The Dangerous Myth of The Dream Job

by Timothy Ferriss

It is popular to fantasize about “dream jobs,” read about them, and envy those who have escaped the daily grind to revel in career nirvana. The web offers alluring new ways of making a living, ways that may allow you to profit from your deepest passions. But how do those who have found the promised land really feel? Beyond the sound bites they offer magazines lies a very different truth.

Converting passions into “work” is the fastest way to kill those passions. Surfing two hours on a Saturday to decompress from a hard week might be heaven, but waking up at 6 am every morning to do it 40 hours per week with difficult clients is a very different animal. Mixing business and pleasure can be a psychologically toxic cocktail.

If you depend on your dream job for daily bread or your children’s college tuition, we hit a nasty conundrum: the things that used to give you pleasure and get your mind out of the office now remind you of the evils of the 9-to-5 business world. What do you then do to give yourself a break?

Don’t expect too much of your work

I’m not saying we shouldn’t be interested in our work—we should be. I am saying that we shouldn’t expect too much of it. The more unrelated demands we make of a single vehicle, the less likely that vehicle—whether work or marriage—is to get us where we want to go.

By analogy, I would argue that fun sports are seldom the best path to fitness. Why? They are examples of recreation, and while there is a component of physical exertion, they are not the most time-efficient vehicles. Planned resistance training would be an example of pure exercise. Most people aren’t in their ideal shape because they attempt to mix recreation and exercise and, consequently, get both mediocre enjoyment and mediocre results.

Aim to separate instead of integrate

I am a strong advocate of work-life separation as opposed to work-life balance. The concept of work-life “balance” is a dangerous one because “balance” is often mistaken to mean blending, where work and personal tasks are alternated in the same environments, or where one activity is expected to provide both work and life. The Blackberry is checked while you wait for dinner in a restaurant, the laptop is cracked while your spouse waits for you in bed, and the passion you loved so dearly for 10 years is now expected to pay the mortgage. This keeps your mind in the office 24/7 and destroys the few activities you cherished for the pure joy of experiencing them. This produces—at best—a state of constant low-grade overwhelm, even if actual workload is low.

Are there examples of people who chase passions and make it work? Sure. That said, don’t judge a book by its cover. I’ve interviewed close to a dozen millionaire passion-as-work entrepreneurs who smile for the cameras and then tell me about the existential crisis they face every Monday morning when faced with reality: they have no escape from the office.

The ideal job? The one that takes the least time

For most of the planet, I would assert that the ideal dream job is the one that takes the least time. Be productive instead of busy, and recognize that life is full of special relationships and activities that need to be protected from one another. Focus on artful separation instead of integration, and you might just—as I did—feel as though an enormous burden has been lifted.

Expect a lot out of life, but don’t expect too much from your job. It’s just one tool. Make it a specific one.

Timothy Ferriss is the author of the new Wall Street Journal and New York Times bestseller, The 4-Hour Workweek