It is funny how once something is lost, it takes on greater value. I had that experience with a job. I lost it, and suddenly in my mind it was the only job I was born to do. I had never thought of it that way before. But once I was on the outside looking in, my old job had morphed into my dream job, and nothing else would come anywhere close to providing that mix of focus and mastery that psychologists call being “in the flow”.
This is the story of how I learned that there’s really no such thing as a dream job. Rather, I learned that what’s important is inhabiting what I’m doing and being fully engaged by it, no matter whether that thing is my work or doing the laundry or watching my kid’s baseball game.
It took me eight years to find a job in the legal community that I truly enjoyed. I had tried a few different things: practising corporate law in a large downtown firm, prosecuting criminal cases, setting up my own shop. In each role, I was either miserable or hopeless or, in at least one of the roles, both miserable and hopeless. Then I stumbled into a job that really clicked for me. I got to work on projects that were cutting-edge and very rewarding. The projects went well. People liked the work I did. I liked the people I worked with and the work itself, and I liked my boss.
Then things changed, seemingly overnight. The company hit a rough patch, the management team started bickering, staff morale nosedived. Several staff became critical of my boss. I was one of them. He took exception, and reprimanded me. I was devastated. I couldn’t sleep. I got really, really sick. I started having panic attacks, where suddenly I couldn’t breathe and my heart would start racing out of control. I couldn’t imagine going back to work at a place where I was no longer valued. So I didn’t. I took a package and went on holiday.
I stayed in holiday mode for six months. I went on a vacation with friends, a vacation with family, and another vacation with family. I painted the house, did some home renovations, helped out my parents when my dad suffered a heart attack. My wife grew tired of asking me when I was going to start looking for a new job. It was becoming obvious that I was looking for excuses to put off getting back to work. And we were running out of money. So when I got a phone call to take on a consulting project, I felt I couldn’t say no, even though it felt somewhat out of my comfort zone.
Within a few weeks, I had hit rock bottom. The consulting project wasn’t going well, and I couldn’t see my way through it. I was having trouble concentrating. I would be writing something, and I’d keep revising and revising, and after an hour I’d have written only two sentences. I was feeling like a fraud, like I didn’t have the expertise or the answers the client expected of me. I’d break out in a sweat at night, worried that I would be found out the next day. I started feeling nostalgic for my old job, remembering only the good days, and before long I became convinced that no other job would ever come close to delivering a comparable sense of being challenged and engaged. My old job took on new meaning as the dream job I never appreciated when I had it.
The low point was one evening when I was at a movie with my wife and kids. I couldn’t focus on what was happening on the screen for more than a minute at a time. My mind kept coming back to how my work project was floundering. I’d snap out of it and try refocusing on the movie. A minute later I’d be lost in thought again. By the end of the movie I had no idea what had taken place, not even who the characters were. I left the theatre in a state of shock, thinking that I just couldn’t go on like this. I’d always prided myself on not investing too much of myself in my work, being a family guy, keeping things in balance. Yet here I was unable to be there for my family, obsessed with problems at work, obsessed to the point where I didn’t see it ever getting any better. The next day I called up the Lawyers Assistance Program.
I’m not someone who likes asking for help. If I can’t find an address I’m looking for, I’d rather stumble around looking for an hour than ask someone for directions. The idea of going to an assistance program was not appealing. I don’t drink or do drugs or gamble or have affairs. I didn’t see how this program could offer something for me. But a friend had gone to LAP and had been really impressed with their non-judgmental support. And I was desperate.
I told LAP my problem was about my work. I’d left my dream job and couldn’t ever find another one like it. We talked through some things. After a few meetings I came to see that my problem was deeper. I had shut myself down from the world, closed myself off from my family and friends and things I liked to do, perhaps so that I could avoid being hurt again.
I did some self-assessment. I discovered that I was depressed. I hate saying that word even now, as I’d always viewed myself as an upbeat, optimistic person. But there was no escaping the fact that I had frequent feelings of dread, that I’d lost my appetite, that I didn’t seek out experiences the way I once did.
I started reaching out. I talked to my family and a few friends about where I was at. I started going to a support group of lawyers at LAP I took a course on counseling skills and worked on building my empathy and listening skills.
Things didn’t turn around overnight. It took two years, in fact. But I finally learned to forgive myself for leaving my “dream job”. I learned how to say to myself that I regretted something, but it had happened, and the key was to learn from the experience for next time. I wasn’t perfect, and shouldn’t expect myself to be; no one is.
And then a new job found me, one that was a really good fit. I am fully enjoying the work. Last week I gave a presentation to a group that included some former colleagues and friends, and it went great. I felt as “in the flow” as I had ever felt in my old job. Folks came up to me afterward and said it was great to see me doing as well as ever. I realized that my old job hadn’t really been my “dream job”. There’s no such thing as one true dream job. Rather, there is the experience of being engaged in what you’re doing, whether it’s a job or a chore around the house or a conversation with a friend. And that was the experience I had rediscovered, both at work and in other areas of my life. I realized that it isn’t a job that brings the feeling of being in the flow, it’s me that brings the feeling of being in the flow to the job.