When the Alarm Goes Off in the Middle of your Dream Job


Don’t you just hate when the alarm goes off in the middle of a dream? I was accomplishing something! I was enjoying that! When will I see grandpa again? Sometimes after I turn the alarm off, I try to get back to sleep so I can return to that dream.

One summer awhile back, an alarm went off in the middle of my dream job: managing in a large book store. I loved this job so much that I was sacrificing myself to it every day. Sometimes I worked all night, and the result wasn’t what I expected. Instead of being seen as amazingly dedicated and passionate, as someone who should be put in charge of everything, I had become a real problem to my colleagues. They could not predict when I would be awake, when I would fulfill my basic responsibilities, or even when I might be nice to the staff.

Long story short, I got myself fired from my dream job.

By the time I recovered emotionally from the shock, that particular industry was collapsing. My dream job was ceasing to exist.

Fortunately there are lots of dream jobs. I’ve had three since that fateful summer. Dreams happen all the time, but when a dream is lost, it can be painful.

Most of us try to do a very human thing: go back to sleep. Get that role back. Resist the change. This resistance is a form of grieving–it’s denial.

Grieving is a good thing to do, and you need to give yourself some time to recover from the loss. Talk to friends who can hear your pain and anger and fear. Be honest with yourself about what the role meant to you.

Later, when the time is right, you can start to view the event as an awakening–an opportunity to figure out what the dream is telling you. What did your dream tell you about who you are?

Interpreting dreams can feel like a cross between a parlor trick and invasive surgery. Or sometimes our dreams seem laughably random. “There was a baby in the back seat and it wanted White Castle burgers but then it turned into Clancy Wiggins and used the back-seat apparatus to drive to Kansas.” What?

Our job histories can seem pretty random, too. I became a secretary after earning my bachelor’s degree. I started in retail after earning my M.Div. Then suddenly I was working with executives in higher education. What?

Here are some things you can do to try to make some sense out of it all:

Reflect on your whole life

Look at the long view, at all kinds of things you have done both at work and at home. Select at least four peak experiences (ten is better): those times when you experienced flow or being “in the zone.”  These are characterized by a sense of losing sense of time passing, full immersion in activity, experiencing delight or fun, and drawing on all of your skill to meet a challenge. Times when you were just having a blast, especially if it was a little hair-raising. Jot down a list.

Write! Write! Write!

For each of these experiences, write a paragraph or two describing it. The following questions* may serve as prompts for your thinking.

  • What made this moment or time special?
  • Who else was present or involved? What were they doing?
  • What was it that you specifically did that made it so important?
  • What were your feelings then?
  • What was achieved, done or learned?
  • How did you feel about that achievement or learning?
  • What values and beliefs were you calling on?
  • What need was it serving?

You may not feel like you’re much of a writer, but writing is important because it helps you to come up with the words that you use to describe these experiences.

Print and read the paragraphs. Circle the words that stand out.

Read slowly. Pay attention to how you feel as you read. Which words feel significant? Important? Which words resonate for you as more powerful than the rest?

Find the themes.

It might help to have a friend or coach to help with this part.

Step back and look at all the words you circled.  What stands out? Do you notice any patterns or themes?

Pull the circled words into a list and start shuffling them around until you have them in piles of words that seem to go together. (For example, you might decide that “smart” and “conversation” and “participatory” go together. Your piles don’t have to make any sense to anyone else–just you.)

If you wind up with some words that don’t feel connected to anything else, explore those words further. What does that word mean to you? Why is it important? What’s the benefit or value of that element?  If you come up with other significant words, add them to your list.

When you have a few piles of words, name those themes. (For instance, for my little list above, I might name that theme “Collaboration.”) What do they tell you about the conditions in which you are at your best? When you are in your dream situation?

These are the elements of your dream job. Your next dream job.

Taking a little time to reflect on all of your experiences throughout life can be an important aspect of recovering from a single loss, no matter how significant that loss might be. When I lost my book-store job, I really felt like that was it–I was done. But my perspective was too narrow.

Take a step back. Consider everything that has ever lit your fire. You will find that you are bigger than any one job or role, no matter how much of a dream it might have been.

Come on. Wake up. You’ve got work to do.

*Questions credit: Jenny Rogers. (She has great books on job interviews and resumes to help readers make the best possible impression.)

Image Credit: MorgueFile


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