How to do what you love

Published by Lori Pickert on October 13, 2012 at 02:26 PM

Two nice follow-ups on “Why Skills Don’t Trump Passion”

[Students] come to me and say, “Well, we’re getting out of college and we haven’t the faintest idea of what we want to do.

So I always ask the question, “What would you like to do if money were no object? How would you really enjoy spending your life?

Well, it’s so amazing — as a result of our kind of educational system, crowds of students say, “Well, we’d like to be painters, we’d like to be poets, we’d like to be writers, but as everyone knows, you can’t earn any money that way.” …

When we finally got down to something which the individual says he really wants to do, I will say to him, “Well, you do that — and forget the money, because if you say that getting the money is the most important thing, you will spend your life completely wasting your time. You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living, that is, to go on doing things you don’t like doing — which is stupid!”

Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing than a long life spent in a miserable way.

And after all, if you do really like what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter what it is — you can eventually become a master of it. It’s the only way to become a master of something … and then you’ll be able to get a good fee for whatever it is. So don’t worry too much — somebody’s interested in everything. And anything you’re interested in, you’ll find others.

But it’s absolutely stupid to spend your time doing things you don’t like in order to go on spending time doing things you don’t like and to teach your children to follow in the same track.

See, what we’re doing is, we’re bringing up children, educating them, to live the same sort of lives that we’re living in order that they may justify themselves and find satisfaction in life by bringing up their children to bring up their children to do the same things…

And so therefore it’s so important to consider this question — what do I desire?

Alan Watts

To do something well you have to like it. That idea is not exactly novel. We've got it down to four words: “Do what you love.” But it's not enough just to tell people that. Doing what you love is complicated.

The very idea is foreign to what most of us learn as kids. When I was a kid, it seemed as if work and fun were opposites by definition. Life had two states: some of the time adults were making you do things, and that was called work; the rest of the time you could do what you wanted, and that was called playing. …

School, it was implied, was tedious because it was preparation for grownup work. …

By the time they reach an age to think about what they’d like to do, most kids have been thoroughly misled about the idea of loving one's work. School has trained them to regard work as an unpleasant duty. Having a job is said to be even more onerous than schoolwork. And yet all the adults claim to like what they do. You can't blame kids for thinking “I am not like these people; I am not suited to this world.” …

The most dangerous liars can be the kids’ own parents. If you take a boring job to give your family a high standard of living, as so many people do, you risk infecting your kids with the idea that work is boring. Maybe it would be better for kids in this one case if parents were not so unselfish. A parent who set an example of loving their work might help their kids more than an expensive house. …

The test of whether people love what they do is whether they'd do it even if they weren't paid for it — even if they had to work at another job to make a living. How many corporate lawyers would do their current work if they had to do it for free, in their spare time, and take day jobs as waiters to support themselves? …

With such powerful forces leading us astray, it's not surprising we find it so hard to discover what we like to work on. Most people are doomed in childhood by accepting the axiom that work = pain. Those who escape this are nearly all lured onto the rocks by prestige or money. How many even discover something they love to work on? A few hundred thousand, perhaps, out of billions.

It's hard to find work you love; it must be, if so few do. So don't underestimate this task. And don't feel bad if you haven't succeeded yet. In fact, if you admit to yourself that you're discontented, you're a step ahead of most people, who are still in denial. If you're surrounded by colleagues who claim to enjoy work that you find contemptible, odds are they're lying to themselves. Not necessarily, but probably.

Although doing great work takes less discipline than people think — because the way to do great work is to find something you like so much that you don't have to force yourself to do it — finding work you love does usually require discipline.

Finding work you love is very difficult. Most people fail. Even if you succeed, it's rare to be free to work on what you want till your thirties or forties. But if you have the destination in sight you’ll be more likely to arrive at it.

 

If you know you can love work, you’re in the home stretch, and if you know what work you love, you’re practically there.

