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May 27, 2014

Is “Do What You Love” Good Advice?

Graduation close-up with text: Is "Do What You Love" Good Advice?

In the U.S., it’s the season for students to hear graduation speeches pushing them to make a difference and live life to the fullest. In the last decade, there’s also been a motto-type saying spreading throughout society, especially among recent graduates: “Do what you love; love what you do.”

Many point to Steve Jobs’s 2005 graduation speech at Stanford University as the genesis of this concept:

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

I doubt he was the first to express this idea, but he was probably the first to say it with such an impact. And while I appreciate the sentiment, I’m not sure that’s actually good career advice.

The only way to do great work is to love what you do? I hope not.

Life is filled with work that needs to be done whether someone loves to do it or not. The gunk that drips and collects at the bottom of my refrigerator needs to be cleaned even though it gives me the heebie-jeebies, and I certainly hope I can do a great job cleaning it without needing to love the work.

Ditto for the millions of toilets and sewers that need to be cleaned—or any of the jobs covered by Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs. As another saying goes (I believe this one’s from Caddyshack), “the world needs ditch diggers too.”

I’ll be the first to admit that I write because I love it. But the problem with thinking that we should do what we love and love what we do—as a career—is many layered.

“Doing What You Love” Could Lead to Feelings of Failure

Directly following the above quote, Steve Jobs said:

“If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”

Don’t “settle” for less than a job we’d love? That’s a destructive message, especially for new graduates who aren’t qualified for much, yet need to pay student loans.

When we first enter the workforce or switch careers, we don’t even know what all we don’t know. We tend to overestimate our abilities compared to what we need to know, and we’re not nearly as ready for the “big time” as we think we are.

That’s life. Until we have Matrix-style learning downloads available to us, it takes time to learn everything.

Throughout history, people in most positions started off as apprentices. In medieval times, apprenticeships lasted 5 to 9 years.

We don’t call internships and the crap jobs we now start off with “apprenticeships,” but the concept remains the same. Dues need to be paid in order to learn job skills, teamwork skills, business skills, negotiation skills, office politics skills, etc.

Dues-paying is about earning respect and proving we’re capable. We’re not so special that we’ll just have respect handed to us.

Those dues-paying jobs can feel like failure if we’ve bought into this idea of “not settling.” If we hate our crap job, is that a sign we’re heading down the wrong path? No. Even after we leave school, we need to remain open to learning.

We’re Not a Writing Failure If…:

  • we have to “pay dues” by learning the rules of grammar, show vs. tell, story structure, etc.
  • we don’t love all aspects of writing equally—drafting, editing, query writing, synopsis writing, marketing, etc.
  • we, in fact, dislike or even hate some aspects of writing or the business.
  • we have to “pay dues” by building up respect from readers slowly, earning fans one story at a time.

Often the steps we have to take
to get to what we love
are just plain not-fun work.
That’s normal and not a sign
that we’re on the wrong path
or not cut out for this.

“Doing What You Love” Could Lead to Shortcuts

Going along with the above point, some people want to take shortcuts. They don’t want to pay their dues. They blame “the man” or corporate culture (or in publishing, “the gatekeepers”) for keeping them down. They think they’re special and should be awarded a job they love now, dues-paying be damned.

Ambition can be a great thing, but if it’s not backed up by ability, we’re simply arrogant, and the universe will be only too happy to smack us down. I know some recent graduates who think those crap jobs are for other people. They’re “above” those petty requirements.

In the writing world, we see writers who don’t want to learn writing rules. (“Learning how to avoid head-hopping? Ha! That’s for other people. My stories are special.”)

We see writers who don’t believe in editing before publishing because that’s too much like work, not something they love to do. (“My readers will tell me if there are errors. Readers will love me and my stories even if they’re filled with errors because I’m special.”)

Most of us won’t love query writing or rejections or editing or reading bad reviews or “killing our darlings” or learning how to use commas. We need to be prepared for those anyway.

Some aspect of everything we do
will feel like work.
That’s not a reason to skip it
.

“Doing What You Love” Is a Privilege

Also going along with the first point, we shouldn’t feel like a failure if we can’t support ourselves by doing what we love. Across the globe, the vast majority of people work to make money, to survive.

Surely not all of those people are failures. Not even close. Being a contributing member of society is a success in its own right, even if we hate the job or the work itself.

Most writers have a day job to support themselves and their family. It’s the rare author who makes enough from their writing to quit their day job. It’s the near non-existent author who makes enough to afford publicists and assistants to do all the non-writing stuff, leaving them to do just the writing they love.

