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soulmates, dream jobs, and other fairytales
Every Nigerian born before Google knows the story of the famous football match against India. The game, though famous to our cousins, uncles, and family friends, was shrouded in such secrecy that FIFA never recorded the score.
But depending on who you ask, Nigeria lost the match 99-1 or 100-1. At the time, India’s football team was amateur and unfancied, and Nigeria had a lot of great players at their peaks.
So how did India pull off the win? Peter Rufia, the Nigerian goalkeeper, testified that whenever the ball approached him, he saw a raging ball of fire. He preferred to live, so he ducked away and let the goals rain in. Later that night, the player that scored Nigeria's only goal died from severe burns.
Or so it goes.
You don't need to be a genius to realize that this match never happened. The storytellers could never tell you precisely when this match happened, where the fire came from or why the records don’t exist. It's a fable, a playful myth told to children to tease them. A tale told around the fire that survived into the 90s—until Google turned on the light.
When I reflect on this story, I can’t help but laugh at the ridiculous premise. But it does stir up some questions in my mind: are there other myths or unexamined stories in my life that I believe? Where do fables end and where does truth begin?
stories <> humans
Is there anything more human than sharing stories?
We've been telling stories for millennia. Stories about how we made it onto this planet and why we are here. Tales of heroes, villains, and underdogs. Sagas of deep, unrequited, forbidden love. Arcs of tragedy, betrayal and rebirth. Modern gossip sessions over Zoom.
Over the centuries, we told stories about how we ought to live—devotion to religion, chivalry, etiquette, monarchs, monogamy, and the American Dream. Stories that became all-engrossing beliefs were welded and soldered into our brains. They told us what to want and how to want it.
But stories offer no guarantee of truth. They can be outdated, biased and full of blindspots – in fact, stories can be the blindspot. Yet, because we are both the programmer of the stories…and the program itself, it's dificult from us to detangle ourselves from stale stories. Certain stories are lodged so deeply in our pysche that even if we recognise they are simplistic, it's unbearable to revise and update the narrative.
Ideally, every year we would do a story audit. Like a cabinet audit, we would bring out all our spices, taste them, smell them, look at them in the light. Are they still useful? Is your smoked paprika still giving or has it turned into reddish-brown chalk? Useful for adding color to a dish, but no longer a core component in building flavor?
Are the stories in your mind still in line with how you see the world? Maybe last year, you took a few stories and tested them in the real world. How did they perform?
Would you like to resubscribe to another year of believing that story? Or will you cancel this trial?
Like sure, you grew up believing that buying a house before thirty was the goal. But now you can afford it, does that idea still jive with your personal values? Today, do you value stability over freedom? Houses don’t always appreciate and often require more work than you think. Are you ready to take that bet? Renting is freeing. That downpayment could appreciate in the market. Renters never need to fix roofs. You cry to your landlord and the roof becomes fixed at no cost to you. Isn’t that peace?
It’s not my place (or anyone’s place, for that matter) to tell you which stories to cling to and which ones to dump in the garbage. You might want to buy that house now more than ever. And so you should. But don’t let unexamined stories dictate your decisions. My sister likes to remind me that culture is simply peer pressure from dead people, and I think the same thing goes for stories about what we should do in life.
The two stories that immediately came to my mind were love and work.
I have watched (and enjoyed) more romcoms than I’m willing to freely admit on this platform. For the right price, I might tell you a number within the right ballpark. The raw number is not important. What you need to know is that I’m familiar with the ideas of soulmates as a fun, playful concept. Something that’s endearing and sweet.
It’s one thing to believe the cute idea of predestined partners, especially if things work out well in a happily-ever-after. But in reality, I always struggled to believe that’s how things work. Color me cynical (or arrogant) but how can there be ONLY one person on this planet that I am meant to be matched with?
There are multitudes within us—I don’t exist as a singular, consistent, predictable person with a homogenous personality. There are many me’s with different quirks, strengths, dreams, and insecurities. My Nigerian self is funnier than my British one. American Tobi wears sunscreen. Each one of them has a different Hinge profile. And so they each have their own soulmates, no?