 

— Paul Graham, How to Do What You Love

9 comments

Comment by Cecile on October 15, 2012 at 07:02 PM

Is passion really essential?
I like solving problems, and I like helping people. I ended up being a software consultant, where I listen to people's problems, and then work out a software solution for them. Perfect right? But I could be doing so many jobs, and I would still be doing something I like. Am I happy, yes, I like going to work and enjoy what I do. Am I passionate about it, no.
Maybe if I can solve other type of problems, I can be passionate about it, but I have no idea what type of problem will do that for me.

What would make my job job unbearable, was if I was in a situation where I am constraint by too many rules, or there are no new problems to solve (aka boring).

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 20, 2012 at 08:42 PM

 

Is passion really essential?

it sounds like you like your job and prefer it strongly to another type of job (one with too many rules or no problems to solve). you like solving problems and you like helping people, and you get to do that. but you imagine you’d be happy doing a lot of different jobs.

again, i think people hear “passion” and imagine the rending of clothing and maybe some opera. whereas you might define passion as a deep interest. whether you have just a mild interest in helping people and solving problems or whether it’s a deep interest … aren’t we just quibbling over semantics?

alan watts asks above, “how would you enjoy spending your life?” no passion there — just, perhaps you should think about what you would enjoy and try to do that.

Comment by Jessica on October 20, 2012 at 03:01 PM

My husband is a professional artist. But, to provide for our family and keep us insured (especially since I am a recent cancer survivor and surely cannot risk loss of insurance) he works at a company he despises. The boss is crude and disrespectful to each and every employee. Every day, my husband comes home miserable.

For years, he taught as an adjunct art professor, but budget cuts resulted in job loss. Yet, he consistently exhibits his work and is represented by a local art gallery. He has exhibited with the likes of Antonio Lopez Garcia, Odd Nerdrum, Andrew Wyeth, and other well-known artists. He was just recently interviewed by Plein Air Magazine. But the art world is tough. We can't survive on art alone.

His 'job' makes him miserable. What does he do? He's a finisher for a custom cabinetmaker. Does he take pride in his work? Yes. In fact, representatives from Sherwin-Williams have repeatedly tried to find a position for him in their company -- as a color matcher -- but it never works out.

Every other custom cabinetmaker offers the same wage -- any time he's been offered a job, it's a lateral move into a new company, where he'd be 'starting over.'

So, this year he is stuck in his sixth year at a company where he is disrespected. In his art career, he's done all the right things. He earned his MFA, he taught adjunct. He (solo) exhibits at least once yearly. He has gallery representation. But all our son is learning is that dad did all the right things, but we're still struggling and dad's still miserable.

Any thoughts? :(

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 20, 2012 at 08:36 PM

 

i’m sorry for your situation. :( health insurance - ugh. i’m so happy you are surviving your cancer, jessica! xo

wouldn’t a lateral move at least get him away from the terrible boss?

of course i will not pretend i can give you any useful advice at all — but i would be glad to brainstorm with you via e-mail if you want. i’ve been self-employed since dinosaurs roamed the earth. lori (at) campcreekpress [d o t] com.

will your experiences affect the advice you’ll give to your son re: his own career path?

Comment by Cristina on October 22, 2012 at 09:49 AM

The Alan Watts quote reminded me of one of my favorite Linus quotes from "There's No Time for Love, Charlie Brown." Have you ever seen it?

Charlie Brown: ...Why do we have to have all this pressure about grades, Linus?
Linus: Well, I think that the purpose of going to school is to get good grades so then you can go on to high school; and the purpose is to study hard so you can get good grades so you can go to college; and the purpose of going to college is so you can get good grades so you can go on to graduate school; and the purpose of that is to work hard and get good grades so we can get a job and be successful so that we can get married and have kids so we can send them to grammar school to get good grades so they can go to high school to get good grades so they can go to college and work hard...
Charlie Brown: Good grief!

Peace and Laughter,
Cristina

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 22, 2012 at 12:23 PM

love :)

Comment by Courtney on December 8, 2012 at 08:30 PM

Love it. Even when you know it, you still need reminding. (Hmm... I wonder who'll pay me to sit and read research studies all day.)

