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Why do you do what you don’t love?

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When I arrived at the conservation office I was absurdly early, like I am for everything that’s important. At 9:30 a bus would take me and 39 others to a ferry, which would drop us at the beginning of the Milford Track. From there I’d hike four days through cavernous glacial valleys, living out of my backpack.

After a day of scrambling to get all the right supplies: quick-drying clothes, sandfly repellant, cooking gear, matches, and food that didn’t take up much space, I was ready. Just early.

I sat down on the grass next to another traveler. We had the typical backpacker exchange: names, home countries, and current destinations. He was a German, about 20, headed to the Kepler track.

Our customary exchange ran its course quickly and soon there didn’t seem to be anything else to say, so we just sat against our packs, enjoying the day. It was sunny, and especially quiet. Te Anau is a little town at the edge of the civilization, so there was no background drone of highway traffic. Nothing happening in the foreground either.

Neither of us had said anything in a minute or two, when he turned to me and asked with a straightforwardness that only a German could muster:

“So,” he said, “What are your dreams?”

Having met new people almost every single day of my trip, I had reflexive answers for almost every question a near-stranger could ask, but this one caught me off guard. Nothing came out.

It’s not that I didn’t know what I wanted in life. In fact I’ve got a life list, and I started trying to recall what was on it, but nothing was jumping out at me and I knew that after thinking about it so long, no answer I could give would be very convincing.

A few items from my bucket list were beginning to materialize: Learn my wines. Speak French fluently. Ride a Harley. These are things I want to do, but clearly none of them consume me enough that they’re right there in the foreground of my mind whenever somebody brings up the topic of dreams.

I was self-conscious about how I seemed to have to rake my brain for what should be more important than anything. I didn’t have a clear idea of my dreams, and I knew I was talking to somebody who did.

Finally I laughed and said I didn’t know.

“What are your dreams?” I asked.

“I want to have a boat and I want to go to Iceland.”

“In your boat?”

“No, my boat will not be that kind of boat. It is two different dreams.”

“Why did you come to New Zealand when you could have gone to Iceland first?”

“It is not the time. I am too young.”

I have 150 items on my bucket list. Looking at it, pretty much anyone could tease out a few values that are important to me. What I want is a life that embodies those values.

One of the items on my list was the thing I was there to do: hike the Milford Track. But I knew he was looking for a more definite, more resounding answer. Not just one of dozens of arbitrary items I want to get to, but the experience I couldn’t die without. The Milford is a truly unbelievable hike, but my interest in it didn’t exactly define me as a person. It only hinted at what did. 

About 48 hours later, I’m soaked in my clothes, crouched barefoot on top of a boulder covered in sopping, thick moss. A wet, roaring wind is blasting straight down onto my back. The air is a thick, swirling spray and it’s hard to take a breath without inhaling water. Wherever I look, there’s a rainbow in front of what I’m looking at, the kind you see in the spray from a watering hose, except this one is impossibly close — it was right in my eyes.

It was such a foreign and unusual moment that I felt disconnected from all the events leading up to it. It was like I had just dropped in to an unimaginable moment in some unknown person’s life.

I was at the bottom of Sutherland falls, at the end of a 90-minute diversion from the main track. A park ranger had told us it’s possible to climb around behind the main impact point of the 600-meter waterfall, if you’re careful and you don’t mind getting soaked.

This. This is my dream.

Not the swim in the waterfall pool. Not the Milford Track. Not New Zealand. But the feeling of finding yourself in a place you could not have imagined before you were there, and could never properly relate afterward.

Twenty-one months earlier, I’m sitting in the kitchenette of a basement apartment that looks like it’s furnished entirely from yard sales. I’m dating an outspoken French girl and she’s still getting to know me.

She brings our coffees and sits beside me instead of across from me, and I can tell she wants to ask me something but first has to find the English words. She finds them.

“I don’t understand. Why do you do what you don’t love?”

It takes me a minute to get it. The night before, she had asked what I love about my career and I told her I wouldn’t say I loved it but there are parts of it I like. This was a pretty normal sentiment to me. It’s what almost all my friends and acquaintances would say too, but to her it was genuinely bizarre.

She just could not understand a person carrying on in a career unless it was their dream. Or, at least, was leading to their dream — at the time she was the weather girl, Mademoiselle Météo, and openly hated it, but acknowledged it was a necessary step in becoming une journaliste.

A few lame answers had come up in my mind: Well sometimes life doesn’t work out exactly like you expect. The job market isn’t so great in all sectors, I’m doing what’s practical. Life has a lot of obligations, I have to take care of them first. I’m young, I have lots of time.

I don’t remember what I ended up saying, but I know it couldn’t have been a viable answer to her question, because there isn’t one.

Later that morning we were looking down from the Osborne bridge, talking about travel, and she decided in front of me that she was going to backpack through Greece, with all the same casualness with which I might decide to order rye toast.

In the summer we went our separate ways, and she went to Greece. She is now an arts and culture reporter for the CBC.

The German had the same clarity of purpose about Iceland and his boat. His dream was so matter-of-fact to him, such a foregone conclusion, that I wonder what he made of a well-spoken 29-year-old Canadian who could not even guess at what he wanted to do with himself.

Clarity is not normal

When I was in school there were some kids who knew what they were after from the beginning, but they were unususal. Most of us just wanted it to be Saturday. I look now on Facebook at my former classmates’ current occupations, and I may be projecting, but none of them look too dreamy.

