Why “do what you love” is not terrible advice

Published by Lori Pickert on August 29, 2014 at 01:57 PM

I saw a post on Austin Kleon’s blog about this piece by Rachel Nabors:

We rarely hear the advice of the person who did what they loved and stayed poor or was horribly injured for it. Professional gamblers, stuntmen, washed up cartoonists like myself: we don’t give speeches at corporate events. We aren’t paid to go to the World Domination Summit and make people feel bad. We don’t land book deals or speak on Good Morning America. — Don’t Do What You Love

If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, I’ll break it down for you:

— She pursued what she loved and was successful at it.

— For health and financial reasons, she stopped doing that and took skills she learned pursuing what she loved to build a very successful business that she loves.

Here are a list of quotes from her piece:

I used to make comics for a living … and I gave out similar advice and professed similar goals: If I just tried hard enough, I’d make it doing what I love, making comics for a living. If anyone was less successful then I was, well, they must not have been trying hard enough.

To an extent it worked! I won awards, had hordes of fan girls, a weekly syndicated web comic I got paid for (very well by comic industry standards, too). I thought I was doing great doing what I love.”

I needed surgery.

And I didn’t have health insurance.

Almost overnight the series shut down. My fans and friends ran a Herculean donation effort for me, but it wasn’t enough. I quit comics and went into web development, something I’d enjoyed doing to support my web comics presence…”

After five years in web development I’m at the top of my game. People from around the world ask me to speak their conferences. I live in a great city where I’m starting my second company. Even if I fail or have a medical emergency, I can easily pick up good, paying work, and make more in one weekend than I did on my 60 hour comics work weeks.

I love what I do. And it loves me back.”

[M]y first love, comics, gives me an edge in this industry. If I’d just gone straight into web development because it seemed like a money-maker, I wouldn’t be half as excited about what I can do or as interesting to others in my field. I and my community are better for the years I spent making comics, even if it wasn’t a successful career choice.” — Don’t Do What You Love

I shared this blog post with a young teen and asked him what he thought. His reply:

“She did a great job of making the opposite of her point.”

I’m with him. This seems to be a straightforward story of someone following the path of their interests and talents to one success followed by another even bigger success. I’m … confused.

But once again, I think we’ve stumbled onto a disagreement in defining terms. At one point, Nabors writes:

“I quit comics and went into web development, something I’d enjoyed doing to support my web comics presence, but I wouldn’t say I loved it.”

Ah. So there’s a difference between “doing what you enjoy” and “doing what you love.” Hmm. Somewhere in there I am sure lurks “doing what you’re good at” as well. Maybe the problem is defining “love” in this context as something like a romantic massage rather than something that feels enjoyable, hard, meaningful, achievable, and worth the effort.

Nabors describes herself as a “washed-up” cartoonist. That’s a pretty negative way of describing her situation. She says her cartooning skills contributed a great deal to her business’s success. She was also successful at being a cartoonist. I’m … still confused.

She also says:

“[I]f I’d kept ‘doing what I love’ in the industry that didn’t love me back, I would have never realized that there are other, more profitable, things I love.”

But … it sounds like her industry *did* love her back. She was successful! She made a living! Her friends made a Herculean effort to raise money for her when she became ill! And she’s saying that doing what she love introduced her to other, more profitable things she loves…

Oh, wait — “love me back” here is, I think, code for “pay me enough money.” Fair point. But I think it would be clearer if she said “paid me enough money to cover health insurance and a savings account.” You shouldn’t call it “love” on your end meaning passion and “love” on the other end meaning profit — that just gets confusing.

And — why does it matter that you love what you do NOW if the point of this piece is that you shouldn’t do what you love? Still confused.

And — it seems to me that she stopped loving what she was doing when she realized she wanted to make more money. So to continue wouldn’t have been “doing what [she] loved.” She may have still loved comics but she no longer loved comics as a career. Her aspirations changed.

I think Ms. Nabors imagines that her twisty, turny path could never be replicated and she made it out by the skin of her teeth. Instead (and I speak from the perspective of having walked a twisty, turny career path of my own), I think hers is a pretty ordinary story of success. Start out doing something you think you want to do based on what you enjoy and what you do well … figure out it’s not quite for you for one reason or another … examine new opportunities … make adjustments to the plan … repeat until satisfied or retirement age.

In the end, “don’t do what you love” just doesn’t seem like very useful advice to me. Everyone needs a starting point: somewhere to launch their search for meaningful work and a satisfying life. “Don’t do what you love” doesn’t really narrow things down much, does it?

