Jan. 11, 2013 at 7:50 AM ET
Anne Hathaway says playing Fantine in the current release of “Les Miserables” was her dream job despite having to lose weight and chop off her hair to portray the tragic heroine.
But you don’t have to star in a box office smash to have your best-ever job, even in the theater business.
Ask Rickae Boyd. The 48-year-old landed the job of her dreams last summer when she became executive director of a community theater in Searcy, Ark., population 20,000. Boyd’s love affair with theater started in third grade. But after graduating from college with degrees in drama and English, she got sidetracked managing apartment complexes, content to make theater a hobby instead of a career. It was that management experience that finally got her hired to run Searcy’s Performing Arts Center on the Square after years of volunteering there and serving on the group’s board.
Now on a typical day, Boyd may wash tablecloths in the morning, run a children’s drama workshop in the afternoon, and in the evening, direct “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “A Christmas Carol,” or another of the handful of plays the theater stages a year. “It’s amazing to be here,” she says. “We’re nonprofit, so it pays buttons. But it’s worth it because it’s something I enjoy.”
Work that plays to your natural strengths and feeds your soul is just part of what constitutes a modern-day dream job, according to workplace experts and career coaches.
Other factors include feeling like you’re giving back or making a difference in the world, working for an employer that values what you do, and having the flexibility to balance work with the needs of family or outside interests, according to the experts.
“You have to know your needs,” says Kathy Caprino, a Wilton, Conn., career coach. “You have to know your financial needs, your style of working, your preferences and standard of integrity, the things that are non-negotiable.”
An unexpected perfect fit
While people like Boyd work for decades before finding their life’s calling, others stumble onto it. Jake Timmons is one. Like lots of little kids, Timmons, 22, grew up playing with wooden trains sets. But he never anticipated a railroad career.
He changed his mind after interning with BNSF Railway Co. while studying mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Timmons worked for BNSF during summer 2011, helping redesign an airbrake maintenance facility in Lincoln, Neb. That fall, BNSF offered to hire him into a management trainee program after his May 2012 graduation. It didn’t sound as glamorous as offers he and his engineering buddies got from aerospace and satellite companies. But Timmons had fun during his internship, and the management training job paid $65,000 a year, plus benefits. So he accepted.
The job was a perfect fit. Timmons uses his technical background to supervise railroad workers at the same Lincoln facility where he interned. He doesn’t mind the nine-and-a-half-hour days or alternating between day, swing and night shifts. “I’m running around the shop all day long helping people get their jobs done,” he says. “It turned into my dream job after I realized that I really enjoy doing what I’m doing, talking to people and seeing a problem” and fixing it.
It didn’t hurt that even before he started, BNSF boosted Timmons’ salary -- twice -- to keep the pay competitive with comparable jobs. He says it’s one of the perks of working for a company owned by Warren Buffett’s investment company, Berkshire Hathaway, Inc. “All the employees I talk to say the railroad treats their employees really well,” he says.
Risking it all for a dream
Feeling valued and being well compensated are important components of a dream job, career experts say. Even if you like your job, it might not be enough to make up for a bad office vibe, mean boss or pay that’s not equal to what you’re worth. “Often times, people leave the company rather than the job,” says Robert Levering, co-founder of Great Places to Work Institute, a nonprofit that researches superior workplaces. “They’ll leave a company because there is some problem there. They get another job that’s the same job but in a different environment.”
Natalee Binkholder knows what it means to like what you do but not where you’re doing it. In 2007, Binkholder graduated from law school in Missouri and moved to Reno, Nevada, for a job with a nonpartisan state agency that helps lawmakers draft bills. She loved writing new laws, but not the 90-hour work weeks, the people or being so far away from her Midwest-based family.
After three years, Binkholder was ready to bolt. She scoped out opportunities in a few cities before deciding Washington, D.C., was the place to be. She quit her job, found a short-term rental near Capitol Hill, threw her belongings in the car and drove across the country. Arriving in July 2011, Binkholder “made applying for a job my job,” she says. Two months into her search, she answered a blind ad that ultimately led to a position doing the bill-writing work she loves as legislative counsel with Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C. Since then, she’s been promoted to legislative director and counsel. “I’m amazed at how well policy work fits me,” she says. “I never imagined I’d be doing this, but now I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
To find your dream job, you have to be able to take a risk, Binkholder says. “I’m a good example of it working out. If I hadn’t taken the risk of moving across the country and spending my savings, it never would have happened.”
Taking the bad with the good
Even dream jobs have their trying moments. Nicki Boyd picks up poop -- not that she minds. Boyd, 42, is the San Diego Zoo’s behavior husbandry manager. In her position, examining animals’ fecal matter to see whether or not they’re healthy comes with the territory.
Most of Boyd’s interactions with zoo animals aren’t so unpleasant. She walks the cheetah, trains polar bears and grizzly bears, and works with birds and reptiles, too. Since being promoted three years ago, she spends more time managing zoo employees than interacting with the animals. Still, she loves what she does. “I like doing both,” says Boyd, who earned three degrees, interned and volunteered to get to where she is today. “Animals don’t talk back to you, but they also can’t tell you what they’re thinking or feeling. You have to have that intuition to work with animals. But really to be successful, you have to be able to work with both.”
Flexibility and work/life balance
Balancing work, family and whatever else life tosses your way is a bigger part of people’s dream jobs than it used to be.
Ilana Bergen doesn’t train wild animals, direct plays or work on Capitol Hill. But she’s in her dream job just the same. The 30-something Seattle woman works as a contract content strategist, creating online campaigns -- she calls them “branded entertainment experiences” -- for companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Microsoft. For Bergen, who previously ran her own online marketing agency, it’s a job that feeds her creativity and business side. “I get to work for big businesses but still have that entrepreneurial feel,” she says.
Working as a self-employed contractor also allows her the flexibility to work around her 8- and 10-year-old’s school schedules. Being her own boss means being able to take son Jared, who has diabetes, to doctor’s appointments during the day or “be there at the drop of a hat if he needed me,” she says. “I work around the clock to make up for it, to make sure no one can ever say because I have this flexibility during the day I’m not dedicated or passionate about what I do."