I entered two successive careers with no clear vision of what I ultimately wanted my days to be like, and I think this is normal in my culture.

The whole boatride to the track, and the first leg of the hike, I was preoccupied with why so few people around me seem to know what they want their lives to be. It’s not really talked about all that much. It’s almost like dreams are embarrassing, at least outside of the self-improvement/daily-affirmation crowd.

My answer to the German’s question is becoming clearer now — and it turns out, has nothing to do with either of my two chosen fields — but man has it taken a long time.

Not that that’s a bad thing. The German may have had it totally wrong, found it too quickly. He was 20 at the time, he maybe had just seen a Sigur Ros video and decided Iceland is where his heart needs him to be. I don’t really know. I just remember wondering why I couldn’t say anything about what I want in life with such certainty.

Either way, there’s no question French Girl had it right, with her non-rhetorical question: Why do you do what you don’t love? If a person really knew what they loved, how much room could they let other things take up in their lives? How many of their hours or dollars would they let go toward something else?

You’d think the things we love are the things we’re most inclined to do, but this is just not true.

Love and attraction are not the same, not at all. Did I spend over $500 on Starbucks last year out of love? Or out of a thoughtless response to a short-term attraction that I feel at about 7:09 every morning on my way to work?

The loving thing would have been to drive on by and save that money for traveling. Or an apartment that doesn’t make me frown. Or to pay for some time off my job, so I can create something beautiful, or at least try.

Theoretically, if you know what you love, then every time you make a decision you’ll have a pretty damn clear idea if it’s taking you closer or further away from what you love. You’ll know the right thing to do. So self-love is a moral issue. It consists of doing the right thing, and nothing else.

Yet living that way is somehow not the obvious thing to do. “Live for the moment” is unquestionably good advice, but it’s easy to think that means “live for what you feel like right now.” I may be way off base, but think most of us live for what we feel like right now, making adjustments whenever it leads us into trouble. We’ll do what we can get away with until it appears we can’t get away with it anymore. Then we change something, a job or a partner, and find a comfortable spot from there. But there’s no real aim, other than to stay okay. Dreams remain hopes.

The compass-effect of living only towards what you love is undeniable. Still, I think it’s relatively rare in humans. Until people have kids, anyway. After that they’re usually hopelessly in love and they know where the compass is pointing. But even then, it means their energies are now invested in directing the course of another person’s life. So how many people really live for themselves, with a clear idea of what they want, and whether they’re getting in their own way or not?

It seems so simple and so intuitive, but it is definitely not normal.

These aren’t stupid questions:

Do I really know what I love?

What am I doing with my time and money and attention?

How much of that gets me closer to what I love, and how much takes me farther away?

Can I know, in each moment, which type I’m doing?


I’m curious. Honestly, do you have a pretty clear direction? Are you following the winding trail of cookies, or are you headed towards something real in the distance?

Photo by A Kid Who I Lent My Camera To, I Forget His Name

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EcoCatLady November 7, 2011 at 2:00 am

I dunno… I tend to think that people often confuse “following your dreams” with “painting pictures.” The former meaning being true to yourself and your feelings, and the latter being about making your life look like you think you want it to. (Somehow, Iceland and the boat sound a lot more like picture painting than dream following to me.)

I wouldn’t say that I have a clear direction per se… I’m 44 and still have NO idea what I want to be when I grow up… well, actually, I have no intention of growing up! But I certainly told the world of doing what’s expected to go jump in a lake at a very young age, and not a day goes by when I don’t thank my lucky stars that I did.

Ultimately, I don’t think that it’s the places you’ve been, or what your career is, or what you’ve accomplished, or any of the other stuff that we tend to think of when we try to define ourselves. I think that really, truly, the only thing that matters is allowing yourself to feel what you really feel… the rest is just scenery and trivia… and all of the “cookies” really only serve one purpose, to help us escape from emotions that we don’t want to deal with.

Just my 2 cents…

David November 7, 2011 at 6:53 am

There are a few ways to interpret the word ’dream’ here. It could be something wishy-washy, or it could be very clear and intentional. I’m talking about the clear sort.

What they seem to amount to (to me) is a fairly refined vision of what you want your life to be, in terms of how you are able to spend your days. For instance, if you can’t bring myself to get rid of a 50-hour a week job that’s killing you, you’ll never achieve a life where you could make films full-time , if that’s what you value.

I agree with your point about learning to feel what you really feel, but that too is a vision of what you want your life to be, and it takes a lot of legwork like any other.

Ivo November 7, 2011 at 2:01 am

hey David!
I’m 30 and my whole adult life I’ve been doing what I don’t love :) only because I didn’t know what I really loved.. I got two degrees in business management because that’s quite a general subject I could study.. and did jobs that were good enough – no stress, good conditions, nice colleagues, good pay, i.e. not bad but nothing really for the heart..
And it’s only been a year or two maybe that I’ve finally found out more or less what I’d love to do in my life – woodworking (I really love wood) and playing music. of course nothing related to what I’ve been doing for the last decade (although if I had looked closely I could have found clues much earlier).
And now I’m very slowly going in this direction, knowing it will work out at the end :)
But of course it’s not an easy job to find out what you want to do with your life.. For me it has been starting to really look within myself (that I had never even tried to do before) that has helped me to find some gross direction.. And I’ve only just started my journey on the path :)
And “I don’t understand. Why do you do what you don’t love?” has been on my mind for a while now… but everything has its time and place to happen.
Great article as always, David :)

j0persha November 7, 2011 at 4:04 am

Well, if you’re curious: For a long time I thought I’d go into a creative and/or academic careeer, because I’m good at writing and half a dozen other creative pursuits. I did a BA to facilitate this (haha), but there was nothing specific I was really going after. I guess I was “living for the moment/what you feel like right now” – and those moments were often very interesting and enjoyable, but with nothing to motivate me beyond pride in a job well done, I didn’t do as well as I could have, and on the whole was a bit of a sloppy, lazy, neurotic mess.