But even though I know the soulmate idea is too simplistic, it feels like there's a part of me that believes it on some level. Or rather, wants to believe it. Despite the fact I just disproved it. Because it's simple, romantic and hopeful. Because I don't understand how two strangers can live together for six decades in happy union, unless there's some cosmic destiny binding them together. But then I stop myself and realise what's going on.
We can know things are untrue and yet somewhat believe them. This is fine if it's harmless fun on TV, but what if it's about something as serious as how we spend our time at work?
Future wife, I know I’m doing a lot of intellectual speak here. But, if you’re reading this, my DMs are open for you to slide in. May I recommend a grand entrance in a red outfit? It will get my attention.
A few years ago, I sat in a car with a friend who was leaving their job, about to double their income at another company. You might assume my friend was happy about this opportunity.
Instead, they sat in sad silence. Tears threatened to stream down their face.
"I don't want to go. But I can't keep on like this"
I saw several work breakups over the years. A new employee would join and be starry-eyed for good reason—the catered lunches and benefits, the Q&As where employees' opinions were actively sought after, the air of optimism, the promise of diverse recruiting, talk of exciting mission and purpose, and enough happy hours and events to drain an extrovert's social battery.
Then, something unpleasant would happen. An allegation of pay discrimination at the company. Leadership's blatant disregard for something employees advocated for. An HR complaint that's brushed away with shocking ease. A twenty-year veteran being let go via a cold, automated email.
And the dream becomes a nightmare. You realise your company is like any other: an unfeeling organism that will protect itself at any cost.
When my non-tech friends left jobs, it felt routine. Like switching out an empty toilet roll for a new one. But when a tech friend left a company, it was like amputating a limb—part of one's self severed off and dumped away.
Why was this?
In the before-times—before the pandemic, inflation, and mass layoffs—tech companies evangelized their missions. They did not offer jobs, they offered religion. Blessed callings full of purpose. You were not writing software. You were connecting the world or elevating our collective consciounsess. You were not a recruiter. You gave people the chance to do their life's best work. You could bring your whole self to work. Or so was the pitch.
If you want to over-work or under-pay someone, convince them they're working their dream job. Cultivate a sense of devotion and dependence and they'll slug through cement for you.
The danger with overpromising is that it sets expectations at the wrong level. I'm convinced the term "dream job" was created by a consultant to help improve recruiting efforts. A way to match desperate, fulfillment-seeking jobseekers with jobs that needed to be filled.
The desire to find a dream job is reasonable. We spend so much time at our jobs that it would be nice to engage in fun, rewarding and high-paying work that we're skilled at. But the framing has a few flaws. It suggests a singular job as the prime destination and can make us overlook other promising opportunities. It puts undue emphasis on work as opposed to the totality of life. Often our dream jobs are jobs we actually would hate. It's easy to say you want to be a founder or CEO, but do you truly want to work on Sundays? Do you really want the job or what the job might say about you? Instead, consider a dream life and think about how work could fit into that.
Is there another concept that might help us think about work in a better way? That might model a better relationship between work and ourselves? Something that's better than "dream job", "work-life balance", "quiet quitting" or "anti-work"? What’s the next story about work that we’re going to tell?
Don't sell us dreams
My friendposted this tweet that perfectly describes my feelings on these ideas:
I love this phrasing because it's active. You find a job with potential but you know it's not perfect. You found a cute stray puppy that needs a little love. Give it a bath, a haircut and a few shots and it starts to thrive. The "dream job" concept sounds like there's some sacred fruit hanging in the LinkedIn rainforest waiting for you to forage and pluck it. It doesn't require any additional work. Same thing with your “soul mate”—already out there, perfectly formed to your exact specifications. Fruit that doesn’t look perfect gets chucked away.
How much are you throwing away because it doesn’t fit into this story of the ‘right thing’ or perfect person? Instead of a good story, give me reality. No bait and switch. No catfishing. No selling. No marketing. Just the truth. I know we can handle it.
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