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Does the Job of Your Dreams Exist?

When jobs are scarce, are dream jobs even worth considering?

At twenty six, Eleanor is a bright and talented young woman with a college degree. "I'm lucky," she says when asked what she's doing these days. "I've got a job as an assistant at an advertising firm. It's not what I thought I was going to do with my life, but given the economy, I feel lucky just to have work!"

She enjoyed the job at first. "I didn't even mind getting coffee for my bosses - all three of them," she says. Over time she has become bored and increasingly unhappy. But she has no idea what to do next.

Part of the problem is that Eleanor has never really known what she wanted to do "when she grew up." As a child she thought she would be a ballet dancer, and in high school she had dreams of being a medical doctor, but, she says, "Those were just fantasies. I didn't have any talent as a dancer and by the time I got to chemistry in high school it was clear that I wasn't going to make it in any kind of science, so the doctor business was a no go." She majored in history in college with the vague idea that she might become a teacher and one day go to law school. The truth was that she loved being in school, where she almost always did well, but really did not think too much about life after graduation. "I'd been told my whole life that the important thing was to get into a good school. The economy was strong. Jobs were plentiful. Something would come my way once I graduated."

Unfortunately, that's not what happened. Like huge numbers of people these days, Eleanor feels that she has hit a dead end where work is concerned. "It's sad, but I try to remind myself every day to be grateful that I'm still working at all."

With unemployment high and recent reports that unemployment benefits are at an all-time low, the feeling of being stuck in a job is practically the norm. Who is going to leave a sure thing for the unknown in such a scary climate?

Whether you are stuck in a job because of financial commitments, lack of skills, or fear of unemployment, you have a secret weapon that can, eventually, help you make a change: your daydreams.

What? Wait, you say. Are you talking about those little stray thoughts that interfere with my ability to concentrate? The ones that got me in trouble in high school and could get me fired from the job I have now? How can they possibly help me get a new one?

Yes, I know, we've all been taught that daydreams are a waste of time. They take our thoughts away from the task at hand and interfere with our ability to do our work. And of course, they can do that. But years ago the advertising mogul David Ogilvy wrote that daydreams are the core of creative thought. He even gave his employees time off to go to concerts or take bike rides specifically to encourage their daydreams.

Recently, neuroscience research has shown that Ogilvy's ideas applied not just to creative activity, but to all human life. They can lead us to make changes that we could not otherwise imagine.

It's true that these little thoughts that take us away from the work at hand, what one group of researchers has called "wandering mind," can disrupt our concentration. Daydreaming about a new job will not make it magically appear. But to borrow a phrase from Agatha Christie's famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, daydreaming will "get your little gray cells moving." And hard as it may be to believe, moving those brain cells - what the detective might call "neurons" if he were up on modern neuroscience - serves two important functions.

First, it gets you to pay attention to your own internal processes, which probably have a lot more ideas than you think.

Second, it gets you to imagine yourself into different situations - and even if they're not even realistic, it helps you begin to plan, to think outside the box, and to move in the world differently

I've been working with these "wandering thoughts" (as one group of researchers has dubbed them) for many years. In a book I wrote in the late 1990's, I describe ways that you can use these thoughts, which, by the way, can range from tiny thoughts about what we might eat for lunch to complex stories about falling in love or changing the world, to tap into your creativity. But now we know that they are good for so much more.

At that time scientists knew that we daydreamed much more than we knew. Now a group of neuroscience researchers has confirmed that these interfering ideas are a normal part of everyone's experience, taking up about a third of our waking time. It stands to reason, as the evolutionary psychologists would tell us, that anything we do that much must serve some sort of purpose. And in fact, a study reported in Scientific American found that our brains are actually hardwired to produce daydreams. We may have been trained from early childhood to see these images and fantasies as a problem, but, conclude the authors of the study, they are actually necessary to our mental and emotional well-being.

Years ago Yale professor and psychologist Dr. Jerome Singer described daydreams as "internal monologues" - that is, they are ways that we talk to ourselves. These "mind-wanderings" often do their work silently. Yet they activate the same parts of the brain that are triggered by focused thinking.

I have found that we can aid our brains in this work by understanding some of the less obvious themes in our mind-wanderings. Often we ignore these themes because they don't make sense or aren't realistic - like the kid who was hired as an assistant but believed he was capable of running the company. But daydreams aren't meant to be practical. That's the point.

Eleanor, for example, had rigorously tried to stop her mind from wandering at work - not an easy task given how bored she was. When she learned that her daydreams could be helping her, she made space for them (being careful that they didn't interfere with her assignments since she did not want to lose the job she had!). To her initially disappointment, she did not suddenly come up with a brilliant way of making money. What she discovered, as her mind gradually wandered through images ranging from a tv commercial she had laughed at the night before to the dress she wanted to wear for her wedding (although she had not yet met the man she wanted to marry) to her pleasure in organizing her pots and pans, was a better knowledge of herself.

Over time, she became aware of how much she did enjoy organizing things - her bosses' files and schedules, her own kitchen, her mother's old photographs. Talking about this "weird" interest with friends and relatives, she began to get requests for help, and came to see that it was actually a skill that she could market. The last time I talked with her, she wasn't quite ready to give up her "day job" as an assistant; but she was making extra cash as an organizer. "Oh, this isn't my final stop. I'm still daydreaming, so I'm sure I'll come up with something else," she said.

Knowing that the stories and pictures she had imagined were not accurate pictures of reality made a big difference. When we conquer our discomfort about daydreaming enough to turn our attention to random reveries - without letting them interfere with our carrying out the tasks we have to accomplish - the little gray cells can do their work. And new ideas generated by our daydreams might just move us towards surprising solutions to the job dilemma.