Today’s workers have three, clear priorities: Flexible hours, work that leads to personal growth, and the ability to spend a lot of time fostering personal relationships.

These are not the characteristics of jobs that typically attracted the best candidates. Most lawyers have terrible hours, most doctors have little flexibility, and most consultants sacrifice personal time for time on the road.

So, what’s left? What are the dream jobs today? What are the career paths that challenge assumptions of conventional success but achieve the top priorities of today’s workers: Flexibility, personal growth, and fun co-workers.

A big piece of the dream career path is to get out of doing entry-level jobs by taking a career path that allows you to jump. Some people start companies in their dorm rooms so they have good experience on their resume by the time they graduate. Some people freelance after graduation so they can find good work for themselves, prove themselves, and then get a mid-level job when they look for an employer.

Some entry-level jobs are still good, though, because the company offers so much in exchange. These jobs are inflexible and demanding, but they provide a couple of years of high-level, intensive training. Examples include being an analyst for an investment banking firm, going into a structured training program at a company such as Procter & Gamble or General Electric, or going to a top-tier consulting firm that makes mentoring and training high priorities.

Doing these jobs is almost like going to business school but, instead of paying for it, you get paid. And then you leave.

Today’s dream jobs are different than those of the past, but just as competitive — tough to position yourself for and tough to keep. Take the example of bloggers. Some, like Heather B. Armstrong at dooce, or Darren Rowse at Problogger, do a great job of supporting themselves and their families with their blogs. They have flexible, interesting work, they learn a lot, and work in a community they really connect with. But the percentage of bloggers who can do this is very small.

Working at a venture-capital firm or a hedge fund is also a great way to go. Good hours, fun work, great money. But very few people will be good enough at what they do that these sorts of jobs will be open to them.

If you cannot figure out how to get to the top of a field, figure out how to keep your options open. The worst career track for today’s worker is one in which you’re stuck — where career change would require you to start at the bottom again. Multidisciplinary, knowledge-management paths give you flexibility to move among disciplines and departments. Careers that are brain-intensive but not time-intensive allow you to work on developing your next thing while you’re doing your current thing. These are dream jobs because they allow you to create work around the life you want to lead.

And, of course, don’t forget entrepreneurship. The reason so many young people are starting companies is not because jobs are hard to find; it’s because dream jobs are hard to find. But starting your own company allows you to work with your friends, pick your own hours, and learn on a very steep curve.

So, what does this look like in real life? Take a look at Nataly Kogan’s career. She started out working for a top-tier consulting firm. Then she got a job at a venture capital firm. And today, at age 31, she has founded her own company, Work It, Mom — fittingly, a community for women to figure out the answer to their own dream job after they’ve had kids.

Kogan is a great example of someone with a dream job because the job doesn’t feel steady. She’s at the beginning of a wild ride through entrepreneurship. There used to be a smugness to the partner at the big law firm or the brain surgeon with the de rigueur, stay-at-home wife. The people with dream jobs today don’t know where they’ll be 20 years from now — or even next month.

Even those who may appear to already have their dream job may be scheming to move on to their next one — at a start-up, for example. Google is a big matching service for smart people who have ideas and smart people who want to work on a new idea. A huge number of Google employees are waiting to go to a start-up founded by someone they know inside the company.

We do not have a finite set of respectable jobs anymore. We do not have a single path to the American dream anymore.

What we have is multiple paths that converge on flexible, rewarding work that accommodates a personal life. And we have paths that do not get you to that.

The dream job of the new millennium plays to your strengths. So find them. Because that dream job will not unfold in front of you like a 1950s-era corporate ladder.

You need to go after the dream job every day of your career if you want to get it.

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19 replies
  1. says:

    Great post. I really enjoy your writing. By the way, I run a Jobs Article Directory and if you have some articles for distribution, you are very welcome to post them.

  2. Philippa Kennealy
    Philippa Kennealy says:

    Being open to an unconventional career makes for a life full of surprises….and choice! I’ve gone from family physician in the African bush to FP in Santa Monica to hospital administrator to VP in a (failed) start-up to a career coach to a business/entrepreneur coach (I think I am finally done!!).
    What permitted this was recognizing opportunity when it presented itself, a restless curiosity, a need to keep pressing on when I realized that my job was unfulfilling, and an ability not to be defined by my “identity” of doctor.
    It’s a lot of fun having a twisty-turny career!

  3. MarilynJean
    MarilynJean says:

    Motivational. Just what I needed for another Monday at a job that is not my dream job.

    I am trying hard to recognize opportunities when they present themselves. Also, I am trying to take more risks, which are essential when it comes to pursuing new things. You’ve had some helpful posts when it comes to this dilemma.

    Part of my problem is that I am still trying to figure what I am good at and work to strengthen those skills so I can better market myself. Though, I’m still not feeling like what I do is respectable enough. I also think that where I live is saturated with people who perform the same tasks that I do and better. Do I need to distinguish myself, move, or both?

