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6 should-be-common-sense realities about doing what you love for a living

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It seems like we’ve reached a point in our online culture where trashing the notion of doing what you love for a living has become at least popular as encouraging it. Google “Do what you love” and half the results are rants against the idea.

Having recently quit my job to do exactly that, I’m curious to know why so many people think I’ve made a terrible mistake, so I read a lot of these pieces, and I now I have fewer doubts than ever. The anti-“Do what you love” movement gained some wind recently in a popular article by Miya Tokumitsu, in which the author conflates the simple idea of loving your work with the exploitation of interns, the injustice of traditional gender roles, the globalization of food production, and the unlikable side of Steve Jobs.

The rest of the pieces I read are similarly off the point. Detractors of “Do what you love” (or DWYL) come at it from all kinds of angles, but what they have in common is that they all seem to have a very naive idea about what doing that actually means. Given that some of today’s graduates are leaving school already convinced that DWYL is “terrible career advice,” here are six points that I hope will one day be obvious to everyone.

1) “Work you love” is still work

By reading their online rants it seems like many anti-DWYL people imagine that doing what you love for a living means expecting to get paid to taste ice cream or review hot tubs. I can’t believe this clarification is necessary, but DWYL does not mean, “You should be getting paid for doing the thing you enjoy most, if you can just love it intensely enough.”

Work you love does not need to be work you would do for free. I love writing, and while there is certainly writing I would do for free, I recognize that making a career out of it requires me to do a lot of things that I don’t necessarily enjoy, such as writing sales pages, fixing inexplicable website issues, and navigating IRS paperwork. I do these things because they allow me to keep doing what I love. I never expected my dream career to spare me every instance of annoyance and tedium. Loving your children means cleaning up their vomit, but it doesn’t mean you love cleaning up vomit.

2) Your work needs to be useful to other people

Particular criticism is paid to the title of Marsha Sinetar’s famous book Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow. The “…and the money will follow” part presumes you understand the basic reason that anybody makes money doing anything, which is because they create something worth paying for. The amount paid for that something is directly related to how much value it provides for people other than you, and is not necessarily related to how fulfilling it was for you to create — although the latter can certainly make the former easier. We all want other people to have an incentive to give us money, so naturally it’s more than worthwhile to find a way to provide value that doesn’t simultaneously make you dread five-sevenths of your days on earth. 

The money will follow because you are older than twelve and therefore understand that some aspect of your work must involve doing or creating something that makes people want to give you their money for it. Love for your work implies that you are determined to continue to do that work, which obviously requires you to do it in such a way that you can pay your rent. Love your work, but be aware that your love isn’t what other people are interested in paying for. 

3) Loving your work is a long-term goal (but moving towards it is immediately rewarding)

The DWYL mantra is a part of the broader pursuit we can call, “Creating a lifestyle that generates happiness and fulfillment on ordinary days.” A human life has a lot of factors that influence its level of happiness, but the income-earning part is way too big a part to ignore. The typical worker is going to spend three or four decades with their work dominating their daylight hours, so why would anyone in their right mind let that time pass without constantly trying to increase the enjoyability of those 80,000 or so hours? Yet we have Forbes Magazine urging young people to give up on the idea before they even enter the workforce.

It can take a while to learn what really does fulfill you in life, which some seem to regard as enough of a reason to resign to tedious or meaningless work. “Work you love” does not need to be your sole purpose on this planet. It doesn’t need to be your calling, it doesn’t need to change the world and it probably isn’t going to be the first thing you do out of school.

4) Doing work you love does not necessarily mean seeking an exclusive, high-paying, or glamorous profession

It’s not only rock stars and fighter pilots that love their work. It’s also auto mechanics, tour guides, police officers, researchers, salespeople, craftspeople, copywriters, chefs, entrepreneurs, pet groomers, shop owners and construction workers, to name a dozen out of thousands of possibilities.

A lot of anti-DWYL sentiment hinges on the belief that loving your work means having snagged a rare and cushy job. All it really means is that you find fulfillment and meaning in what you do at work. The love for the work has mostly to do with the worker’s belief in the value of that work in the world, and with the atmosphere of the organization they work for, rather than with the actual activities performed. The type of profession is only one factor in whether you love your work.

If people who love their work are rare, it’s not because potentially loveable jobs are especially rare. It’s because it is so normal to see work as a necessarily draining part of life, that it’s rare for a person to spend the time it takes to find something that energizes them. I’ve done five kinds of work that drain me, and only the latest one doesn’t, and five years ago I had no idea I even wanted to do it. Still, even though it seems like a no-brainer to always be moving in the direction of work you love, it is still not normal.

5) What limits most people’s work options is their wasteful spending

Let’s be clear: there are people out there who do arduous work, have no possibility of ever earning more, and cannot reduce their expenses without being out on the streets. But if you’re reading this from the industrialized world, chances are you’re not one of them, and you do make lifestyle choices that can keep you in a needlessly draining line of work.

It’s typical in many Western countries to inadvertently let your living expenses rise with your income. As you get larger paychecks you feel freer to buy things you want. But at any wage level, the closer your monthly income is to your monthly out-go, the fewer options you have for work. There are millions of everyday people who, by way of unexamined habits and untracked spending, inadvertently adopt lifestyles that cost 90-110 per cent of their income, making it out of the question to accept work that’s more fulfilling if it pays even a little bit less. Few things will give you as much flexibility as significantly reducing your living expenses.

All spending is ultimately done in the name of improving quality of life, and it is strangely common to underestimate how big an effect your work has on the enjoyability of your life. Shifting to fewer expenses and less pay in a better line of work might be the best financial decision you ever make.

6) The more people who love their work, the better off everyone is

Tokumitsu’s piece argues that the DWYL ethos is an indulgence of the super-privileged, and pursuing it somehow comes at the expense of people who must do unpleasant labor.

Not everybody can do work they love, but that’s no reason not to do it if you can. In fact, it’s exactly why you should. If I’m lucky enough to have no health problems, would it be somehow noble of me to keep myself in poor health, as an act of solidarity with the chronically ill? Or should I make use of privilege and opportunity while I have them?

Doing work solely for its compensation, when you don’t have to, is one of the developed world’s most destructive traditions. The epitome of Western privilege’s offensiveness is to have more than one needs materially, yet still fail to achieve happiness with it.

Why are we stripping and spoiling the planet at an ever-increasing rate? Because we typically care little about the value and consequences of our work aside from its compensation. The prevailing ethos is to maximize earnings (and therefore consumption) in an effort to make the time we’re not at work satisfying and meaningful. Instead, we could be scaling down our lifestyle spending, enabling us to accept work that actually contributes to our personal fulfillment, rather than merely funds our after-hours attempts to buy it.

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 Photo by martijnvandalen
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