Connecting the Dots

Marriage as we know it used to be viewed as a business relationship. Arranged by the families of a young couple, such partnerships were formed for the value they could bring to all parties. Some benefits included financial stability, securing class status, and prestige. The concept of love relationships is relatively new, even in the Western World, where arranged marriages were a part of mainstream culture well into the 19th century.

Why discuss arranged marriage in a career forum? Because today, the concept of working for love – or landing one’s dream job – is perhaps as controversial — and misunderstood — as was marrying for love in the 20th century.

Those of us who married for love probably shared certain romantic notions as we searched for our life partner. We looked for someone smart, attractive, with similar values and shared interests. According to a recent poll on iVillage.com, 98% of respondents thought it was important to marry your soul mate. The term soul mate can lead to unreasonable expectations, as does “dream job”, its closest parallel in the world of work.

Merriam-Webster defines a soul mate as “a person who is perfectly suited to another in temperament.” More romantic notions of twin souls hold that two people were destined, before birth, or many lifetimes ago, as each other’s true match. By finding and partnering with your soul mate, presumably, you would live happily ever after.

Dream jobs are the working world’s equivalent to marrying for love. The idea of working for love, perhaps unheard of in the mainstream during the industrial revolution, is a romanticized notion many modern professionals share. Yet the number of people who actually love their jobs is disappointingly low. A 2008 Gallup Poll found that less than half of U.S. workers, or 48%, were “completely satisfied” with their work. To top it off, that figure marked an 8-year high, and may have been positively influenced by the recession, during which many people are just grateful to have a job.

To demonstrate the perils of romanticizing a dream job, let’s return to the dictionary definition of soul mates, which prescribes a perfect match in temperament. First, it’s difficult to imagine what that would even look like, for how can one temperament be exactly like another? But more importantly, the absence of struggle is implied in this definition. How, if we don’t struggle, are we supposed to grow?

The old testament offers a useful definition of a marriage partnership as an “opposing helpmate.” This, to me, is an honest view of a soul mate relationship, in which one’s partner spurs the other to grow and evolve. Often this growth is accomplished through opposition, not necessarily through resistance, but through modeling a more evolved behavior. If there is no one to show us how we need to evolve, we are often unable – or unwilling – to recognize those needs in ourselves.

And so it is with a dream job. While we may believe that our ideal job will meet all of our needs, it won’t always translate to a harmonious experience.

The content of a dream job – by its very nature – must be well-suited to a professional’s talents and interests. However, the ways in which it makes us grow may initially seem like drawbacks.

A challenging boss, for example, teaches us the need to manage up. A lack of recognition or promotion may teach us the art of self-advocacy. A lack of social support or mentorship may spur us to build our networking skills.

The bottom line? Dream jobs and soul mates have much to offer us, and it is deeply fulfilling to feel passionately about one’s spouse as well as one’s job. But dream relationships are not defined by a lack of conflict. On the contrary, inherent in conflict are often our greatest opportunities for growth.