When I first graduated from college, I had a goal of becoming a communications director for a member of Congress by the time I was thirty. I figured if I put in long hours, I could work my way up on Capitol Hill and make that dream a reality. Due to unforeseen circumstances, I was promoted at the age of twenty-one to communications director—obviously much earlier than I planned. It was hard for me to believe that six months after graduating from college my dreams were coming true. It was also hard to believe that just a few years later, at the ripe age of twenty-four, I would be forced to rethink my dreams.
I learned so much in this position, and it honestly was an incredible experience. I interacted with presidential candidates and attended events with the most powerful people in the world. Yet, three years later I realized this “dream job” was interfering with other dreams. All of the hours I spent at work left me exhausted and dealing with major health problems. I had no social life because work was my life.
Through a lot of soul-searching and a few years of feeling lost, I’ve come to understand that the problem wasn’t my job; the problem was the expectation I had of my job.
“Your job is just one tiny part of your life. We talk so much about choosing jobs or selecting careers,” writes Emily Ley in her book Grace, Not Perfection. “But what if we choose a life instead?”
Our jobs don’t define us
It can be tempting to believe that until you find the perfect company with the impressive title you won’t be happy at work.
Maybe you adopted this belief in college because you wanted to make good on that investment you made in tuition. Or perhaps you're not married or a mother yet, and you want to feel your work has deep meaning and purpose so you can feel fulfilled. Or maybe the cultural pressure for women to break the glass ceiling and have it all has inspired you to do your part by excelling in your career.
There is nothing wrong with any of these beliefs and desires. Striving for excellence, having a deeply meaningful job, and using your education to the fullest extent are all noble pursuits. But when our careers interfere with our ability to live well in other areas of our lives—like developing and maintaining relationships with our families and friends, staying healthy, pursuing hobbies—unhappiness is bound to follow.
Change for me started when I began to think about what my dream life would look and feel like instead of searching for the perfect job. I came to terms with the fact that my title wouldn’t ever define me. I also started to think about why I work in the first place. We work to provide for ourselves, to build a better life. It’s hard to build that better life when you’re working long hours, losing sleep, and consistently stressed.
Building a dream life—that my career fit into
Little by little, I made changes that made it clear that my career needed to fit into my life, not the other way around. For example, I started to exercise regardless of when I needed to leave the office; I began putting my phone away for a while even if I missed an email from my boss; and I developed deeper relationships with my family. As I started making these small changes, like leaving a little earlier to catch a yoga class with a friend, I saw that I actually still did well at work, and my boss didn’t even notice. I realized that it didn’t matter if I was ahead or behind my career goals if I was losing my life in the process.
This realization has led me to make some unconventional choices about my career path. At times, based on the season of my life, my job has not been the most important or positive part of my life. I actually love making career decisions that don’t seem obvious because they’ve made my background more diverse. This process also has allowed me to accept that I don’t have to love my job every single day.
I also started caring more about what type of company I work for and the kind of people I want to surround myself with. I’ve found that I am most fulfilled when I can leave work feeling like I’ve contributed to a cause I care about but that still leaves time for my family and passions that aren’t work-related. I also refuse to work anywhere that requires me to sacrifice who I am for the job.
Are you respected by your boss? Do you find your relationships with your colleagues are productive and friendly? These factors can make a big difference in your fulfillment at a job, even if you’re not loving every hour of the work you’re doing each day.
At the end of the day, your career can play a critical role in personal development. So ask yourself: is your career allowing you to become who you want to be, or hindering you?
Each of us has the ability to build our dream life and to find ways for our career to fit into that life, not the other way around. As you navigate your career path, pay attention to what is most important to you. Your dream life is yours to build.