When Is It OK to Settle for Less Than Your Dream Job?

I believe in going for it, following your muse, pursuing your dreams — not playing small or “settling.” But sometimes, it’s right to take a job that is not your dream job. But don’t despair — you can make such a pragmatic choice without giving up on your vision. The key is to continue to nourish your passion, commit to learning, and maintain your perspective.

The two most common circumstances in which it may be right for you to take a so-so job are when you need the income and the dream job is not available or doesn’t pay enough, and when you need to build your resume or network in order to get your dream job.

The Pays-the-Bills Job. We all need to keep a roof over our heads and food in our bellies, and many of us support families as well. This takes money, and unless you have an independent source of income, you may need to take a job that pays the bills but doesn’t satisfy your career yearnings. There is no shame in this — in fact, it is quite honorable. And it need not derail your dreams permanently. You may be able to pursue your passion outside of working hours as an avocation or as a volunteer (which may lead eventually to being able to earn a living at it). Even if you never earn a living doing what you love, staying engaged in your passion allows you to continue to grow and develop personally. Continuing to work toward your dream can also help you to keep the ups and downs of a humdrum job in perspective. What you do for a living need not define you; instead, choose to define yourself in terms of your passion. One famous example is Wallace Stevens, who had a day job in the insurance business and wrote some of the 20th century’s most beautiful, challenging, and influential poetry.

The Stepping-Stone or Bridge Job.  If you don’t yet have the skills, experience, or contacts to get your dream job, you may need to take one or more intermediate steps to get from here to there. The classic example of the stepping stone job is working your way up from the mailroom. In this scenario an inexperienced but ambitious youth takes an entry-level job in order to learn and grow and move up the ranks to his or her dream job. However, and increasingly common tactic is the bridge job: when someone who is established in a career wishes to change careers and may need to build a bridge from one industry to another or from one role to another, or both. If the career transition is a big leap, you may be better off making changes incrementally, thus building the resume and contacts you need to move into the new industry or new role. (For example, a corporate lawyer who wants to be a literary agent may take a transitional job working as in-house counsel at a publishing house.) In either case, whether you are starting out at entry level or transitioning later in your career, you may find yourself in a job that doesn’t thrill you in order to build the resume that will get you the job you really want. Focus on how to make the most of the job you have: learn everything you can, develop a strong resume, and actively build your network.  And keep your eyes on the prize — the job you really want.

Choosing a job for pragmatic reasons doesn’t have to mean you are “settling” in the negative sense. Rather, it may signal a mature and longer-term understanding of what it takes to pursue your dream. One caveat: beware the fear-based decision. Before you take a job that doesn’t inspire you, consider whether the decision is motivated by a realistic assessment of your current and long-term financial and career prospects or whether it is driven by fear — of failure, of the what people might think, or of the unknown. Sometimes fear dresses up like rationality, and it is hard to achieve your dreams if you are basing your choices in fear.