Having recently asked “What makes an ideal recruiter?”, I can’t resist also asking what makes a job ideal.

A recent U.S.A. Network poll queried workers about their “dream jobs”—the kinds of jobs most people dream of leaving their current jobs for.

What were the reported dream jobs?

The most desirable jobs Americans reported in the survey included pro athlete (11 percent), actor (10 percent), CEO (10 percent), and chef (9 percent), with teacher, pilot, artist, and doctor each getting 8 percent of the vote.

A second,  U.K. investigation based on Microsoft Bing research differed substantially, but still listed “pilot” and “actor” among the dream jobs—possibly because they most dramatically offer the appearance of escaping work while working?

This list of fantasy jobs could be very useful if, despite appearances to the contrary, there were some key characteristic(s) they all have in common that makes them ideal besides the label “dream job”, rather than being a mélange of otherwise unrelated dreams.

Job Information Bonanza

In career counseling, job hunting, job design and various other employment-related endeavors, finding a common characteristic among otherwise disparate jobs that would explain how they mysteriously cluster, as do the “most desirable jobs” listed above, could create an information bonanza for employers, job seekers and research psychologists.

With an understanding of those characteristics, employers could, at least theoretically, try to build them into the jobs they offer, as a means of keeping employees satisfied and minimizing the risk of job-hopping away from the jobs they’ve provided. On the other side of the job equation, job hunters could get a clearer idea of what their ideals should be, streamline their job searches and more efficiently target the jobs that most closely approximate the ideal.

Common characteristics or not, what these dream jobs seem share is being attractive enough to make workers willing to dump their current jobs. According to the U.S.A. Network poll, 83% of the workers polled said they would quit their jobs if offered their dream job (which invites the question why that figure isn’t 100%, unless extrinsic issues such as forced relocation factor in).

Is There a Universal ‘Dream Job’ X-factor, or Just ‘Family Resemblances’?

So, what do these careers have in common besides having been described as “the most desirable jobs”? Must there be something else in common? Maybe not. But how can we be sure, one way or the other, without taking a very close look at them?

For example, suppose that, in a given company that has 10 departments, only three otherwise utterly different departments have rejected a proposed across-the-board 5% salary increase as inadequate. Wouldn’t it be very useful to find out whether there is a common reason for their rejecting that offer and for the other seven departments’ being willing to accept it? The explanation that the hike is “insufficient” for those three departments merely describes or restates their rejection of it; it doesn’t explain why it is insufficient.

Matters would be enormously simplified if there were indeed just one reason or factor that explained the resistance in all three departments. Make one change—done deal. On the other hand, if there are three different explanations, things can get more complicated and more costly. For example, the sales department wants more than 5% because of spikes in out-of-the pocket sales-staff road expenses, whereas the accounting department is unhappy with recent increases in unpaid overtime.

Now, from experience, it will seem obvious to many managers that a common response or demand may have quite diverse motivations. On the other hand, the same managers may think that there must be a clear, single concept of a “fair wage”, “team player” or “ideal work-life balance”, defined in terms of unambiguous, non-vague necessary and sufficient conditions of the kind that encapsulate the “essence” of “triangle” as “a 3-sided polygon”.

This kind of “essentialistic” thinking, i.e., the idea that things that are classified as the same thing, e.g., triangles or dream jobs, must have something in common, apart from the label, that is sufficient (if not also necessary) to identify them, is extremely tempting when dealing with things grouped together descriptively—for example, “team player”.

Although it is somewhat less tempting when things are grouped together only evaluatively, e.g., “desirable job”, the inclination to find what it is that the jobs must have in common to make them desirable can be quite strong—but wrong.

Here’s why: Consider “family resemblances” (a familiar concept give a technical logical and linguistic spin by the Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein)  defined in terms of, say, seven very distinctive characteristics of Momma and Papa Jones: perky nose, deep dimples, goofy smile, small ears, silky hair, perfect teeth, high cheek bones and hazel eyes.

Suppose that the Jones family has two children and that their appearance suggests they are clearly siblings. Does that mean there is some obvious Jones-feature or “Jones essence” that they all have in common, besides their surname?


One child may have four of the features, e.g., {nose, ears, hair, dimples}, that are prominent in one or both of the Jones parents. The second child may have a set of completely different Jones traits, e.g., {smile, teeth, eye color and cheek bones}.  Each is readily and directly identifiable as a Jones (although, paradoxically, only indirectly as siblings), without having a single shared characteristic in the list of eight. Technically, each child has a subset of the family traits, without any single, identical family trait being found in each subset.

In this respect (as well as in many others), one’s kids can be compared to (full-time) jobs: even when they are ideal, they may have only that or little else in common. The challenge is to prove this and rule out the existence of some shared X-factor that makes them seem so perfect.

Chicken and Fox Ideal Jobs

“Common sense” seems to suggest that the jobs ranked as dream jobs probably represent the ideals of totally different groups of people who have widely divergent hopes and desires, despite being lumped together in a single survey population. If you ask chickens and foxes what their dream jobs are, it should come as no surprise if the chickens say, “get paid to lay eggs” and if the foxes say, “get paid to guard chickens”.

Different strokes for different folks? Yes, but maybe different spokes on the same wheel. Mustn’t there be something in common among all ideal jobs for us to label each of them as such?

That “something” can’t be merely that they are jobs that incline us to label them “ideal”, since that inclination itself is based on some presumed characteristic(s) of the jobs responsible for the inclination and for using the same word (“dream” or “ideal”) to describe the otherwise very different jobs. In the case of the chickens and foxes, that X-factor may be “maximize expected gain” or “minimize uncompensated effort”.

Imagine a survey that asks, “What is your ideal polygon?” Even though or because the answers may seem to vary considerably, there may be something that they have in common that has been overlooked.

Suppose some say “equilateral triangle” (three equal sides); others, “isosceles” (two equal sides), still others “right triangle” (one with a 90angle), while the rest are Zen types who say “scalene” (no angles or sides equal).

Noting how different these categories of ideal polygons look in virtue of different angles and side lengths, some may overlook the otherwise obvious fact that they are not all just polygons—they are all triangles, which suggests, but does not prove that “triangularity” is the X-factor.

It’s not proof, because the deciding factor may have been the number of equal sides, with three different groups in the population: those who idealize all equal, some equal and no equal sides—with triangularity being incidental to their ideals.

Despite the abstractness of this illustration, it has implications for and concrete relevance to the attempt to determine what makes a job ideal.  Only a very careful analysis can determine whether there is something that a pilot, pro athlete and a chef have in common that inspires others to call their jobs “dream jobs”.

Without such an analysis, we can never know whether there is a shared X-factor that makes all ideal jobs ideal, much less identify it. In this case, the most that can be assumed is that there is at most some kind of family resemblance among the listed ideal jobs.

That would make the listed dream jobs like siblings who share no obvious trait (although possessing many of their parents’ traits), in which case, we shouldn’t be surprised if those lucky or special enough to get a dream job in a tough job market win that race…

…by a nose.

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