Now I’m in medical school, which is of course a completely different kettle of fish: the intellectual focus is toward the pursuit of knowledge rather than creativity; and though I’m intelligent enough I had huge doubts about my abilities to care for patients because I was so shy and ‘not a people person’. But I had a career path (even if a very long one!) and goals, in a field offering lifelong learning (yes, that’s a positive :P). So I learned new skills, went and got a work ethic, got too busy to be neurotic. Yeah, moment to moment the creative act of writing is more enjoyable than studying or working on the wards, but overall I am so much happier in medicine (and just plain improved as a person), I think because I’m working towards something I really want – I won’t say I _love_ it right now because there’s not much to love about frequent exams and uncertainty, but I’m confident of loving it in the future.

DiscoveredJoys November 7, 2011 at 4:34 am

My five penn’orth – I suspect that people of different temperaments love (value) different things. Science is still trying to unpick temperament, but one view divides people into four main temperaments: those who value experience, those who value family/order, those who value being loving/compassionate, and those who value autonomy and knowledge. Temperament is innate, but it does get overlaid by life events.

So, depending on your temperament, you might ‘choose’ to do things you don’t love because your values impose a ‘higher’ requirement. Indeed a man who slaves away in a grim job to support his family is a cliché for a reason. As is the artist who is driven to experience the world but can’t balance a chequebook, or a scientist who forgets to wear socks.

It all comes back to following cookies. Other peoples’ expectations may shape your own day to day activities (particularly if you value family/order or value being compassionate). You need to step back and find your own intrinsic values first (what you love) before you manage the expectations of others. I suspect that those people with an artistic temperament find this easier to do – which is why so many people judge artists as ‘selfish’. And the Mad Scientist in his lab ignores other people completely…

David November 7, 2011 at 7:12 pm

>So, depending on your temperament, you might ‘choose’ to do things you don’t love because your values impose a ‘higher’ requirement.

But that’s what I would call love. Doing what you love (to me anyway) will almost always require doing things you don’t want to do. The dedicated athlete who wakes up at 5am to train might not particularly like waking up at 5am if it were not a part of a bigger picture.

Adolfo Brandes November 23, 2011 at 4:46 pm

Hey David, I’ve just rediscovered your blog (“Die on Purpose” had a profound impact on me last year, googled it again today), and if you can forgive my presumptuousness, I believe I can add something to this particular comment:

As an amateur morning-runner, I can tell you first hand that the dedicated athlete probably loves waking up really early to train. For real! In my case, it looks to everybody else like it’s a great sacrifice, but in reality, I love it so much that when I *don’t*, it messes up my day. I’m not talking goals, here: I’m not training for a marathon and I’m not worried one iota about my weight. I don’t even use a watch.

My point is that if the athlete doesn’t love waking up early to train, he’s probably not going to be a very good athlete. It’s just how humans are built.

And what I’m getting at, which relates to the questions on your post, is that having long term goals is great, but one shouldn’t obsess too much over them, lest one incur into “unease” (got this from your happiness post ;). In other words, take the middle road, one that’ll probably lead you somewhere you find interesting, but most importantly, one that you can also enjoy. After all, it’s not the destination that matters, but the path.

A side note: there’s nothing wrong with occasionally becoming a leaf in the wind, with no long term dreams or goals to speak of. I believe it is this “existential acceptance mode” that I resonate with mostly in the stuff you write. As a matter of fact, to me your most inspiring sentence so far was “My name is David Cain, and I’ve decided to ditch my job to go traveling.” No goals, no dreams, just a decision to blow in the wind, accept what may come, and then finally be able to write, about a completely unforeseen circumstance, “This. This is my dream.”

(by the way, I’m not that versed in your posts yet, whatever because of you Kiwi adventure?)

Freedom | Rethinking the Dream November 7, 2011 at 6:22 am

I think our dreams change over the course of a lifetime. Early in my career I was doing what I loved. I worked with computers and helped people use them. Working in tech support allowed me to play with all the latest technology and allowed me to help people, two things I loved to do.

Now, many years later, while I still like helping people, I don’t feel the same passion for technology that I used to. The problem is that the need for income to support a family makes it difficult to change dreams midway through life. Income gradually rises, and lifestyle expenses increase. Any changes made will impact the entire family, and it can be difficult to impact the entire family if they don’t all share the same dreams.

Luckily, my wife and I share some of the same dreams, and we are making such a change. My wife, daughter, and I are in the process of selling our four bedroom house so that we can move to a much smaller two bedroom apartment. This will free up much income and allow us to follow a new set of dreams.

David November 7, 2011 at 6:41 am

Yes, they definitely change. I’m not saying they ought to stay the same. But even if they are changing, there is a difference between being driven by a dream and being driven by what looks good from here at any given time.

Alex November 7, 2011 at 6:33 am

Hmm, I think that dreams are in the words of Sheldon Cooper “Hokum”. Kids have dreams and they change them all the time (i.e I am going to be an astronaut, famous singer or a race car driver). And they last for a year or even less.

