Your job probably offers at least a few nice perks. But does it inspire you to go to work every day and think, “I can’t believe I get paid to do this!”?
That might seem unrealistic—after all, work is work, right? But that pinch-me-I’m-dreaming feeling isn’t just reserved for movie stars, musicians and athletes. These stories demonstrate that no matter what your passion is, there’s probably a career path out there to match it. Of course, it’s up to you to make your dream job a reality, but you can draw ideas and inspiration from how these four did it.
The Outdoor Adventure Guide
Lauren Skonieczny, 30, New York, N.Y.
Lauren Skonieczny works as an adventure guide and operations manager for Discover Outdoors, which coordinates outdoor adventures—think hiking, backpacking, kayaking and climbing—for city dwellers. She ensures that trips run smoothly, helps design and scout out new trips, supervises a team of guides and also works with the organization’s nonprofit Discover Outdoors Foundation.
How she got there: After completing a graduate degree in media studies in 2009, Skonieczny spent six years working in film and TV production. Although she’d begun to feel frustrated and unhappy with her job, she was totally unprepared when her company went under in 2013.
“Everyone told me losing my job would be the best thing that ever happened to me, but I always thought that was just something people were saying to make me feel better,” she says. “But they were right.”
It turns out it was just the push Skonieczny needed to finally pursue a career she loved. After the layoff, she spent a year working several part-time jobs: teaching spin classes, answering phones at the exercise studio and guiding tours for Discover Outdoors. When a full-time position at Discover Outdoors opened up, Skonieczny had enough experience to be the ideal candidate.
Why it’s a dream job: As an adventure guide, Skonieczny not only gets to participate (and introduce others to) one of her favorite pastimes, but she often gets to travel to familiar locales that are special to her, like the New Hampshire mountains, where she grew up hiking.
“My work day is spent talking about, thinking about and putting my energy toward something I love that, up until recently, I only ever thought would be a hobby,” she says. “The entire mission of Discover Outdoors is to show New Yorkers how great it is to get outside. Nothing beats being there when one of our hikers gets to the first summit, or completes a really tough trip, or pushes past what they thought was possible.”
The Virtual Reality Software Designer
Michael Yohe, 38, Huntsville, Ala.
Virtual reality has long been embraced by video game designers and enthusiasts who want to feel like they are “in” the game rather than just watching it. Michael Yohe and his team at Intuitive Research & Technology Corporation use the same technology to solve business problems.
For a military customer, for instance, they might create a virtual training environment for soldiers that looks and feels like a specific war zone. Or for a health care customer, they might create a virtual hospital environment with patients to train professionals on new procedures.
How he got there: In high school, Yohe visited NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. In a tour of the facilities, he got to experience an early virtual reality scene: “We got to play baseball with astronauts located several states away, using the Internet,” he says. “The environment was primitive, but the basic construct of the field was there, along with low-fidelity models of baseballs and a baseball bat.”
It was an experience Yohe never forgot. “I never thought that I would be where I am today, but [that experience] did help me see the potential of the Internet and how great distances become negligible barriers when we can connect computers,” he says.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in information technology, Yohe has worked with the same company for 10 years, starting as a software developer and moving into software architecting and cybersecurity. When asked if he wanted to start working in virtual reality development, he took the leap. “With one virtual reality project successfully completed, another came, and then another,” he says.
Why it’s a dream job: For Yohe, each day on the job is exciting and yields a feeling of accomplishment. “I am privileged to witness the creative ideas of so many different people coming together in a single immersive environment, and then witness our customers seeing our product come to life,” he says. “When you realize that your product can actually help save time, money and even lives, it delivers an immense sense of satisfaction.”
The Animal Keeper
Rick Schwartz, 44, San Diego, Calif.
At the San Diego Zoo, Rick Schwartz works as a zookeeper and animal ambassador. Over the past 20 years, he has worked closely with 60 species of birds, mammals and reptiles—caring for them, advocating for them, and yes, even building relationships with them.
“Each individual animal has their own personality,” he says. “When you spend a lot of time with them, you really appreciate each one for who they are.”
How he got there: When he was in middle school, Schwartz learned there was a college for zookeepers and animal trainers, and immediately knew that was what he wanted to do. “Animals had been my passion my entire life, so I set my sights there and never looked back,” Schwartz says.
In addition to earning a degree in exotic animal training and management, Schwartz gained experience in working with animals by volunteering for organizations, such as humane societies, horse stables, zoos and wildlife rehabilitation centers.
Why it’s a dream job: Training and managing animals “is not just cuddling and playing; it’s definitely hard work,” Schwartz says. “You have to feed them, clean up after them, work with veterinarians and understand biology and zoology. And you have to work even when it’s hot, rainy or your birthday; animals need to be cared for every day.”
However, hard work that fulfills a personal passion still feels like a dream job. “I love being out here with the animals, and I love talking to guests about the animals,” Schwartz says. “That quiet, one-on-one time, just observing and taking care of them is fulfilling. It’s a work of passion when you can come home every day with a smile on your face and spend all weekend wondering how your animals are doing.”
The Ice Cream Taster
Kirsten Schimoler, 30, South Burlington, Vt.
Kirsten Schimoler works as the technical project leader for global innovation in research and development at Ben & Jerry’s. Translation: She develops and taste-tests new ice cream flavors.
How she got there: Growing up in a foodie family, Schimoler says she’s always loved to experiment with food by creating and cooking her own recipes. And when her family moved to Vermont when she was young, one of the first places they visited was the Ben & Jerry’s factory. “It’s always been a part of my life,” she says.
After graduating with a food science degree from Cornell, Schimoler landed a gig as a food scientist at Unilever. But when her role came available at Ben & Jerry’s a year later, she knew it was the perfect move.
Why it’s a dream job: What isn’t dreamy about eating ice cream all day? “I get to play with food and get paid for it!” Schimoler says. “Every day is different, so it is always exciting and, more often than not, really delicious. I get to make ice cream dreams come true and work with some really fun, passionate people around the world.”
She’s also not complaining about the extra benefits that come with the job—namely, taking home three pints of ice cream a day, yoga classes and a gym in the office and flexible scheduling—that make it feel even less like work.
“The best part of this job is seeing a product you have developed run in the plant for the first time; seeing 200 pints a minute zip down the line is pretty neat,” Schimoler says. “I also love to see consumers in the real world enjoying products I have worked on; it’s a really special feeling.”