The inability to make a living as an author doesn’t make us failures. I recognize that I am privileged and lucky that my day job is flexible enough to allow me time to write at all.

Loving what we do doesn’t make a job more noble. Especially on this day after Memorial Day in the U.S. (the holiday for recognizing members of the military who died in service), I can think of heck of a lot of jobs I’d consider more noble than being an author who writes entertaining fiction.

We shouldn’t elevate the “do what you love; love what you do” mantra to the point of making jobs we wouldn’t love less respected. We can love to create art without consideration of whether we can turn it into a career.

(Some would even say that those who write for love and aren’t dependent on the money are more likely to continue to love their art over time. Ask authors under the deadline gun how much they love writing when stressed out. *smile*)

We can be successful
even if what we love
isn’t paying the bills.
Whether we love our job
doesn’t determine the nobility of our work.

“Doing What You Love” Could Lead to Devaluing the Work

The other side of that coin is that just because we love the work doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be paid fairly for it. I know many writers who say they’d write whether anyone read their work or not.

Great! It’s wonderful to love something so much.

But writing is still work, and work deserves to be paid if others receive value (entertainment counts as value) from that work. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be exploited simply because we tell ourselves “I love it so much that it’s hardly like real work.”

Writing requires us to learn new skills, a new industry, several new technologies. Writing often steals our free time, our evenings, our weekends. No matter how much we don’t mind all that because we love it, writing is work.

Too many out there—from commercial blogs that don’t pay to pirates who steal—already don’t value the work we do. We shouldn’t add to that perception by encouraging others’ devaluation or exploitation.

It’s okay to want to be paid fairly
for work we love.
Being paid doesn’t make
our writing less noble.

“Doing What You Love” Doesn’t Have to Mean “Career”

Too many college graduates followed this “do what you love” idea as career advice when deciding on their degree path. Now they’re stuck with student loans that any career tied to their degree won’t be able to repay. Many degrees aren’t a good career investment if we look strictly at the related jobs available post-graduation.

Do students make a mistake by obtaining a degree without job prospects? Maybe, maybe not. This once again comes back to privilege and the circumstances that allow some people to pursue what they love regardless of the cost.

But for those without that privilege, who are now struggling to repay loans on degrees that don’t lead to well-paying careers, this “do what you love” movement certainly looks like bad career advice. They’ll have to pursue non-degree-related careers to pay the bills, and it’d be a shame if that fact makes them feel like failures.

We can do what we love by making as much time as we can for our writing or whatever else matters to us. However, we do not have to feel like what we love has to be our career. We can pursue a career that pays the bills just because the bills need to be paid, and that doesn’t make us a failure or “less than” in any way.

Contrary to Steve Jobs’s quote, I say we can find satisfaction and even be great at a career we don’t love. Hello, work ethic—that’s essentially what the phrase means. We can take pride in doing a good job, no matter what that job is. That pride can provide satisfaction.

My point is that “do what you love; love what you do” can be a great goal for us, but whether we can make that goal our career shouldn’t be the main measurement of our satisfaction with our lives. As long as we’re able to make some time for doing things we love—whether that’s as a career, a side job, a hobby, or a lark—we can count ourselves lucky. *smile*

Have you heard of the “do what you love” idea? If so, what do you think of it? Do you agree that it might not be good career advice? If you disagree, which of my points do you disagree with? Do you think it’s good advice for other aspects of our life, and if so, how?

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33 Comments on "Is “Do What You Love” Good Advice?"

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Kerry Gans

I agree with you that “doing what you love” is not always great career advice. I think it’s best to fulfill your life by doing what you love when you can, and keeping your eyes open for ways you can incorporate what you love into your career. You may never be able to do that. But as long as you make time in your life to do what you love, your life will be fulfilled, even if your job isn’t what you really want out of life at the moment. But if you’re doing something you love every day, then your boring career is much more tolerable!

Janalynne

I have this image by Hugh MacLeod hanging in my cubicle – to me it sums up your ‘pride in what you do’ suggestion. If I can learn to become a master of my day job, isn’t that a form of loving it? Whatever it may be, if I take on the challenge to do it to the very best of my ability… isn’t something like this the cycle I create?

http://static.squarespace.com/static/4f88563c24aca51599a7224f/t/4f8e98d124acb5129e25c48f/1334745336692/hughILoveWhatIDo.jpg

Love the blog, Jami. And this post in particular.