And when you grow up you don’t have an exact dream you just do what your doing and stop doing it if you don’t like it (if you can of course, if someone isn’t depending on you). Otherwise you can’t have a “dream”, You can have a list, like you do. And aspire to accomplish your goal, get promoted start a family or go to Iceland.

P.S “No, my boat will not be that kind of boat. It is two different dreams.” This seems smart, but I don’t think I understand it completely…

David November 7, 2011 at 6:46 am

>And when you grow up you don’t have an exact dream you just do what your doing and stop doing it if you don’t like it

This is what I’m saying. It’s normal to let our incentives consist of what’s close by, rather than having a vision a few years from now and making it happen.

The boat he wanted was on a lake. At first I thought he meant he wanted to sail to Iceland.

Apple November 7, 2011 at 6:37 am

I think our dreams change over the course of a lifetime. Early in my career I was doing what I loved. I worked with computers and helped people use them. Working in tech support allowed me to play with all the latest technology and allowed me to help people, two things I loved to do.

e.beck.artist November 7, 2011 at 6:53 am

your rainbow in the mist moment? i had it last summer in the galapagos while i was swimming with penguins AND the people i love most in the world … we had the penguin moments together … magic, wonder, awe …. and after cursory thought about it this morning reading your post, i think i do what i do to work towards more rainbow/penguin moments ….

we can’t just do what we love or no one would ever do the dishes …. or unpack after a trip … and as for an onerous job… the job isn’t the dream, but perhaps a means to a dream …. making the job less onerous since it has a purpose …

David November 7, 2011 at 7:15 pm

>we can’t just do what we love or no one would ever do the dishes …. or unpack after a trip … and as for an onerous job… the job isn’t the dream, but perhaps a means to a dream …. making the job less onerous since it has a purpose …

I guess I’m trying to differentiate doing what you love with doing what you feel like. Few people love doing the dishes, but many people love waking up to an orderly home with no dishes in the sink. You don’t have to love the dishes, even if doing them dutifully is a part of the life you love. Does that make sense?

e.beck.artist December 6, 2011 at 4:43 pm

makes total sense …. i make a point of trying to find the goodness in those tasks, very specifically, in my life… to teach myself to find the goodness in the seemingly onerous …

LunaJune November 7, 2011 at 9:17 am

Wow… the water spray.. the wind.. felt like I was right there.. wickedly cool so thanks for that..

yes I do what I love… I have been in the right place for the last 28 years
given my time, my energy and then some for all of those years… but now I want to retire.. to explore…to just be… so working on a way to do that which I know I will love just as much… letting the world take me where I need to be.. to hear what I need to hear .. and meet the teaches who walk their way and shine at it… to collect snippits of wisdome that I need.

I have met soo many people who don’t do what they love.. out of fear.. out of believing they must do what someone else expects of them… I use to be sad for them but then realized we walk our paths and we wake up to our truths when we are ready… or maybe as we are leaving and have to come back and try to find it all over again.

nrhatch November 7, 2011 at 9:59 am

In my mid-30’s, I stopped practicing law because I didn’t love it. It paid the bills but added unnecessary stress and complexity to my life. It prevented me from being WHO I wanted to be.

My dream is to live a happy and peaceful life in a warm climate . . . sharing the best parts of myself with the world, often through writing.

I am living my dream. Every day.

David November 7, 2011 at 7:17 pm

That’s what I’m talking about. You made it real. Thanks Nancy :)

Chris Walter November 7, 2011 at 10:30 am

Spent a long time reading this. These are all thoughts that have run through my head continuously for almost a year now. Especially the “It’s almost like dreams are embarrassing[…] ” What is it about dreams exactly that can be so hard to quantify and embrace.

I think it’s because choosing a dream and trying to really pursue it every day can be hard. It can make you want to cry and wish you had never started. I clearly remember Ed Stafford tweeting about how his dream of walking the amazon sometimes felt like a self imposed prison sentence.

I am not sure but I wonder if we tend to deceive ourselves when it comes to what we really want. Perhaps it’s ok to pursue comfort instead of adrenaline and glamour. If that’s what we really honestly want. I keep coming back to this thought, know yourself and try to be true to yourself, but most of all just be honest with yourself.

David November 7, 2011 at 7:24 pm

Hey Chris. For sure, and applying yourself to the hard part is what I’m talking about here. You’re right, who could really know what it would actually be like to walk the Amazon before they did it, so how could they be so certain it was the thing? I think what we’re really looking for is always intangible anyway, we just get the idea that a particular concrete thing will bring us the intangible quality we’re really after. Maybe we’re wrong sometimes. But if we’re being honest, we can know when we’ve given up on trying to find that thing.

It’s definitely okay to pursue comfort as opposed to the more theatrical kinds of experiences, but comfort and complacency have a considerable overlap, and I think many people who are complacent will try to tell themselves they have what they want, to quiet the part of them that knows something is missing.

Jeff Mcintyre November 7, 2011 at 10:31 am

“This. This is my dream.

Not the swim in the waterfall pool. Not the Milford Track. Not New Zealand. But the feeling of finding yourself in a place you could not have imagined before you were there, and could never properly relate afterward.”

I love these moments and would love to figure out where/when/how to find them more frequently.

David November 7, 2011 at 7:25 pm

I recommend looking for them under huge waterfalls :)

Mareya November 7, 2011 at 10:46 am

Thank you David for yet another inspiring blog!