Comment by frutabombastic on September 12, 2013 at 10:02 PM

"somebody's interested in everything" ... Uh, really? interested in it because they have a true passion for it or interested in it because they are getting paid to be interested in it?

I like Alan Watts and this is a great and inspirational quote, especially when it comes to the task of homeschooling. But I see a fundamental flaw. I really seriously think that there are jobs in this world that nobody in their right mind would ever *dream* of doing. And yet they are jobs that need to get done.

This idea - the luxurious concept of "money is no object" - flies completely out the window for *many* people when faced with the reality of providing for their families.

In other words, I believe strongly in the adage "Happiness is in wanting what you have, not having what you want."

I know this is a sensitive topic. But for those of us who have jobs that we do not love - is it not possible to do the things we love in the time that we are not working? Are we supposed to feel bad that our passion is not also our source of income?

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 13, 2013 at 08:23 AM

 

"somebody's interested in everything" ... Uh, really? interested in it because they have a true passion for it or interested in it because they are getting paid to be interested in it?

i think we’re reading that passage differently. alan seems to be saying that even if you like something really obscure, if you become a master of it, there will be other people who care about it, too, and you’ll find someone willing to pay for your mastery.

I see a fundamental flaw. I really seriously think that there are jobs in this world that nobody in their right mind would ever *dream* of doing. And yet they are jobs that need to get done.

funnily enough, i JUST read sir ken robinson’s response to this in his newest book:

“I often hear people say something like, ‘Finding your Element is fine, but who’s going to collect the trash, work on assembly lines and clean the toilets?’ I have two responses. The first is that vast differences in personal passions mean that you should hesitate before judging what other people love to do. At a book signing in Minneapolis, a man in his forties told me that his mother had been an office cleaner for more than twenty years and she absolutely loved it. She worked evenings and looked forward to it all day. …

Of course, there are people doing work they don’t like. … And it may not be possible for everyone to make a living from what they love to do. If you are in a job you dislike, it’s even more important to spend some part of your day doing something that fulfills you and connects to your true passions. While not everyone can become financially rich through their Element, everyone is entitled to be enriched by it.” — Ken Robinson, Finding Your Element

but i think what alan watts is saying still stands — a LOT of people chase money instead of happiness when they are choosing the path of their career and their adult life. it’s not just about what they choose to do for a living but also how they choose to live & spend. it IS possible to love what you do for work. it helps if you choose a life that goes along with the salary you can expect.

coming back to add:

In other words, I believe strongly in the adage "Happiness is in wanting what you have, not having what you want."

i agree with this — with a “however.” :)

you *can* enjoy any job. but the overarching theme here is, i think, that you can advise young people to seek high-paying jobs or you can advise them to pursue work they want to do. and i agree with alan watts here: chasing money leads to spending money to feel better about your life which requires more money… and it becomes a never-ending cycle.

i’ll quote from “Finding Your Element” again:

“The saddest thing to me,” says Dr. Brooks, “is seeing someone take the job because it pays well and then spend all that money on toys to cheer themselves up for being so miserable in their jobs. The people who are doing what they love hardly feel they’re working at all, just living.”

it’s at the beginning of life when it’s easiest to set your course and make big decisions that will make more (or fewer) things possible in the upcoming years. when grace paley was asked for her advice to young writers, she replied: “keep a low overhead.” it’s not only about making choices on one side (the earning side) — it’s also about making choices on the other side (the spending side). and if you know from the outset that you prefer to do work you really want to do, you can make choices that make that life more possible. if kids start out by going deep into debt, they need to know that their future choices are going to be very limited.

happiness may depend on wanting what you have and not having what you want, but it’s a lot easier to want some things than others.

I know this is a sensitive topic. But for those of us who have jobs that we do not love - is it not possible to do the things we love in the time that we are not working? Are we supposed to feel bad that our passion is not also our source of income?

i think it is possible to do the things you love when you aren’t working — but this quote is about what you would advise your children. would you advise them to do work they don’t love and try to do the things they love in their free time? or would you advise them to try to do work they love?

Post new comment