The privilege of our dream jobs—and drowning in them.

by Paula Ethans

Illustration by Samantha Nickerson •

Illustration by Samantha Nickerson •


Growing up, whenever adults asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I stumbled. I was unsure what my dream job looked like. I would always reply: “I want to help people.” I knew at least that much.

When I started university, I decided to major in International Development Studies because I still had that same, albeit vague, dream. My friends went into business or science, the more practical routes with clear career paths. I didn’t have to worry about money—my parents were paying my tuition—so I followed my passion. After graduation, it sunk in that I couldn’t get a job with a degree in studying the theory of ‘Official Development Assistance’ and ‘Participatory Development.’ I was disappointed, but I wasn’t willing to give up on my dream of helping people, somehow. So I went to law school to become a human rights lawyer.

Every day of my three years of law school, I was consistently dissuaded from pursuing a career in human rights law. Each summer, while my classmates were making big bucks on Bay Street, I was working/interning/volunteering in far away countries, barely scraping by with school bursaries, money from selling my car, and, of course, help from my parents. 

But I made it. I can now call myself a human rights lawyer. I have successfully pursued my passion. I have worked in Malaysia and Israel, advocating for refugee rights, and I now I’ve started working at a legal NGO in Germany—my dream job—holding EU countries accountable for discriminatory migration policies.  

My many privileges have allowed me to pursue my passion. I am one of the few people on this planet that gets to say they are doing what they’ve always dreamed of. One of the few who has the privilege to live their purpose. But I wonder, without trying to take it all for granted, how do we drive our passion without drowning in it? How do we engage in meaningful work, without deriving meaning only from our work?


Finding the Sweet Spot

According to a Harvard Business Review report, over 90 percent of Americans report that they would take a pay cut—23 percent of their total life earnings—to have a more meaningful job. Another study found that only half of university graduates in the USA had found what they felt was meaningful work.

The average person in North America doesn't like their job. They clock in and out, and then try to derive joy and meaning from other parts of their lives. The bank teller might be a hiking enthusiast, the insurance broker could be honing their baking skills, and maybe the store clerk competes in Iron Man races. Each person seeking meaning after 5pm.

But for those of us who are lucky enough to have meaningful work, how do we ensure this privilege doesn't overwhelm us? How do we switch off when we leave the office? And how do we even make sure to leave the office at a reasonable hour?

How can we dedicate ourselves to a cause without getting consumed by it?

Working with marginalized populations or cause-driven mission statements can often turn a job into an obsession. We are painfully aware that our actions and inactions will affect communities. That we hold others’ wellbeing in our hands. That lives are on the line.

The pressure of our passion—especially in social sectors where our passion coincides with our purpose—can turn into a burden. We have the immense privilege to enjoy the work we do, but we can feel like we carry the weight of the world on our shoulders. Getting calls from work can make us feel like we need to go into the office tonight, or we must finish the project now.

As someone engaged in this type of work, I find it difficult to find the sweet spot between working in jobs that feed my soul and mean something to me, without having these jobs become all-encompassing.

We need to remind ourselves that we are the vehicles of change, and if we are running on empty we aren’t going to take anyone very far.

Like any demanding job, we need to be introspective. We need to check in with ourselves need and a few questions: 

  • How many hours in a day are dedicated to my work?

  • Can I stop when I want, or do I always need to do one more task?

  • Am I able to enjoy non-work activities, or do I feel guilty?

  • Am I always thinking of work, even when I am not there?

  • When people ask me about myself, do I define myself by my work?


These questions can feel silly, or even selfish, when we know the importance of our work. When we know that a few more hours at the office is nothing compared to a few more hours of living on the street, awaiting a refugee status determination, or needing medication. How can we think about our wants when we are constantly dealing with others’ needs.

But we need to remind ourselves that we are the vehicles of change, and if we are running on empty we aren’t going to take anyone very far. We need to recharge so we can keep on trucking.


Empowerment Guilt

Endless articles talk about productivity guilt—feeling bad when you are not being useful or productive. People are made to feel bad because they are not bringing in enough new clients, not making their bosses enough money. Did you watch an hour of TV last night? That could’ve been used to look over contracts. You don’t wake up at four am? The most successful people are early risers. 

But what about empowerment guilt—the phenomenon of feeling guilty for not doing enough? For not righting enough wrongs in a day, month, or year. Feeling bad because, despite our efforts, we are not overturning enough laws, serving enough communities, or inspiring enough young people. You chose to go out for drinks with your girlfriends last night? I guess you don’t care about your client suffering in remand. You leave work early every Wednesday for a calligraphy class? That seems trivial compared to helping homeless youth. 

Countless life coaches and blogs preach the importance of self-care. While I’m critical of self-care—believing that the popular reincarnation of self-care is more about bath bombs than boundaries—I do believe we need to respect our own limitations and create some space for ourselves. Though it’s easier said than done, we need to leave the office in time for dinner and say no to the Sunday afternoon conference call. We need to remember to make time for our soccer league and take pride in our pottery class. Let ourselves enjoy the coffee date without feeling guilty.


Purpose isn’t Always Pretty

Ralph Waldo Emerson told us, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

But if we have the privilege of living our purpose, can our pastime not be finding happiness? Can we not allow ourselves balance? Can we remind ourselves not to put all our eggs into one basket? Is it wrong to give ourselves a break when we take a break?

A few years ago, Humans of New York profiled a human rights lawyer. He graduated law school ready to change the world. He worked at the United Nations. He advocated, lobbied, fought the good fight every day, but saw no change. “And it wore me down,” he said. “My colleagues were worn down too. After ten years I had to quit.” Not only did he leave his job, but he left the humanitarian field completely. He opened a bar. “It’s not human rights, but at least now I can drink for free.”

I hope the pressure of my purpose doesn’t win. I hope I don’t drown in my dream job. I hope I can keep my passion in perspective. I hope, for humanity’s sake, we all can.