Why “do what you love” is not terrible advice
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 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?
“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:
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.
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.
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.