What’s the alternative? What’s the better route to ending up like Ms. Nabors, “doing something you love that loves you back”? Do you start with Time Magazine’s “hot careers for 2020” list? Throw a dart at a list of possible careers? Ask your parents and their friends for advice?

Could Ms. Nabors have gone to college for a four-year degree and still ended up where she is now, traveling the world doing speaking engagements, opening her second office?

Via her retrospective coherence, apparently yes. Via mine, probably not.

“Do what you love” has different meanings to different people. Delivered to someone with very little idea of what it means to do real work, it means one thing.

Delivered to someone who has plenty of experience doing real work, it means something else. I’ve written about this before:

Career advice tomes like this are not written for project-based homeschoolers — or for other homeschoolers/unschoolers who have already had years to deeply explore their interests.

Newport’s book has some good advice for 18-25-year-olds who have been pushed toward achievement their whole lives and who have a non-reality-based, pipe-dreamy idea of what they’d really like to do, which they call their “passion.”

It’s advice for people whose interests have never been connected with their work in any meaningful way.

This advice doesn’t work for kids who are experienced at coupling their interests with real-world experience, knowledge, and skills. These kids have already deeply explored their interests. They already know what it means to get beyond the honeymoon period to the place where real, challenging work is required. They have experienced the deep pleasure of having real skills and doing meaningful work.

These kids have shared what they know with others. They’ve connected with their community. Their experiences have firmly planted them in reality. Their interests aren’t pipe dreams and fantasies — they are gateways to the nexus of “what I like to do,” “what I have to give,” and “what people will pay for.”

Most career advice is for kids who came up through the regular system. It won’t help kids who were educated via an alternate path. These books are aimed at kids who haven’t initiated their own projects, haven’t explored their interests deeply, and haven’t learned how to find their place in the world. A project-based homeschooler is already way ahead of the game. They don’t need to be told to dump their passions and buckle down to sharpen their skills at whatever job they find themselves in after graduation. They already know how to combine interests, knowledge, skills, and hard work to build something the world needs. They’ve already moved on to asking deeper questions about their purpose. They have experience finding their place in the world and figuring out what they can contribute. — Why Skills Don’t Trump Passion

For me, “do what you love” means starting with what you know about your own signature strengths and what you think you would like to do with them. That’s a path to meaningful work. You will almost certainly not end up doing what you imagined at age 17. You will make new discoveries, meet new people, and gather new information. You will almost certainly end up doing a lot of different things.

“Do what you love” isn’t a career plan — but it is a plan for a good life.

Goleman: When you talk about Good Work, you propose three tests that anyone can apply to their own work to ask the question, ‘Is the work I’m doing in this category?’ One is, it fits your values. The second is that it’s excellent work — you’re highly competent at what you do; you’re effective. The third is, it brings joy.

Gardner: …[W]e found, particularly in people who were working in very challenging professions or in very challenging milieus, that it was simply too difficult to be technically excellent and constantly reflecting about whether you are responsible and ethical. It was too difficult to do unless what you were doing was terribly important to yourself and you really felt it was your mission in life. You felt that you weren’t whole unless you were doing this kind of thing. — What I’ve been reading: The path to Good Work is paved with passion and hope

Doing what you love doesn’t necessarily mean doing it as your career — but it can still infuse your work with more meaning and your life with more satisfaction:

Creative hobbies boost your work performance. They can be the key to creative breakthroughs and better mental health.

Side projects can diversify and protect your income and boost your career.

The benefit of having lots of different interests is that you train your brain to learn many new patterns. The patterns you learn in one field can then be applied to totally different fields to solve problems creatively. — Steve Pavlina

Job crafting — upgrading your day job by pulling in your strengths, passions, and values — makes your work more meaningful and more enjoyable.

But let’s say a young person does want to pursue what they love for their career and they ask for your advice. Consider the following before you answer:

Job satisfaction is at its lowest rate since anyone started measuring it and nearly two-thirds of people would choose another career if they could.

[W]hen you ask older folks for the most important lesson they’ve learned, what do they say? “Don’t stay in a job you dislike.”

Plenty of research says money doesn’t make us all that happy once you can pay the bills. … Having meaning in your life increases life satisfaction twice as much as wealth.

Can you guess what Harvard Business Review says is the #1 career regret? “I wish I hadn’t taken the job for the money.”

Despite low pay and high unemployment artists have higher job satisfaction than most people.

Aristotle once said, “Where the needs of the world and your talents cross, there lies your vocation.” He was way ahead of his time.