Amanda

Oh, I wish I’d known ahead of time you were writing a post on this, because Mike Rowe wrote a FABULOUS response to a guy who was looking for a job: http://www.epicdash.com/a-fan-asks-mike-rowe-for-career-advice-he-didnt-expect-this-response-but-its-brilliant/

Rowe’s advice is, hands down, some of the best I’ve heard regarding job hunting, mostly because it’s the cold hard truth. We shouldn’t be worrying about doing what we love.

I do believe it IS possible to do what you love, but you have to work at it, and realize that you may never figure it out, or achieve it. And if that’s the case, you have to learn how to be okay with that. Because as Rowe says, your happiness shouldn’t come from a job.

I had a friend and former coworker ask me not too long ago if I was looking for a new job, and I think she was a little surprised when I told her no. I don’t particularly like my job. It’s tiring and often aggravating. But I love my coworkers, I have an awesome boss, and the company works very hard to allow its employees a good work-life balance. My job might kind of suck, but my job also gives me plenty of time to write. And knowing my coworkers are excited about my upcoming book release is pretty cool, too 🙂

Marcy Kennedy
I’m strongly considering blogging a full reply to this, but I’m not sure whether that would be wise. I definitely think you’re right, and I’m speaking from the perspective of someone who has never had a full-time job outside of “doing what I love.” My full-time job is as a writer and editor. I’ve been doing it since I graduated from my master’s. A lot of things jumped into my mind as I was reading your post. Too many to cover in a comment 🙂 There is one thing I really do want to say now. (And please forgive me for a bit of rambling because these ideas have only just taken shape 🙂 ) When we’re told “do what you love,” someone should also add “but only if you’ve considered the cost first.” It’s costly to do what we love as a career, even aside from a monetary perspective. No one tells you that. They make it sound like it’s all roses and kittens to do what you love. Doing what we love, regardless of what career that is, can often end up being all-consuming and takes as much as it gives. I love what I do, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes envy people who had a job that was “just a job” that they could come home from at night and on weekends, leaving it at the office. I’m never 100% free from my job. Not really. I get urgent emails from clients… Read more »
Carradee

“Do what you love” can be good or bad advice, depending on how you apply it.

For instance, a friend of mine was telling me that her dream job’s video editing, but that working with a major producer would conflict with her theological convictions (requiring Sunday work, for instance). I pointed out that there were other types of video editing, for individuals and small companies and such. She hadn’t even thought of that.

Personally, I’ve found that, as a freelancer, when I think, “I want to get a job doing X,” if I put some thought and effort into it, I’ve been able to find opportunities. It’s doable, but most people don’t even try.

I think that “Try” is what Steve Jobs was meaning. Try, think, and consider. You may have to do something you don’t care for, sometimes, but don’t assume that’s all you can ever do.

But there’s also the factor that people assume “Doing what you love” necessarily means compromise or sacrifice. Not really. You can enjoy oil painting all day, but if what matters most to you is getting a steady paycheck, then what you love = getting the steady paycheck, not oil painting.

Jim Traylor

I say to do what you love with qualifications. I did some of what I loved while working at a job for 30 years. Now I can afford to do only what I love because my retirement supports it. Had I tried to do nothing but what I love during my working years, I would be living under a bridge now. 🙁

Anne R. Allen

So much wisdom here, Jami. I just had an encounter with a beginning writer who informed me that she was going to self-publish all her stories and essays on Amazon, then go travel the world on the money she’ll have rolling in. When I tried to tell her that promoting your books is major part of the job–one she hasn’t even tried to learn about–and it’s not a job that pays much, she went into a snit. I was “crapping on her dreams.” So I shut up and wished her the best. But…oh, dear, the poor thing is in for such a shock. Being a professional writer is hard work. And if you don’t want to do it, don’t be a writer.

Lynda Jo Schuessler
Lynda Jo Schuessler

There’s a lot of great advice here. There comes a time when we must do work that will earn a living wage even if it is not our “dream job”. As the old Irish proverb says, “Pray for potatoes with a hoe in your hand.”

Donna Hole
Donna Hole

I could sure use some of that “matrix-style learning download” to get me up to speed with my new job.

I’ve taken lots of jobs over the years that kept a roof over my head and wheels beneath my arse. And some of those jobs I really loved, but wasn’t good at. We learn life lessons as life deals them out to us.

