Whoever said "do what you love and the money will follow" was probably a clever self-help coach. It sounds nice on paper but I can't say it always works in practice. Still, the mere notion that you could enjoy "working" is enough to get people feeling unsure about their career goals. The question I've been facing for years is: Is there a dream job out there for me? I think most people have asked themselves the same thing.
Growing up in Miami, my peers and I were mostly first and second generation immigrants. Our parents didn't have many options for work in other countries. They all had the same mindset: in the land of opportunity, you better find something safe to do. It didn't matter how smart you were or what you liked. Doctor, lawyer, engineer; these were your options, and everything else was out of the question. I pursued Electrical Engineering because it offered job security. That was the only reason. It was all very cut and dry. I knew I would have a certain amount of debt upon graduation and I would need to make a certain minimum to mitigate that.
2 years into my degree I realized I might have made a mistake. The Internet had caught my attention and it was only a matter of time before my career goals would change. It was no longer about job security. It was about The Dream Job. Fortunately, I was able to transition from "digital hardware designer" to "web programmer" without much trouble, and even though I graduated with my Electrical Engineering degree, I was able to land a job in the Internet industry. Since then I've had a rocky but interesting road through quite a few "dream jobs." In over 5 years as a "young professional," however, I can't say I've actually held The Dream Job. I've had a lot of experiences since I graduated, but my idea of a "dream job" has changed many times along the way. At one point, I was close: I was self-employed (working out of a comfortable apartment in Princeton, New Jersey), making enough from my Facebook apps to be "gainfully employed" without having to work much, and spending a good portion of my time playing video games and watching movies. Even so, after a couple of years of this I realized I didn't want to be a hermit forever, and just like that my "dream job" wasn't a dream anymore.
I've had other jobs where the work was pretty cool, maybe even enviable, but that doesn't mean the job was a dream. People usually get excited when I tell them I work in the game industry, but a handful of people who know me well, know that I've had some awful experiences. The kinds that would make you want to give up and find a completely different line of work. Unfortunately, that is just a part of the journey. Just because game design is my passion, doesn't mean every game design job will be a dream. Moreover, being fresh out of college means the best opportunities are probably not going to fall in your lap. Sometimes you need to bear some tough situations to prove you deserve better. You have to build a reputation for success whether the work is fun or not. At least for me, I've found that true fulfillment comes from making successful products that people love, regardless of the circumstances. Given the opportunity to have a laid-back job with the usual tech industry perks, like nap rooms and free lunch, or to work on a cool product with a lot of creative control, stationed out of someone's basement, I would jump for the latter. It's not that I don't think arcade rooms at tech companies are cool. It's just that after years of doing this, I know what keeps me motivated. It's the products.
This doesn't mean that the work doesn't feel like work. Designing great products and bringing them to market is hard. Some of my most stressful times were during periods where I was working on really cool stuff. I'm talking the kind of stress that keeps you up at night, that makes you gain weight, the kind that makes you want to get in a car and drive to another state and just forget that you ever got yourself in this to begin with. Those memories don't make me regret my choices. I've learned a lot about The Right Way To Do Things and how to prevent those situations in the future. Even so, doing what I do will always be hard work. That will not change. Knowing that, I've found other ways to deal with my line of work. I picked up music as a hobby, and in some of my most stressful times, I've thrown myself creatively into music production as a way to deal with the rigors of my work. There were times when my hobby fulfilled me while my job couldn't. I think if you asked anyone with a "boring" or difficult job, how do they get through it, they would probably say "find a hobby."
Which brings me to my point: there's a lot more to a fulfilling career than just finding a job that doesn't feel like work. I think having a good work-life balance and having your needs met are far more important, and I think the circumstances are different for each person. Everyone has their own needs and their own idea of what work should be. There are no easy answers. If you asked me for advice, the best I could offer is probably "you'll know what you want with experience." Honestly, you just have to go through these things to know. There's no way to evaluate these experiences from the outside, and when it comes to learning, it's more about learning who you are and what your limitations and desires are than about what is out there. This much I can say: don't let yourself be swayed by platitudes. Finding fulfillment is not that simple. I can say I have a better idea about what I want than I did 5 years ago. Ask me again 5 years from now and that idea will probably have changed. I might never have The Dream Job before I retire (or expire)… but I can find fulfillment in life. I plan to die happy.