One of the most proven elements in work research is that using your strengths makes you feel great:

Americans also gain a boost in positive emotions the more they use their strengths. The more hours per day adults believe they use their strengths, the more likely they are to report having ample energy, feeling well-rested, being happy, smiling or laughing a lot, learning something interesting, and being treated with respect.

Doing what you’re passionate about has wide-ranging positive benefits.

Via Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined:

Elderly individuals who were harmoniously passionate scored higher on various indicators of psychological adjustment, such as life satisfaction, meaning in life, and vitality, while they reported lower levels of negative indicators of psychological adjustment such as anxiety and depression.

Cal Newport points out a weakness in the “follow your passion” argument: most people’s passions are quite difficult to make a living at.

What’s interesting is that most often it is passion that leads us to “10,000 hours” of deliberate practice and subsequent expertise.

Via Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined:

The researchers also looked at the role of passion among 130 undergraduate students enrolled in a selective psychology course. They found a direct path from harmonious passion to deliberate practice: the students who were more harmoniously passionate about their work were more likely to engage in deliberate practice.

So following your passion and working hard may eventually make you great at what you love… — How You Can Have a Fulfilling Career: 10 Scientific Steps

Is doing what you love a guarantee for success? Absolutely not. But neither is pursuing something you don’t love.

My father could have been a great comedian but he didn’t believe that that was possible for him and so he made a conservative choice. Instead, he got a safe job as an accountant, and when I was 12 years old, he was let go from that safe job. And our family had to do whatever we could to survive. I learned many great lessons from my father, not the least of which was that you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love. — Jim Carrey

In the end, it’s not the advice that matters — it’s the young people who are receiving it. We need to make sure they know the deep pleasure of doing meaningful work. We need to make sure they know what their interests, talents, and signature strengths are. We need to make sure they know how to seek out opportunities and build community. We need to make sure they have experience working hard at something that matters. We need to make sure they’ve already experienced failure and disappointment and they’ve already learned how to move past it and adapt.

If they start experiencing meaningful work at a young age, they’ll do it for the rest of their lives — whether it comes with a paycheck or not. And that’s the key to a meaningful and satisfying life.

The irony is that the teen years could be so rich for exploring interests and talents (and doing real, meaningful work) but we stuff them with so many hours of school, homework, and extracurricular activities (all the better for your college application!) that kids don’t know who they are or what they want to do. — The ROI of Meaningful Work

When I talk to my sons about the work they love to do, we’re not discussing some pink cloud fantasy that will happen later on, when they’re adults — we’re talking about the work they’re doing right now.

By the time well-meaning people starting telling them “don’t do what you love,” it will already be too late.


See also: The path to Good Work is paved with passion and hope



Comment by Cristina on September 2, 2014 at 01:38 PM

I had the same problems with the author/artists line of reasoning. It's almost as if the author is embarrassed for "wasting time" doing comics and wants to prove to herself that it was a waste of her time, but I'm not seeing that. The Miyazaki quote she mentions has more to do with exploring who you are and what you want to do than it does about going "to school and study and enjoy life for four years." Because whatever you do, you want it to be meaningful to you, and only you can define what is meaningful for yourself. Also, what is meaningful is not a fixed answer. It grows and changes with us.

For me, I've had a roundabout route of doing what I love: Loved art until I got overwhelmed and burnt out in a specialized high school. Took a year off before college. During that time I discovered juggling, and fell in love with that. I did well at juggling, not so well at marketing myself. If I judged my love based solely on how much I made, then yes, I should follow the advice "don't do what you love". What did I get out of juggling then? My husband, good friends who got me into doing facepainting (back to my love of art) and friends who made me want to homeschool.

I loved homeschooling, but you can't exactly make money doing it. Homeschooling taught me to love learning as I never had before. I cherish the time I had with my kids. My daughter taught me to love books. I started writing and drawing comics about my life, which never made money for me but gave me lots of friends all over the world. My love of books made me follow two paths. I figured out how to self publish some of my comics. I also took on volunteer work at the library, organizing book donations for the Library Friends' bookstore. I was such a familiar face there that when my husband lost his job and I started looking for work, I had a job as a library clerk a month later.

Bottom line, I love all of the things I do/did. I don't regret the path I've followed (as the author obviously does) because I realize that life is about more than money and the twisting paths we take on the journey mold us into the people we are. You cannot become who you are without starting somewhere.