There’s a line from a Madeleine Peyroux song: ‘Sometimes you have to lose it all before you find your way’. This is what happened to me, more or less, when I was 30. Hated my job, my cramped house, had money problems, missed my family and friends who lived far away – and then I got really really sick as well.

So there I was, on a cold febuary night, in pain, and not a little scared and lonely, and to disctract myself I started to make a sketch, something which I hadn’t done in years. What started as therapy, very quickly became something more serious, and then deadly serious. Within months I knew, in my bones and in my blood, that I wanted to be an artist, even though I had no idea how to go about becoming one. Eventually I kept my job to support myself through art school, then quit the job and became a painter. Now, 18 years later, the dream is still there, except now I’m living it, happily.

What I’m trying to say is: sometimes you don’t know what your dream is because you’re letting too many things get in the way, things you believe you need to do, things that are expected of you. I was forced to re-think everything aspect of my life at one point. I wouldn’t recommend a crisis like I had to anyone, but I believe that it does help to be forced out of your comfort zone.

David November 7, 2011 at 7:27 pm

I love to hear stories like that, and it is so encouraging that there are so many. It does seem to come down to a rock-bottom crisis point for a lot of people. Thanks for sharing Mareya.

Nick November 7, 2011 at 11:35 am

Like many people my dream is to become an artist (a pianist in my case). However I’m hugely conflicted about it because I find it selfish.
At the same time I have come to realize that I find meaning in my life where there is love or connection to something other than me.

Now I know that the argument “yeah, but what if everyone did this?” is not a good one but I often feel compelled to wonder: “yeah but what if there were only artists?”. We need farmers, engineers, construction workers, doctors, nurses… (and even a few lawyers).

When I think about everyone being an artist then I picture a return to a state of nature with a bunch of self-absorbed people painting in their caves…

I know this is a far too extreme way to see things. Maybe it’s just my mind (or my heart) telling me that I don’t really want to be an artist. Maybe the whole “being an artist” thing is just another social norm which I have internalized but which would not fulfill me.

David November 7, 2011 at 7:34 pm

Art has moved the world forward every bit as much as the sciences and I wish that was widely understood. Art is the continued development of human consciousness, it’s not just self-pleasure or decoration. Literature, design, language itself — all of it is art and the human world could not function without it. There are plenty of people who want nothing to do with it, so don’t worry, even without your help the roads will still get built and the crops will still be harvested. If you’re lucky enough to be inclined to make art you ought to do it.

Avi November 8, 2011 at 11:10 pm

“Making money from art is not vulgar. Art is a commodity. It makes people feel something. It raises the greater sum of human happiness. It increases the gaiety of the nation. It has a value.” – John Allison

Tanya November 12, 2011 at 8:12 pm

“Art touches the soul… art is communication… it reaches out from the canvas and passes through the eyes of the viewer right into his heart where it can leave an imprint of beauty that can make the spirit sing.” -Nina Baldwin

Nothing selfish about that if you ask me.

Julie November 7, 2011 at 12:26 pm

I’ve been mulling this over a lot lately. I’m not really sure what I love, if anything. I feel as though I’ve been wandering about looking at everything through fogged lenses, and everything that should maybe be important looks a little hazy. I’m studying computer science, and it’s interesting, but I’m unquestionably studying it because it’s a rapidly expanding field in a tank economy and it pays well. I find it hard to separate the things that I as an individual want to do and the things that I’ve been told I should want to do.

And then sometimes pursuing the dreams we have don’t work out as they should. For example, I studied abroad in Sicily a little while, hoping, I think, to morph myself into one of those effortless extroverts who picks up several languages, no big deal, and gets on well with everyone. Sadly, it takes more than a plane trip and a few years’ study in a language to become a different person, and in my dreams I conveniently forget about those parts of myself I don’t like. Perhaps that’s why they’re a haven from reality and not reality itself.

Matt November 7, 2011 at 12:42 pm

Let me say that I’ve really been enjoying Raptitude since a friend exposed me to it a few months ago! Really hear where you’re coming from most of the time and can really relate.
This particular issue is the number one problem I deal with these days. I went to college for 5 years (great fun, in my mid-twenties…I’m 33 now) and am grateful to have employment in these hard times. But I find my job soul-crushingly boring and pointless, and don’t know how to get out. I make decent money, and there aren’t a lot of openings in my field. Plus, I have a mortgage now, and in getting older I find having insurance and security that much more important. Most other jobs seem worse if anything, and pay less. The mere thought of working in a factory fills me with dread.
But I’m not happy here. The #1 question is “what do I want to do?”. Or, it could just as easily be “why do you do what you don’t love?”. I guess the answer for me is because I don’t know WHAT I really want. That is the challenge. Lots of people almost seem to be born knowing what they want, or find it easily. I never have. As you mentioned, for a lot of people the meaning of life, the point, the direction, comes from having kids, whether intentional or not.
I spend many hours asking myself what it is I really want, what my dreams are. There are things that I enjoy, things that interest me, things I’d like to do, ways I like to spend my idle hours…but nothing that I could make a ‘career’ out of. So I’ll just have to keep asking myself and hope I find the answer in time! I find it incredibly frustrating that the answer is so elusive.

David November 7, 2011 at 7:38 pm

It doesn’t have to amount to a career change, at least not right away. Do something you love on the side at first. It’s becoming a bit trite, but Joseph Campbell’s “Follow your bliss” adage is perfect. Get a little bit of it going and it will find a way to expand.

