Life / Careers

Why chasing a dream job becomes futile for your character

For many adults who don’t have a defined career path, the dream job might as well be imaginary.

Lisa Owens.


Lisa Owens.

A friend and former colleague who works in journalism once explained her theory about the difference between a “dream job” and a “fantasy job.”

The dream job is attainable; it’s something you work towards, she says. A fantasy job is what you wish you were doing when you’re totally burnt out. (Hers was municipal parks worker. Mine? Marine biologist.)

But for many adults who don’t have a defined career path, the dream job, too, might as well be imaginary.

That’s the case in Not Working, the first novel from Lisa Owens, 30, in which the main character Claire Flannery quits a “creative communications” job she dislikes to figure out what she really wants to do.            

Claire’s time off is spent loitering in coffee shops, pressuring busy friends into just one more drink at the bar, and watching grotesque online videos.

“She has this grand idea that it’s going to be this journey of self-discovery that she can direct, and that she can make herself a better person. Instead it becomes this introspective time of inertia,” says Owens.

Her character is smart but self-destructive — a lovable screwball with knack for pointed observation, even in a hungover state.

“Did you not even get dressed?” asks Claire’s boyfriend, a doctor, as he comes home to find her re-watching a clip of a sperm whale being dissected. By this point, she has given up on Ulysses.

The idea for the story was partly influenced by a stretch of time off Owens had in between jobs a few years ago.

“I was going to go to all these art galleries and do all of this cultural stuff,” says Owens. In reality, she watched a lot of TV and met friends for lunch, which wasn’t fun because unlike her, they were busy.

“I was very much aware that everyone else I knew was working on a different clock. If I hadn’t had a job to go back to, how would that have felt?” she says, of how the idea formed.

One impact of this ideleness on Claire is anxiety — she inspects every mole with the same suspicion she applies to her well-meaning boyfriend’s attempt at words of encouragement.

Without a job and daily routine, everything else suddenly starts to come into question, says Owens, and they do for Claire. Should she be going to the gym more? Is it too late to have children? Does she even like living in London?

The character is in her late twenties, though her exact age is never specified in the book. She’s relatable to anyone who has ever dreaded the question “So what do you do?” at a party.

“I think there’s a certain pressure on my generation to think that you should feel like, this amazing sense of fulfillment in your day job and I think it can actually be quite dangerous and quite tough … on people like Claire, who don’t really know what that is,” says Owens.

The danger, she adds, is they may feel like they’re wasting away their potential by working a job that’s just a 9 to 5.

 “So that was definitely something I wanted to challenge — that idea that ‘oh, you should just be absolutely loving everything you do.’”

Chasing a dream job, then,  is probably a waste of time  — it doesn’t necessarily exist, says Owens.

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