JOB SEARCH / SEP. 11, 2015
version 11, draft 11

Why Idealism is Hurting Your Job Prospects

Maybe you’re the type who dreams of a better world, filled with clean air, clean water and happy people. Maybe you’re just hoping you can live a great life that includes plenty of time for vacations and plenty of money for all the fun things you want in life. In either case, those thoughts can be construed as the image of the ideal life -- and since those things occupy your thoughts often, you could be called something of an idealist. Don’t think that has to mean that you’re a liberal or a hippie or that you’re being put in any other box. It just means you dream of something better, and you’re committed to making it happen.

That’s admirable -- but when it comes to your career and to job interviews, it could mean that your hopes aren’t measuring up to what you’re actually getting. In fact, your idealism could be the very thing standing in the way of you living a better life, and in turn fostering a better world for all.

If all of this is starting to sound like you, read on to find out whether you’re doing some of these things that could be stifling your career.

You’re Not Seeing the Potential in Positions

Maybe you’ve been dreaming of that middle-manager position that’s going to include benefits, paid time off and a gym membership. Those are things most people are going to want in their careers -- but if you’re just starting out, it’s probably not realistic to expect them. Some of those perks only come to those who have invested the time and have shown that they’re valuable to the company. In other words, they’re benefits that come to people who have earned them. If you’ve only been applying for jobs for which you don’t actually qualify, your ideal picture of the perfect career is indeed standing in the way of your success. Instead, you should be looking for jobs for which you’re actually qualified, and for which you have a real shot at getting. It’s still OK to seek out companies with good benefits, but take the long view and find out about the growth potential at the companies you’re interested in. Sure, the entry-level job may not have much in the way of benefits, but ask yourself, what do people, at the next tier, get? The pay at that entry-level job may be pretty low, but how much are people making after six months on the job? In short, don’t let your idealism about the present moment keep you from investing in something that will reap greater rewards later on.

You’re Only Applying at "Certain" Companies

If you’re an idealist who’s committed to saving the world, you may think that your job has to directly relate to actually saving the world. Sure, environmentalists and scientists are out there coming up with ideas for cleaning the air or cutting down on fossil fuel consumption -- and if you’re an environmentalist or scientist, you too can do those things. But if you’re not qualified for that type of work, you’re going to need to get a job doing something. If you’re a secretary, you could try to work as a secretary at a non-profit. Doing the administrative support for people who are out saving the world is certainly one way to contribute toward saving the world. But if there are no jobs available for you in that industry, you still need to move forward.

In that example, maybe you take a job as a secretary at another for-profit company, where you can donate part of your earnings toward the cause of your choice. In the meantime, you’ll be gaining valuable job skills that can help you land a job in your ideal non-profit organization, later on.

The bottom line: Always be working toward a certain goal, but don’t worry if you have to take more than one step to get there. Working and gaining skills somewhere is always going to be better than not working at all. 

You’re Too Eager to Share Your Views

Wherever you work, there is such a thing as being too verbal or too idealistic in the workplace. Even if you do work at a non-profit that is working to end climate change, you can’t spend all of your days shouting about the evils of climate change deniers. If you’re working in an animal shelter, you can’t spend all day petting dogs. Wherever you work, your personal views and your personal comfort tend to take a back seat to the real work that needs to be done. If you’re the animal shelter worker who avoids cleaning the kennels in favor of loving up on the dogs, you’ll probably be viewed as the person who doesn’t like to work, and you’re not likely to be the one to get promoted. If you’re the office worker who rabidly pronounces all meat eaters to be evil people, you’re not going to be well-regarded among your meat-eating bosses. It’s OK to have opinions, but over-sharing during the work day is not the way to get ahead.

Likewise, over-sharing on social media or in other public forums could get you in trouble with your bosses. You might have ideals, but if they’re controversial, don’t friend your bosses on social media. Also, if you’re a known public figure who works for a certain company, remember that you’re a representative of that company, no matter where you go.

You’re Not Selling Yourself in the Right Way

When you go in for a job interview, what are some of the first things you tell the employer when she asks you to describe yourself? It’s great that your passion is cleaning up the world’s oceans, but does that have anything to do with the job in question? If it doesn’t, you need to employ another strategy. Employers -- and especially during job interviews -- want to know that you have the skills, qualifications and personality that’s perfect for a certain job, and that’s what you need to discuss first when you’re in a job interview.

It’s great to have hobbies and passions, but don’t let your personal passions overshadow the fact that you also have practical skills. If you’re applying for a job as a secretary, then, go into the interview ready to talk about your typing speed, the computer programs you’re familiar with and so on. If the employer asks you about your hobbies, then that is the right time to mention your idealistic passions. Sometimes, those passions will indeed help to get an employer to remember you. If the employer is into that cause too, that’s great -- but don’t make the cause the thrust of your case toward hiring you.

You’re Not Leveraging Your Volunteer and Community Work

If your idealism has prompted you to volunteer your time toward causes you believe in, ask yourself whether you’re using that time to your full advantage. For one, you could be using your volunteer gigs as a way to continue building skills. Say you’re a recent university graduate with a degree in computer science, with few real-world skills. You decide to volunteer at a non-profit that works to gather food and supplies for local school kids in need. You could decide to spend your time doing the actual gathering of supplies or working directly with clients -- but what about the computer-related tasks that the non-profit handles?

While you’re volunteering, look for ways to continue to build on the skills you already have. In this case, you could be helping to improve the non-profit’s website or to reach out to people on social media. That could give you some experience that can help you when you apply for other jobs. What’s more, it could help to prove to the managers of the non-profit that you’re valuable enough to hire for a full-time computer support position.

In that example, you’re letting your idealistic nature guide you, but you’re also being practical and leveraging skills you already have. That’s a smart move.

In Short, You’re Not in Touch With Reality

As an idealist, there will probably be times when you have to let idealism trump reality -- but it should be taken on a case-by-case basis. A climate change activist might not seem to be a good fit for working at a petrochemical company -- but by digging a little deeper, you might find that the company is actively seeking people to help them come up with solutions for using more natural products. If you had let your ideals stand in the way in that case, you might have missed out on the opportunity to effect some lasting change in that industry.

See AlsoHow to Answer "Describe Yourself" in Job Interviews

Any time your idealism is getting in the way of your success or making it so you’re unable to assist those you really want to help, you have to take a hard look at your life. It’s OK to be idealistic, but don’t let yourself live in a meta-world where you only concentrate on ideas, and your reality suffers as a result. 

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