

Haven't Found Your Dream Job? Get Over It!

One of the accepted truths in our world today is that if you do what you love, the money will follow. Here's the conclusion I've come to: Either it's a hugely new phenomenon that should be tested and watched carefully or it's a load of crap. I'm betting that it's crap. Here's why.

For centuries, most people worked for a simple reason: they really wanted to eat. And they loved their families who also really wanted to eat. They didn't see their work primarily as an avenue to fulfillment. They saw it as a way to avoid starvation and poverty.

Only in the last 70 years - and only in the richer parts of the world - have normal people had the opportunity to be choosier about their work. That's what the last 70 years have been: a gigantic wet kiss of opportunity. If you're reading this post, you have a computer, you can read, you have access to electricity and basic utilities, and you have the time to sit for a few minutes without being chased by the jackals of hunger or fear. By definition, you're drowning in opportunity. So am I.

But we've taken opportunity and turned it into a birthright. Now I don't only have the opportunity to provide for myself/my family with something I might love to do. I deserve to do so. In fact, I see my life and my career as failures if I don't have a fantabulously fulfilling job.

My parents grew up in the Depression. While he's never said so out loud, I've wondered whether my dad scratches his head at all of us who are pursuing the "do what you love and the money will follow" road. He started paying for his own clothes when he was 6. He shoveled coal as a grade schooler, pumped gasoline as a middle schooler, drove trucks as a high schooler, and worked at the college dining hall seven days a week as he made his way toward a career in medicine. Even then, while he certainly enjoyed medicine, it wasn't his life's joy. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure he had fulfilling days at work and he enjoyed them. But that was the icing, not the cake. His joy came from serving his family, his friends, his church, and his community.

Our I Deserve An Orgasmic Job approach sounds good on the surface, but it can lead to some really puzzling outcomes.

  • I have a friend who was dealt a difficult hand in life. He has a wonderful family including a special needs child who consumes a large share of the family's time, energy, and resources. We all love this kid beyond words. But the situation has profoundly affected how my friend can view his career. He's bursting with entrepreneurial ideas. He's extremely clear on what kind of work would be fulfilling. But the fact is that his family needs him to provide the stable income and health benefits that come from being employed. I have to regularly look him in the eye and say, "You, my friend, are a good man. Your work has nobility even though you're not in your dream job. You're providing for your family and while that won't get you millions or on the cover of a business magazine, it's super important." Seventy years ago, I wouldn't have had to tell a supremely solid citizen like this that his work mattered. Today I do.
  • Another friend of mine followed in the footsteps of a man he admired and became a lawyer. He practiced small-town law for 25 years. But he hated every day of it. Eventually, he decided to quit and do what he really wanted to do. He became a carpenter. Imagine sitting in class at the trade school next to a middle-aged former attorney. I'll bet he got a few strange looks. While I hope this story has a happy ending, the fact is that switching careers from a very white collar job to a very blue collar job late in your career is really tough. You don't have ten years to invest in earning your spurs. You're a very unusual candidate in a field flooded with younger, hungrier guys. You spend a lot of time explaining why you're middle-aged yet still so inexperienced.

Maybe you don't have an Orgasmic Job. In between Orgasmic and Miserable are a million options for how you play the game.

  • Ask yourself what you love and what you're good at. Then put your career hopes in the larger context of your family responsibilities and your deepest values. Is there a job or career out there that all things considered is a better option? If so, go for it.
  • If not, think about how you can make your work meaningful by changing how you think. Can you take joy from serving someone? Can you grow in your character? Can you be thankful for the chance to provide for yourself, your family, and others through your work?
  • Maybe even if a total career swap isn't in the cards for you, you can bring more of who you really are into your everyday work. Maybe there's a special project you can invest in. Maybe you can approach your work in a way that is uniquely you.