Cara November 7, 2011 at 2:38 pm

I’m still getting my head around things but it’s just beginning to dawn on me that it’s not at all about what I’m hoping to do and all about who I’m hoping I am. The rest will take care of itself.

Lovely post David.

VaeVictis November 7, 2011 at 2:49 pm

We don’t do what we love because we don’t really know what love is. Even ‘self-love’ is difficult to define: The kind of love that involves fulfilling our own desires, damn the consequences OR doing what is in our best interests IN SPITE OF our own feelings.

David November 7, 2011 at 7:41 pm

>We don’t do what we love because we don’t really know what love is. Even ‘self-love’ is difficult to define: The kind of love that involves fulfilling our own desires, damn the consequences OR doing what is in our best interests IN SPITE OF our own feelings.

Bingo. If we took our cues from mass media culture, we’d think eating a tub of Haagen Dasz is self-love. Love is a confused, tricky word for human beings right now.

Trisha Rainsford November 7, 2011 at 5:17 pm

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl said –
“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”

I am coming to believe that when we search for what we should do, who we are and where we should go it’s a mistake. Instead perhaps we should stop, look around, have a think about what we have to give and then see what is needed.

This doesn’t imply that we shouldn’t develop our own unique potential.
On the contrary. Doing this requires us to be the best individual version of ourselves possible because that is the only way we can truly be of service to life.

It’s a lens. If we look through it hoping to see our route to (simply) personal happiness it will be blurred by all sorts of extraneous matter. However, if we look through it to see if we can work out how we can contribute to the well-being and happiness of humanity we’ll be more likely to see a path.

Jane November 7, 2011 at 6:50 pm

It seems to me it’s easier to live for what we feel like right now. It takes a lot less effort and there’s a lot less emotional investment than there is in consciously deciding to do what we love.

Coupled with this is often a fear of acknowledging what we love, some of us know intrinsically what we love already but talk ourselves out of doing it or being it for a million reasons – valid and invalid.

David November 9, 2011 at 5:19 pm

Living for what we feel like right now is always going to be easier right now :)

Ale November 7, 2011 at 7:01 pm

I think I am doing what I love, what I’ve always wanted to do since I was 4, and it’s the job of my dreams. I’m not sure if I’m living my dream because I feel we are limited by the constraints of daily living i.e. finances, work, etc. Prioritising is an important part of organising my dreams. I’m currently working on my own bucket list and planning my trips for the next 5 years on http://www.wanderable.com – it’s a great place to share tips and ideas with other people.

Zack November 7, 2011 at 7:46 pm

Great post, and it was, unbelievably, related to a topic I was tossing around in my head today at school. To be honest man, I don’t know what I love. I can’t see myself really enjoying any line of work. I don’t know where and who I want to be. Is that cool? What would you recommend, my friend?

David November 9, 2011 at 5:20 pm

I think that’s pretty normal. I don’t think many people really know what they want to do with they’re lives while they’re still in school.

Dan Rubin November 7, 2011 at 7:49 pm

I am becoming exhausted by the physical world, and I have no remedy. I, like your former gf, am a weather reporter, and I like what I do, but all of it just seems in service of pre-defined paramters, fixed ideologies. I thought I wanted to make more money and get a nicer place and have nicer things, but now I don’t care about any of that, and I find myself just wanting to shed everything in my life that feels like weight, that is not in service of my soul. I cannot clearly define what I love either, but I know WHEN I love, and little of what I do now FEELS like love. I want to get closer to God.

David November 9, 2011 at 5:21 pm

>I cannot clearly define what I love either, but I know WHEN I love

That’s probably all you need to find it

rita December 26, 2011 at 11:23 pm

In its stark honesty, this comment is one of the more moving pieces of spiritual self-expression I’ve come across recently, all in the context of being in the world but not quite of it. I identify with the weariness as well as with the yearning and need to get closer to Love. Wish I could help, wish I could help myself. Take care of heart and spirit, Dan, and God bless.

Mia November 8, 2011 at 4:53 am

> do you have a pretty clear direction?

I know someone who had it aged 12 which is obviously unusual; I didn’t have it until I was 38. Looking back I can see now that everything I’ve ever done led to this place, like masses of tributaries leading to a bigger river. If I could go back 20 years and give myself advice it would be to have faith, because any work I put into anything I’m passionate about, counts. It all pays off, following the universal law of cause and effect. I would say “follow your deeper passion” rather than Campbell’s “follow your bliss” though since it has to do with values rather than hedonism, which the latter has been misinterpreted as.

Mia November 8, 2011 at 4:58 am

(In other words, you don’t have to see the whole picture at all times in order to be painting it.)

David November 9, 2011 at 5:21 pm

Exactly! Well said.

Spiderlgs November 8, 2011 at 5:42 am

I feel so fortunate that I do exactly what I love. I am a teacher and I can honestly say, I love what I do everyday. I mean it’s not always fun, or amazing, but it is love. It’s love that makes me work harder, that is worth the aggravations and inconveniences that come. So in my career there is love.. In other areas, I don’t do what I love. I love being fit and the feeling of my body being in perfect shape, yet I loathe exercise most days. And usually when I am not exercising, I am watching TV. I truly love watching tv, despite its rank low on the list of lofty pursuits. Where other people watch it to tune out, I watch it to tune into worlds that aren’t my own and that without such an amazing invention I’d never get to see, hear or experience. My truest love is learning, learning about myself, other people, life, the world.. and a TV brings that every minute of the day.

