The Dream Job Trap: Or, How To Quit Identifying With Your Job

Photographed by Franey Miller.
Shortly after graduating from college, Maya* got an internship working on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. She had taken a class on campaigns and elections her senior year, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that she could easily find work for candidates — even without fancy connections or prior Capitol Hill experience. Working in politics hadn’t been her dream — and, for that matter, Clinton hadn’t been her candidate of choice during the Democratic primary — but she found that she liked her job. 
“It felt like saving the world every day,” Maya, now 29, remembers. “It was something that I didn’t realize was what I wanted to do until I started doing it.” 
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Over the next five years, Maya worked on six campaigns and lived in seven states. She became more and more successful, and finally scored a “dream job” working for her “dream candidate” ahead of the 2020 Democratic primary. She worked over 80 hours a week, avoided taking any days off, and put up with what she describes as a “toxic” work environment. “The candidate I was working for in 2020, I was genuinely willing to die for,” Maya explains. Then, her candidate dropped out. Suddenly, Maya found herself rethinking her career, her professional boundaries, and even her identity.
This might sound dramatic, but Maya’s experience isn’t unusual. Over the past several months, an abnormally high number of people have quit their jobs and switched industries entirely, with many of them leaving for reasons that aren’t just practical, but are also emotional. According to a 2021 report by finance site Moneypenny, the pandemic has made many people reevaluate their career: 1 in 3 people considered leaving their job this year, citing disillusionment, a lack of inspiration, and a lack of purpose. “The past 18 months has made some of us reconsider what is most important to us,” Moneypenny CEO Joanna Swash told CNBC.
The pandemic might have accelerated its demise, but the death of the dream job myth has been a long time coming, as first millennials and then Gen Z came to terms with the fact that working to live is much healthier than living to work. Disassociating from your job — especially one that you’ve spent years investing in — is easier said than done, and not always the goal for some people, especially Gen Z, who look for values- and mission-driven work. But what happens when someone’s work feels meaningful, but the job makes them feel powerless? 
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In Maya’s case, the more crucial her work felt, the harder it became to disentangle herself from it. “There were definitely days on campaigns where I was just not having a good mental health day, but I pushed myself so much because it was like, This person’s gonna lose, and then we’re gonna lose the Senate, and then Trump is gonna have his free reign and World War III is gonna happen if I take a mental health day,” she says. Even when her work environment felt untenable, she refused to quit, telling herself it would be “worth it” if her candidate won. When another candidate became the Democratic nominee, it was easy to then feel like everything was for nothing: “It’s like, Oh, I basically killed myself for about a year for no reason.”
Alexis, 25, had a different experience. After several years of working as a freelance journalist, she found herself gravitating towards specific beats — including sustainability and regenerative agriculture — and wondering if there were other opportunities to fully devote her professional life to that field. Now, studying sustainability in grad school and working at an urban farm, Alexis says she feels more like herself. And, she’s glad about that. 
“I do really like having a thing. I like having something that I know about and that I can talk about with people who want to learn more about it,” she says. “Even in conversations that have nothing to do with sustainability or food, I find myself at dinners explaining the difference between sweet potatoes and yams and the historical significance of it.”
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She sometimes struggles to distance herself from her work, but also says she’d prefer that to the alternative. “I think I was a lot more terrified of the vision of myself toiling away in front of spreadsheets all day,” she says. “That felt very suffocating to me, and I think I’d rather have my identity tied up in something that matters than have that separation.”
Jess*, 24, has wanted to be a journalist since they were a kid, but once they got a full-time job writing for three local newspapers, they started experiencing waves of burnout. “The industry is so volatile that you’re constantly on edge,” Jess notes. “The threat of layoffs constantly looms.”
That perpetual instability put Jess in a difficult position: They love the work they do and are not only proud of, but also feel defined by their achievements. But, it’s that very identification that makes the burnout even more frustrating, confusing, and upsetting.
“This is the thing that I’ve been working towards since I was young. This is what I’ve set as my life goal. And yeah, I guess career goals should be different from happiness you seek elsewhere in life, but that was the one thing I had always really envisioned for myself, and it felt really disappointing to feel like maybe I should be abandoning it,” they say. “It’s like, I thought that this was my passion. And the fact that it might not be is just disappointing.”
Disappointment — or, more specifically, disillusionment — can catalyze people to stop identifying with their jobs and seek fulfillment in other ways. And while that’s a difficult enough thing to process when it comes to a career like medicine or journalism, it’s particularly hard when your career is mission driven. Throughout college, Emma, 24, worked in Title IX compliance and coordination, both on-campus during the school year and off-campus over the summer. After completing a summer internship with NASA, reviewing Title IX policies and best practices, she returned to school for her senior year and was sexually assaulted. 
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“I came back and, like, two days later had to go to my Title IX peer educator meeting,” she remembers. “So then it became my life. Because I was like, I don’t know how to process things, and the only way I could think of how to process this was just being like, I’m going to devote my entire life to this. And shockingly, that was not necessarily a super healthy reaction.”
Emma graduated during the pandemic, and immediately started working for NASA again. She finally had the space to process her own experience, but at the same time, had to spend day after day reading data and stories about sexual harassment. “I kept going, well, isn’t the original definition of self-care doing advocacy work that would have benefitted you?” Emma says. 
Eventually, though, she realized she wasn’t caring for herself. “I don’t think that work can be self-care. It’s just not going to be,” she says. Today, she works on a farm: digging, weeding, and harvesting goods by hand. “I come home at the end of the day and I am physically tired, like my body hurts a lot, but my brain is still intact and functioning much better from having been outside.”
Plus, she doesn’t carry around her work as part of her identity. And she’s now able to leave it behind at the end of the day. Literally. “Even if I was stressed out about how I didn’t get enough planted or weeded, it’s not like there’s anything I can do about it during my off hours because I’m not there,” Emma says. “I can’t physically do my job.”
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After Maya’s candidate dropped out, she started working for a tech company. For the first time since college, she had regular work hours that allowed — and even forced — her to disconnect from her job and figure out what she wanted to have come next. And that’s exactly what she’s working on doing since quitting that job this past August. Now, she’s in the running for two positions: one for a local candidate’s campaign, and another for a different tech company. 
At the time of our interview, she hadn’t decided which role appealed to her more, but noted that the latter doesn’t service politics at all — which is new for her. “I’m a little bit nervous in a way, because so much of my personality for the last five or six years has been who I work for and the politics that I’m fighting for,” Maya says. “And now, it’s like I’m just a regular person. With a regular job.”

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