Laurie Evans

I never liked the “do what you love” advice for a career. I always thought it meant something like: if you want to write, DO IT. Don’t wait until you can write full time, or after the kids go to school or leave home, or you get the perfect office or desk or computer, do it NOW. Along with the job that pays the bills.

Most people need a day job, but outside the day job, do what you love NOW. Meaning a hobby or a side job, or any kind of work outside your career that you really want to do.

I just think it sets people up to feel miserable if they aren’t doing a J.O.B. that they love. Most people need to work a job to pay the bills and don’t “love” their work. But I think “do what you love” means, are you waiting until the “perfect” moment to do that thing (whatever it is) that you love? You can start doing it now, a little at a time…Write a few paragraphs a day…take a writing class…buy a few things you need to start that crafting hobby, etc.

It doesn’t have to be that *thing* that pays the bills. I hope I’m making sense.

DasteRoad
Oh my god. Thank you for saying much of what I always thought, only more eloquently than me. The healthiest way to take “do what you love, love what you do” as career advice is likely about finding enthusiasm in everything you do so that the routine doesn’t wear you out: ok, maybe you’re stuck in a boring job to pay your bills, but how can you make it more interesting? Maybe you can find a better procedure, maybe you can make a bet with your coworker on who solves a problem first – or maybe you can simply find pride in a well done job, as you said, reward yourself when you reach a goal, build a good relationship with your coworkers so you support each other when you can. Work ethic is a powerful thing. But that’s about the whole extent of what I would consider good about the sentence. The whole “don’t settle” thing is a toxic message, and it feeds into this romanticized myth that your job defines your worth as a person – a myth that big corporations and skeevy bosses love to take advantage of. Your happiness or your self worth shouldn’t be defined by your job – your life is not your job. Your job is just a part of your life, the one which pays the bills. Why would doing what you love as a hobby make it less important? Also, not settling for anything less than your dream job is a… Read more »
sylvia O'Connor
sylvia O'Connor
On a poster titled 21 Suggestions for Success, by H. Jackson Brown Jr., number two on his list was “Work at something you enjoy and that’s worthy of your time and talent.” I like that but would add another three caveats: find people that you enjoy working with, an environment you enjoy working in, and a job that can support you. The sewer line in front of our house backed up a few years ago and a gang of DPW guys came to fix it. They brought in the heavy equipment and dug a huge hole in the road, and then they worked in muck and water all day long, digging by hand, hauling in support gravel, and cutting a gas-line. My husband watched for a while and then said, “My Dad would have loved working with these guys.” They were hauling on huge wrenches, carefully lowering support walls, etc., and while they worked they talked and laughed and problem-solved all day long. A light snow had fallen the day before and it was still cold. We heard them packing up at 4a.m. So why add this story to the blog? It made an impression on me because those guys loved their work. It wasn’t easy work or pretty work, but for the first time I could see how clearly work defines a lifestyle; so, in my mind the questions to ask might be: What’s important to you? Do you want to dress up and work at a desk? Do… Read more »
Kathryn Goldman

Another great post, Jami. I have just two points to add to the other comments. Actually, just one because my first thought is to underscore what has already been said: take pleasure in a job well done even if you do not like the job.

My main point is: you may not know what you love yet, but you have to do something. So, get a job, do it well, and keep your eyes open for something that really strikes your fancy. Then, when you find something you love, do it. A little at a time, whenever you can, and before you know it — you’ve been doing what you love!

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Ingrid Schaffenburg

Love this post Jami! I struggled with this for so long. Probably since I graduated college, and I think you’re dead on. What many don’t realize is that doing what you love still requires you to pay your dues. And that’s not always fun work. So maintaining a long-term vision is essential in order to handle the tough times when we must sacrifice.

Doing what you love is a tall order for a career. I like what Penelope Trunk says: don’t do what you love, do what you are. You’re going to do what you love regardless of whether you get paid or not. Makes sense!

Matthew Shields

This is a great message that more artists/potential artists/wannabe artists need to hear and really understand before they make rash decisions. I have a good friend that put his family through a lot of hardship before he wized up. While I wish I could devote more time to my writing and finish some things now, I’m happier knowing that there is time for that and I’m taking good care of my family in the meantime. I write because I love it, and with so many deadlines and details that I have to deal with in my day job career, its nice to let my writing spool out, knowing that it will be there when I am ready to come back to it. Someday, down the road, maybe the world will love the stories so much I can devote more time to the writing, but right now, the writing is joy enough to keep at it.

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