Spending time being single has truly allowed me to see what I love instead of focusing on loving someone else.

marc November 8, 2011 at 7:51 am

I think the question is wrong.
Maybe that German will find out he doesn’t like Iceland at all when he gets there (if he ever has the courage to go there) and then what? He will just have to create some new dream that promises some heaven on earth somewhere in the future. And that will keep him going again. At least for a while… But it will keep him from living in the here and now

Sam November 8, 2011 at 9:39 am

U have a photoblog! I didn’t know that. Anything else i don’t know about?

David November 9, 2011 at 5:23 pm

kiwi.raptitude.com was the blog I had while I was traveling in 2009-2010. I got tired of maintaining it by the time I got to Australia so I pulled the plug, but there are hundreds of photos and some stories on there still.

Mike November 8, 2011 at 12:31 pm

I enjoyed your post as usual. I haven’t read every response to it, so I recognize that someone else may have already said this or something like it: It seems to me that the word “love” has been encumbered with a lot of unrealistic expectations and that’s why I rarely use it. I was on military active duty for 30 years. Much of my career was enjoyable, some of it was pretty unpleasant, but on balance it was rewarding and meaningful, and I would do it again. I believe (hope) that what I did was important and contributed to the common good. That’s enough for me.

Tracie November 8, 2011 at 12:56 pm

I was contacted yesterday by two friends who work for a local company, letting me know the company was hiring, and offering to both carpool and provide recommendations for me if I was interested. I’ve been looking for work for a while, though I’m in a temporarily stable situation.

Six weeks ago I would have jumped at the chance and sent my resume in right away. Yesterday, I thanked them both and then explained why I was going to hold off on applying.

I’m one of those people who has known what she loved and wanted to do since I was 10. I’ve gone through phases of questioning the love, testing it, walking away from it, testing some more, and I always end up right back there. At 32 now, I’m finally starting to figure out that it’s ok for me to trust that the passion I feel for making music is real, and that it’s ok for me to take some risks in pursuit of building my life around it. That life may not look like any of the daydreams I’ve had since I was in grade school, but it’s possible, and reachable…

… and turning down what was an almost certain steady job (the field was one I was in a few years ago, and all of my job experience made me a perfect fit for the company) because I have this good feeling about the possibility of cobbling together a patchwork of part time work revolving around music and the local theater is one of the most frightening things I have ever done.

Karen T. Smith November 8, 2011 at 3:54 pm

You’re right that once you have kids you have to shift your own dreams quite a bit. I’m almost 40 this year, two awesome kids, and a totally different idea/outlook about my life than I had 10 years ago when my first was just a newborn.

A lot of moms I know subvert their dreams for their children’s childhood. It’s a recipe for disaster. Quickest path to bitterness? Feel like someone else has MADE you HAVE to make these choices in life.

I feel like my kids have given me an opportunity to look at life differently, I’ve had to give permission to myself to let my dreams change, and to embrace the way children have interrupted what might have been a different path for me (and, in the end, thank them for illuminating a different path that was probably there all along, but I was too busy to see it.)

I have a background in adult learning theory and software development. eLearning, basically. I am also creative, but my creativity doesn’t come out well via typical means of handcraft, painting, sculpture. I lack the training, and my hands can’t get close to reproducing what I see in my mind.

But what I am good at? Words. I can write words that get close, closer at least than any illustration or drawing I can make, words that make sentences, sentences that make paragraphs, paragraphs that make chapters. Chapters in books.

I’m not one of those people who can tell you they always knew they wanted to be a writer. I honestly didn’t know at all. I made a New Years Resolution in 2007, when my youngest was 3 and I was finally feeling like there was space for *me* again, room for me to be the me that was more than just the all-important and vital mom, but me the person, too. And writing seemed like something I could try, something I could fit in around the edges.

Even now, years later after that youngest has long since started in school and I’ve gone back to work (but importantly, tellingly, on my own terms, with restrictions around hours and projects so I can be true to my first job, my mom job. I am grateful for the life stage/relationship situation I’m in that I can afford to be choosy about it, but I also architected things in a way that lets me do this. Choices I made earlier helped set the foundation. Luckily!) I still find time to write. I’m working on my fifth novel. I have one for sale on Amazon/Bn.com/etc. (all ebooks, basically) and three short stories. I had a story published in an anthology. I have fun writing. I write about things I’m passionate about (technology and girls, basically.)

And while I know there are still dreams in me that I haven’t even discovered myself, I know that without my children showing me the way, I might not have ever stumbled across this dream-filled new career in writing.

Thanks for your wonderful blog. I’m a recent reader and hungrily devouring your posts, much food for thought and I’m enjoying the way you express yourself and get me thinking too.

Maia November 8, 2011 at 4:42 pm

Hi David,

thanks for the post, I really enjoyed it and it made me think about my dreams…
My dream is to become a bestselling author and I think that is a lot of people’s dream.
I have started working on it, and I am in the process of writing a novel. So fingers crossed.
But if we all followed our dreams who would do all the other jobs in the world? Because right now I don’t think most people follow their dreams. It’s usually the case of being practical over pursuing your dreams, as dreams are not usually practical steady jobs that will pay the mortgage, but they require taking a risk. However I would say once you have identified your dream, which is sometimes the hardest part, you should take at least a few hours a week to work on it and try to make it a reality. Otherwise you’ll get old and end up regretting never having tried to do it. That’s why I started writing my novel :-)

Liz November 9, 2011 at 8:58 am

Hi David,

I have to say, that for me to sit here and contemplate why I don’t do what I love would be suicide. I have to make the best of what I have or I might slip into drepression brought on by all the drudgery of paperwork day after day. I have a job that pays fairly well and I’m lucky to have it compared to people in the rest of the world who may be destitute either financially, or in spirit. I just try to maintain my own interests on my own time. I know quotations can be considered a substitute for wit but I think that W. Somerset Maugham is someone too brilliant not to be quoted: “One cannot find peace in work or in pleasure, in the world or in a convent, but only in one’s soul.” – The Painted Veil, 1925. Maugham has always hit the nail on the spiritual head for me. I do what I love. It just doesn’t happen to be at work.