Thanks for the food for thought! I would love it if you let me put this in the Carnival of Homeschooling. I'm hosting this week. :)

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 2, 2014 at 05:11 PM

The Miyazaki quote she mentions has more to do with exploring who you are and what you want to do than it does about going "to school and study and enjoy life for four years."

agree, agree, cristina — i thought this post was getting WAY too long already or i would have talked about that as well. side projects and individual interests *are* really important — for personal style, for doing unique work, etc. — but what does that have to do with going to college?! i worked my way through school and i didn’t have time to develop any interests; i didn’t even have time to learn about what i was doing in class. all of my side projects and personal interests happened before and after college.

also there was this bit:

Also consider that many of us grow up loving things from childhood: playing games, making art, dancing. Rarely do you meet a teenager who “loves” plumbing or animal husbandry. But there are plenty of adults who do (at least care enough to keep society functioning). If we all did what we love without trying the things we don’t, imagine all the cross pollination that the human race would miss out on.

faaaaalse. i grew up in farm country so i can tell you there are plenty of teens interested in animal husbandry. and my friend’s daughter built a tiny house; she could tell you a lot about plumbing, i’m sure.

i’ll defer to sir ken robinson:

I did tweet recently and asked people if they could name jobs they would hate to do but other people love. I got all kinds of answers back. The normal things like proctologist…but people would say things like, “How about office cleaners?” Well, I have somebody in the book that actually loves being a cleaner. Somebody said, “What about working in sewers?” Somebody immediately tweeted back, “My brother works in sewage disposal. He loves every day of the job.” You can’t make a presumption about what other people would love to do or how they would like to live their lives. That’s one of the beauties of the diversity of human talents and interests. — Sir Ken Robinson

doing what you love is one thing that can introduce you to things you don’t — doing *any* real work, even when it’s meaningful and self-chosen, involves doing a LOT of things you don’t *love* to do.

You cannot become who you are without starting somewhere.

exactly so. :)

thank you so much for your thoughtful comment, cristina, and yes, please do include it in the carnival! that would be great. :)

Comment by Cristina on September 4, 2014 at 03:38 PM

Thanks so much Lori! I'll let you know when I put the carnival up!

Comment by CSmith on September 4, 2014 at 11:05 AM

Thank you very much for this Lori!

I now have something definitive and concrete to point to when people laugh and tell me my children will not be able to support themselves by following their dreams. I have already seen the fruit their labor has produced by following their passions and interests.

I whole heartedly agree with this: "If they start experiencing meaningful work at a young age, they’ll do it for the rest of their lives — whether it comes with a paycheck or not. And that’s the key to a meaningful and satisfying life.

The irony is that the teen years could be so rich for exploring interests and talents (and doing real, meaningful work) but we stuff them with so many hours of school, homework, and extracurricular activities (all the better for your college application!) that kids don’t know who they are or what they want to do. — The ROI of Meaningful Work

When I talk to my sons about the work they love to do, we’re not discussing some pink cloud fantasy that will happen later on, when they’re adults — we’re talking about the work they’re doing right now."

YES, YES, YES...this is exactly the reason why we homeschool. Our teen daughter is free to explore what she is good at. She gets to explore what is worth her pursuit and what is not. She has let go of some passions and has reintroduced some new ones. She's becoming keenly aware that talent + passion + effort will lead to (and has led to) meaningful work right now. We talk and help guide her but she has the ultimate decision.

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 4, 2014 at 01:19 PM

thank YOU! :)

Comment by Susan Raber on September 23, 2014 at 06:55 AM

I read this article and did the same head-scratching - did she have a point, and what was it, exactly? You did a good job of breaking it down, although she still doesn't make a lick of sense. It sounds more like an attempt at a pity-party, which is not unusual in our society where folks are knocking each other over in the pursuit of victimhood.

Our homeschooling family accidentally moved from traditional 'schooling' methods to delight-directed and project-based learning. And "Surprise-surprise-surprise" - our kids all found a career path in their early teens (and our youngest at age 11!) because they were free to find something they are interested in and then transfer that interest into potential career paths.

They might not 'love' every aspect of what they do - the above mentioned youngest helps out at a local grooming parlor twice a week, walking dogs and scooping poop - but he comes home every week with a dozen stories about what he did and how much fun he had.

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 23, 2014 at 09:24 AM

that idea that a person who is doing work they love can’t possibly do the parts they *don’t* love is so ridiculous, too. anyone whose done work they loved can tell you how hard they had to work to make it happen and how many unpleasant and very necessary tasks they muscled their way through so they could keep going. if every job has unpleasant parts (and i’m sure they do), it makes sense to me that a sense of purpose and a deep enjoyment of the work is what makes those tasks worth doing!

my sons have had the same experience re: finding meaningful work early — it is unnatural, i think, to hold teens off from doing meaningful work until they’re out of college!

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