An interesting piece in today’s Sunday Telegraph, echoing what we’ve always known about most women’s attitudes towards demanding jobs:
What if following your passion is not the key to career happiness after all?
By her mid-20s, Natalie Montgomery had a job that many young women would kill for. Working in marketing for well-known luxury fashion houses, she attended glamorous events and rubbed shoulders with famous designers. A career in fashion had always been her dream and she worked hard to achieve it, interning with fashion brands as a teenager and then studying management and marketing at university. So why, when she got there, did it feel unsatisfying?
‘Like many people, I bought into the idea that I’d feel most fulfilled in my career if I followed my passion,’ she says. ‘But it became clear the industry wasn’t the best fit for me.’ Her job had become what defined her. With it came long hours, constant demands and the inability to switch off. ‘I wanted to have my identity back. I wanted my role to be something that I could go into in the morning and leave in the afternoon and not have it consume my whole day.’
She thought about what she really wanted out of life: a greater work-life balance, time to explore other interests and enough money to allow her to live by herself in London. Now 30, she works as an executive assistant for a fintech company, managing the schedules and providing support to senior executives. Giving up her old career wasn’t easy. ‘It was pretty devastating,’ she says. ‘Fashion is so competitive and I’d worked a long time building a name for myself in the industry.’ But despite the initial anxiety, she’s now much happier – even if her job no longer has the ‘wow’ factor.
The idea that we should follow our dreams is one ingrained from a young age. We all know Mark Twain’s famous quote: find a job you enjoy and you’ll never work a day in your life. But new research by the University of Houston has found that being passionate about what you do isn’t a sure-fire route to job satisfaction. ‘As long as it’s something you don’t hate doing, you may find yourself very satisfied if you have a good supervisor, like your co-workers, and are treated fairly by your organisation,’ said Kevin Hoff, assistant professor of industrial-organisational psychology, who co-authored the study.
It seems obvious that a good salary, great colleagues and a supportive manager equal a happier working life, yet these things are often seen as secondary to doing something we love. We put up with toxic bosses, ridiculous hours or job insecurity to chase our dream – and then wonder why we end up miserable.
Part of the issue is that our work has become so intrinsically linked to our identities. ‘We put this pressure on our career to provide everything,’ says Natasha Stanley, head coach at career-change specialist Careershifters. ‘It’s our sense of identity, it’s how we introduce ourselves, it’s how we define ourselves in terms of status and social worth.’
As with so much else though, the pandemic has changed things. At a time when many are losing their jobs or seeing their income drop, the concept of the perfect job feels obsolete. The Office for Budget Responsibility predicts that UK unemployment could rise to 7.5 per cent this year, the highest since the financial crisis of 2009. For many, the ideal job is now simply one that pays the mortgage. A dream job is a luxury.
While many are seeing the career they had mapped out disappear, others are reassessing the role they want work to play in their life. Perks like nice offices, travel and social events have been stripped away, leaving us to confront the reality of our jobs. Research by Aviva found that 53 per cent of people plan to make changes to their career as a result of Covid, with 10 per cent wanting more flexibility and seven per cent seeking a completely different path.
We’re reassessing our priorities too. ‘I’m finding a lot of people are questioning what they’re doing now,’ says Dr Cary Cooper, author of Wellbeing at Work. ‘What this health crisis has done is make people reflect on the fact that life is a one-act play.’
For some that means spending less time at work and more with their families. For others it’s about finding more meaning in their careers. Research by law firm Slater Gordon found that 41 per cent of people were considering quitting their jobs for more fulfilling work – with nearly half wanting to be a more valuable member of their community.
Yet even before the pandemic, the myth of the dream job was already falling apart. The pressure to find a career that we not only love, but looks impressive and pays well was at odds with the reality of the working world.
When Helen Croydon used to tell people what she did for a living, she’d notice their interest pique. As an author of three books, a writer for national newspapers and a regular commentator on TV, her career looked impressive from the outside – and it was one she’d worked for years to achieve.
‘Writing was the only thing I ever had a burning desire to do,’ she says. ‘I was always writing stories on my mum’s electric typewriter when I was little and I sent my first book off to a publisher when I was 10.’
After graduating she took a job with a big accountancy firm, then retrained and worked in broadcast journalism before finally making a go of it as a writer in her early 30s. ‘I was on career number three and at last doing what I set out to,’ she says.
‘From the outside people thought I was doing really well, but I didn’t feel that success and for me that was really hard to deal with,’ she says. The reality was that her book deals didn’t pay much, and her journalism and TV work, though exciting, was sporadic. She might have been ‘living the dream’, but she was also just scraping by. ‘At parties people would be impressed and want to know more and I just felt like such a fraud,’ she says. ‘I wanted to feel proud of what I did and to feel like it had some sort of sustainability.’
So two years ago Helen, now 43, decided to leave her career as a writer behind. Instead, she now runs a small consultancy, Thought Leadership PR, helping authors, academics and entrepreneurs to raise their profile. Having structure to her day, a reliable income and using her skills to help others are the things she now values. ‘While my career doesn’t have the kudos any more I’m more financially secure, happier and more productive. I much prefer what I do now, because I feel successful, rather than just people thinking I am.’
Natasha from Careershifters sees a lot of people come to her feeling stuck – miserable in their job but waiting for their passion to show itself before they make a move. ‘I think the idea that you have to find your passion is debilitating,’ she says. She gets people to ask themselves three questions: What energises me? What am I good at? And what will the world pay for? And if what energises you is being able to leave at 5pm to see your family or spend time on a hobby, that’s totally fine too.
For Natalie, realising what was important to her was a turning point. ‘In my old job I used to get a kick out of how people reacted when I told them what I did,’ she says. ‘But I realised that didn’t bring me long-term fulfilment. As long as I can live somewhere that I’m happy, make time for the people I care about and have time for my personal endeavours, that’s what gives me satisfaction now.’
Figuring out her own career path has even inspired Natalie to help other women do the same, and she’s set up a side business, Almara Consulting Group, to mentor and support others in achieving their career and financial goals. She encourages other women to do their research into their dream job to make sure the reality fits with what they want. ‘Even though my own dream wasn’t working out for me, and that’s why I pivoted, I do think it still can work for others.’
As we re-evaluate so many areas of our lives, perhaps it’s time to rethink work. Rather than looking for the dream job, maybe it’s about finding one that allows us to live the life we want… To remember that work isn’t who we are – it’s just what we do.
You can subscribe to The Telegraph here.
Our last general election manifesto is here.
If everyone who read this gave us £5.00 – or even better, £5.00 or more, monthly – we could change the world. £5.00 monthly would entitle you to Bronze party membership, details here. Benefits include a dedicated and signed book by Mike Buchanan. Click below to make a difference. Thanks.