People often ask to pick my brain about finding fulfilling careers — or even just a dream job, for starters — because over the past decade I’ve been fortunate to thrive in three dream jobs, with each one adding new skills and experiences that paved the way to the next dream job.
And when I say “dream job,” I’m not talking about a job that your former classmates, colleagues, and everyone else think sounds cool. I’m talking about a job that literally makes you wake up smiling, excited to go to work — week after week, month after month. Because it doesn’t matter what everyone else thinks. This is your life, your dream, your job.
Maybe your current job pays the bills, but it doesn’t pay off with personal satisfaction. Maybe it’s challenging, yet uninspiring. Or maybe you are really good at what you do, but doing it doesn’t energize you or bring you joy.
If you’re wondering whether there is something better out there for you — your undiscovered dream job — then ask yourself this question:
What can I see myself doing when I am 87 years old?
Some people may laugh and reply, “Nothing! I’ll be retired!”
That’s the point.
When you are age 87, what will you have become so good at and so passionate about that you would be willing to come out of retirement to do? What opportunity to make an impact is going to energize you to break the leisurely routine of your golden years and get back to work, even if it’s just for a one-time project or as an occasional volunteer? On the flip side, what will an organization pick you — over everyone else who’s 87 years old or younger — to do? If you can imagine getting jazzed about doing that kind of work when you no longer need to work, then that’s a good sign that you’ve found the sweet spot for what could be your dream job now.
This question struck me over Valentine’s Day weekend while watching Herbert Blomstedt conduct the San Francisco Symphony. He served as the symphony’s music director from 1985 to 1995 and has won a slew of accolades, including two Grammy awards for his recordings. Now, at age 87, he dons a tuxedo with tails as a guest conductor at orchestral performances around the world. And he conducts with clear enthusiasm from start to finish, heartily shaking hands on stage with more musicians than conductors typically do at the conclusion of their concerts. He clearly received joy from doing this job.
Here’s the best advice I can give as you embark on discovering your dream job:
- Figure out what you’re good at.
I’m a big fan of the StrengthsFinder books and online assessment.
Other tactics to identify your strengths, talents, or skills include asking your friends, relatives, and coworkers what they have observed you being good at. Their answers may surprise you (such as when two coworkers applauded me for being “compassionate” in my role as global brand marketing manager), so also ask them for examples that shaped their assessment of you and listen with hungry curiosity.They might identify a strength or two that your current job doesn’t leverage but your future dream job could revolve around.
- Figure out what you’re passionate about.
Think broadly here; don’t box yourself in by listing only what you’re passionate about in your current role, company, or industry.
What are your personal values? What keeps you awake at night? What causes do you champion, perhaps as a donor, a volunteer, or a petition-signer? What issues do you care about, seeking more information on them in the news and eagerly discussing them with others? How do you like to spend your leisure time? What energizes you? What brings you joy?You may end up with a long, diverse list. The next step is to look for themes or broader categories encompassing your passions.
- Raise your hand to gain experience doing what you’re good at in the area that you’re passionate about.
One way to get started on this is to look for an opportunity to meld your skills and passions at work, and then propose to your boss how you could contribute to that opportunity as a side project or a stretch assignment. Depending on the intersection of your skills and passions, the best opportunity at work might be far outside of your job’s role and unrelated to your boss’s purview; for example, I advised a software engineer who wants to gain experience in event planning to volunteer with her company’s Employee Resource Groups (an interest-based club, like Women in Tech) and help plan the next Geek Girl Dinner or another professional-development networking event.
Another approach is to offer your skills to a project in your passion area outside of the office; the LinkedIn Volunteer Marketplace makes this easy, and its listings can give you more ideas of how you can meld your skills and passions on your journey to a dream job.
So, what do you think you will be doing when you are age 87? Please share in the comments below how you figured out what you’re good at, how you found your passion, or how you gained experience on the path to your dream job.