    Anyway, this is another helpful post. Thanks for the extra push.

  4. Nataly
    Nataly says:

    Penelope – thanks so much for including me in your post, I’m honored. Since I’ve quit my well-paying job in an industry it seems many people are trying to break into, people often ask me why in the world I did it. The most common question that has been coming up is why I didn’t do venture for another 10 years, make some serious money, and then do a company. My answer is much longer than this but in short, what I say is that knowing what I wanted to do with my life and not doing it just became unbearable. Do I miss the money? You bet. But I NEEDED to do this. And while you’re right, I have no idea where I will be in 20 years, the one place where I won’t be is regretting not trying some wacky stuff when I was younger:)
    * * * * * * * *
    Nataly’s comment here is a little taste of Nataly’s blog, where she explores these issues all the time. She has a fresh perspective on both sides of entrepreneurship– VC and founder.

  5. Jay Hargis
    Jay Hargis says:

    Loved this post and the energy is stirred in me. As I think about it, I couldn’t do the type of talent management consulting that I do today if I hadn’t had my crummy entry-level jobs. That was where I learned, first hand, why talent management was so important. I think that at each step, I always kept in mind…what can I do in this job for my people that I wished my boss had done for me. I, to this day, think that is why I’ve always been a good manager (or at least tried to be a good manager).

    I got some good advice as I was doing some sole searching a year or two ago. Create a trajectory for yourself…it doesn’t have to be perfect and it can change and morph but create one (it can be your final job or a step towards the kind of work you want to be doing). Then, whenever you have a new opportunity, compare it to that trajectory and see if it fits. If it does, go for it. If it doesn’t, pass it up.

    * * * * * * *
    I love the idea of examining one’s trajectory. We should all do this constantly. Becuase I think a lot of people don’t even have a trajectory to examine. They are sort of treading water. The exciting/scary part of a trajectory is you can never be sure where it is catapulting you to. But it is more scary to not be going anywhere.


  6. Tom
    Tom says:

    I agree with Nataly, I’ve started and done about 4 businesses from years 20 to 30 and I don’t regret doing those things one bit. For anyone who’s never been an entrepeneur, it’s a trip you’ll never forget, I promise ;)

  7. Selfmademom
    Selfmademom says:

    This post scares and excites me all at the same time. I don’t know if I’d say I’m in my “dream job” right now, but I’m at a job where I have the most flexible schedule I could ask for, challenging work and a supporting team. Now that I’m a mom, I think that I look for different “dreamy” options from employers. I think even though I may not be in the field I want to be in forever, I know that I’m living the dream of a lot of mothers out there looking for meaningful flexible work options. I’m here to tell you it’s possible too! Great blog, btw, I’m sorry I didn’t get to meet you at BlogHer!

  8. Greg Rollett
    Greg Rollett says:

    Being in an entry level position in the field that I love and chose, I feel like I am getting paid training or schooling. Everything that I learn on the job, I take home and implement into my own start-up. It’s not an overnight process,but it is one that I believe in, and one that also pays the soon to have (Sept 1st) mortgage payment. Thanks for the reassurance and motivation! Greta writing as usual!

  9. hugh
    hugh says:

    I agree with this article completely. I would also add that there are many paths to get to where you want. I know most about the MBA route because that’s the route I took and now I’m in a typical post-MBA job. The way I got here, though, is very unconventional – a stint in executive recruiting, then the Peace Corps, then a top MBA, and now investment banking in Latin America. I never worried about what to do next; I just had faith it would work out. While some colleagues spent their mid-20’s working until 2 a.m. as investment bank analysts, I was living in Nicaragua and surfing every weekend, yet we ended up in the same place (I just think I had more fun!)

  10. F
    F says:

    The reason so many young people are starting companies is not because jobs are hard to find; it’s because dream jobs are hard to find.
    I can totally relate to this. During my time at university I built an online community with others, which was in hindsight very much like a start-up company. Long story short, it was a terrific ‘job’ (I’d have worked on it 24/7 if that had been feasible). The great, varied, even priviliged Fortune 500 corporate job I held after graduating, was rather bleak in comparison. I soooo relate to the “slow”, “little to say”, … and other comments by Google defects referenced in your article above. So now I’m looking for a new (corporate – ouch!) job. I may found or work in a start-up one day. Until then, the corporate world seems the path to go (I am following your twists & turns advice) but I am extremely sceptic whether this path holds any chance of a reasonably fulfilling job after what I have tasted… Anyway, thank you for your articles which do shed some light for me in these troubled times!

  11. Vanessa
    Vanessa says:

    To be honest, I scimmed this post, so I might have misread your message, but doesn’t this advocate a kinda generalist approach to finding work:

    “If you cannot figure out how to get to the top of a field, figure out how to keep your options open. …Multidisciplinary, knowledge-management paths give you flexibility to move among disciplines and departments.”

    Usually you’re all about underlining the importance of specializing. So to specialize is plan a, but generalizing isn’t the worst plan b?

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