David Strittmatter

Science proven: What makes for a dream job?

Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life. — Confucius

Dear friend,

Among the top 3 most important questions we need to answer in our 20s is what do I want to do for a living? This question has a massive impact on our lives. Once we enter our first job, we will spend about 80,000 hours working. And even before that, this question affects whether we want to go to university, how much time we spend on studying, with whom we want to spend time, etc.

To me, it’s always been clear what I want to do for a living. Even before high school, I had a pretty clear picture of what I will do after graduating from university. That sounds extreme, I know. And honestly, that’s quite dangerous, too. When I set goals with 16, I knew only a fraction of what I knew 5 years later; hence, my decision-making and goal-setting skills were poor.

Even though I aimed for a job that retrospectively was a great decision, I wish I had done many things differently. For instance, I should have studied computer science or physics because I studied business out of fear whereas computer science and physics were my real passions in high school.

But how do we find out what we want to do for a living?

The typical advice is to do what you’re passionate about. But that’s bullshit.

First of all, most of us don’t really have a passion. Most of us don’t even have a hobby. 70% of my fellow students in high school – including me – had no good answer when we should write or talk about our passions/ hobbies.

Second, even if we have a hobby/ passion, it’s a huge difference to do something because it’s fun and to do something for a living. Athletes, musicians, artists, etc. earning enough to make a living – they all have to work their asses off, push themselves every day, work when work isn’t easy, and there’s no such thing as I don’t want to exercise or perform today.

Now, what should we do instead? How can we find an answer to the question of what we should do for a living?

Benjamin Todd – a former student of the University of Oxford – raised millions in funding and hired a team to find a science-proven answer to this question. Since then they have spoken to hundreds of experts and screened all the relevant literature, and based on that, provided advice to over a million people.

In today’s article, I will summarize Benjamin Todd’s and his team’s framework to what you should aim for in a dream job so that you can either find your answer to the question of what you want to do for a living or re-evaluate what you’ve already aimed for so that you don’t make the same mistake as I did.


  • According to science, we’re incredibly bad at predicting what will make us most happy, and we don’t even realize how bad we are
  • While the evidence shows that money makes us happier, it’s only to a certain extent
  • Stress isn’t always bad. It’s bad when we are demanded too much and don’t feel in control

Practical advice:

  • Seek work that’s engaging and helps others
  • Aspire to work in a job you want to become really good at
  • Screen your future employer with respect to a supportive work environment

All we want is to be happy

The basic premise for the following framework is that we want to live a happy and fulfilled life. If you want to get rich and/ or famous – no matter the risks such as depression, anxiety, or chronic stress – this framework isn’t for you. That also includes people who aim for a life of “financial independence”, i.e. working their asses off no matter how miserable the work is just to be able to live a life in their 30s/40s that won’t make them significantly happier.

According to science, we’re incredibly bad at predicting what will make us most happy, and we don’t even realize how bad we are (you can find an excellent overview of this research in “Stumbling Upon Happiness” by Havard Professor Dan Gilbert).

So, first of all, we should clarify (A) what won’t make us most happy even though we think it will do, and (B) what will actually make us most happy.

(A) 2 things are commonly believed: (1) Rich people have a happier life (2) Stress is bad for us and should be avoided to be happy.

(1) While the evidence shows that money makes us happier, it’s only to a certain extent. Once we reach a certain threshold – about 80,000 EUR household income – the marginal gain of additional money is very low. And once we reach 150,000 – 200,000 EUR, there’s no measurable gain anymore. Contrarily, though, the risks and burdens of wealth increase. For instance, if you become a millionaire you cannot be sure that people hang around you because of your money. Further, you have to ensure your wealth is protected against financial risks. So, we should aim for a job that pays well but not for a job that makes us rich.

(2) Stress isn’t always bad. It’s bad when we are demanded too much and don’t feel in control. Contrarily, a job that is highly demanding, but you feel capable to meet these demands, will make you feel greatly engaged and hence happy. So, we shouldn’t seek a job that isn’t stressful but a job where we’re well supported to meet the demands of it.

Key ingredients for a dream job

(B) To find out what will actually make us most happy in a job, Benjamin Todd and his team harnessed the evidence gained in the field of Positive Psychology. According to Martin Seligman, the most renowned researcher in this field, there are 5 key ingredients of wellbeing (happiness):

  1. Positive emotion, i.e. feeling happy day-to-day
  2. Engagement – having challenging tasks
  3. Relationships – having supportive friends and family
  4. Meaning – having a purpose higher than oneself
  5. Achievement – being good at something

Benjamin Todd took those and combined them with research on job satisfaction and motivation. As a result, he found 6 factors a dream job comprises:

Work that’s engaging

What really matters in your job is what you do every day and every hour. Thus, it’s key to do work that’s engaging. Typical characteristics of engaging work are: (a) freedom to decide how to perform your task (b) clear tasks, with clearly defined start and end (c) variety in the types of task (d) feedback.

These 4 factors are the most empirically verified predictors of job satisfaction. So, when screening job descriptions and asking friends and fellow students about their experience with a job, keep these 4 factors in mind. They will greatly determine how satisfied you’ll be in your job.

Work you’re good at

Being good at your job gives you the required sense of achievement. It’s a great motivator in your daily work life.

Many students don’t know what they are good at and whether their skillset matches their desired job. In this case, we should at least have the aspiration to become good at the job we chose. For instance, if you want to become an accountant and haven’t worked as an accountant before, you should at least be willing to become a very good accountant.

Work that helps others

To increase your job satisfaction, you should not only do something that’s engaging and you’re good at but also work to help others. While fashion design and TV newscasting offer very engaging work, these jobs are not merely as meaningful as e.g. fire service officer, nurse, or neurosurgeon.

Work with supportive colleagues

Good relationships is a top 3 factor for a happy, fulfilled life. As we work major parts of our lifetime, we should become friends with at least a couple of colleagues. While your dream position can be ruined by a few awful colleagues, boring work can be fun if done with a friend.

Moreover, a supportive environment is crucial. You should work rather in a position where you’ll receive help, feedback, and collaborate well with your colleagues.

Lack of major negatives

Finally, factors 5 and 6 are a lack of major negatives and a fit with the rest of your life.

Even if all other factors are check-marked, there’re certain factors (negatives) that will ruin the job. Typical negatives include:

  • A long commute, such as 1 hour by bus
  • Very long working hours
  • Unfair pay
  • Job insecurity

Finally, the job itself has to fit with the rest of your personal life.

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