David November 9, 2011 at 5:17 pm

Yeah I should have made it clear that by “what you do” I’m not just talking about how we earn a living. I’m talking about how we spend our time while we are alive. Depending on a person’s situation, a job that they don’t love might be the best way to support the non-work activities they love.

nickyO November 10, 2011 at 5:23 am

You do what you don’t love because it took doing it to know you didn’t love it.

You do what you don’t love to do what you love.

You do what you don’t love for the people you love.

You do what you don’t love because the other options aren’t clear and the means aren’t at the ready to do otherwise.

The reasons to do what we don’t love are many, that’s what makes your post interesting and a challenge. If I’ve interpreted what you’ve written right, you’d like people to have more than just a list of awesome things to work towards. You’d like people to have a theme/purpose guiding their goals so that the bigger picture and the smaller picture merge, so that people can be living their dreams day to day in each moment to moment struggle finding value/purpose while they work towards larger/future goals…

lots to think about.

lanzones56 November 10, 2011 at 7:47 pm

My dream is to become a bestselling author and I think that is a lot of people’s dream. I have started working on it, and I am in the process of writing a novel. So fingers crossed.

junipew November 11, 2011 at 4:41 pm

I am not playing Socrates but it seems dreams is most often equate with material things but not to intangible things. This always happened when you ask young adults, but as you grow maturely, dreams changes, some things in the bucket list has to be change. For me dremas are the one that gives self fulfillment not in terms of material possession but something I can achieve to the highest of my learning and my ability. Well written post their, It made me stop and review my bucket list.

Tor November 13, 2011 at 2:11 pm

Great post. I don’t have dream, and I’m not sure I will ever want to achieve something so badly that I will have what can be defined as a dream. There are lots of things I want to do, but I’ve never been able to identify with those who have one (or more) fixed purpose(s) in life.

At times I may feel like I should travel, try to have sex with as many girls as I can or learn a new language. However, these aren’t dreams. I might try to do them just to see what happens, but I know that I don’t enjoy a large part of travelling, the way to getting sex in the situation I am in involves a lot of things I dislike (at least if it’s just for the sake of sex) and the time required to learn a language is probably not worth it when considering the actual usefulness of it. For the time being, I’ll just do what seems sensible and what I want to do. Yes, that includes what some would classify as time-wasting – but to bring another quote to the table, “Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.” It’s not as if it makes me happy to do nothing but surf the net all day, but I enjoy it in limited doses, so why not? While I would be better off in the future if I studied more so I could get the best grade instead of the second best, I wouldn’t be better off right now.

A balance between the present and the future is what I’m trying to achieve (and have achieved to some extent, I feel), while learning things along the way. That’s what seems to make me most happy, both past, present and probably future. Maybe my outlook on this will change over time, but for now I’m more of a cookie monster than a dream chaser.

Tiffany November 26, 2011 at 9:18 pm

Hello. This article was one of the first I’ve read on your website and I found myself smiling and agreeing with almost everything you have said. I think that it is very possible that the German 20 year old knew his dreams. I am only 22 years old and I am very certain of my dream; to never lose my passion and love of learning by never letting myself go blind to the beauty of the world. It may not be a physically touchable dream such as a boat or a country, but it is transparent and will follow me throughout my ever changing life in this ever changing world. This dream is the function in which I navigate my life. I ask myself if my chosen graduate degree is one that will lead me through a life within the realm of my dream. Will it lead me to a place that is honorable and accomplished, based on my dream. It is easy to feel, for me, if a change I have made is the wrong one for me and my dream, because the beauty of the world begins to fade in my eyes. This all may seem very vague to any and all who choose to read it, but I know what I mean. And even though it may not have communicative qualities, doesn’t mean it loses merit in anyway. Maybe you knew your dream all along, David, but when faced with communicating something that is, for all intensive purposes, your relative ‘truth’ to someone who you have just met, you drew a blank because the dream is yours and yours alone. What the use of practicing how to put that dream into words, when it’s yours? Honestly, the fact that you had committed yourself to a four day hike in beautiful New Zealand, seems to me as though you were naturally following the trail to your dream. The fact that you could have that moment under the waterfall, proves you were where you were meant to be.

Breanna Chanson December 6, 2011 at 10:09 pm

To answer your specific question… um, both? The fact that I can indeed answer shows my clarity, but the fact that I said I both do and do not have a clear direction (plus my using a question mark) shows I actually don’t have a clear direction. What I’m trying to say is that I usually know one step towards a bigger picture. I typically don’t know the end result, but I know I’m in the right place at the right time and that it will take me somewhere grand. I usually know vague pieces, but they are just enough to act on and so far they haven’t steered me wrong yet.

Tobi December 23, 2011 at 1:32 am

I honestly have no clue.. I do have hope that everything going on in my life is leading me toward what I’m meant to do.

All I know for now is, I feel really really good whenever I know I’ve been of some use to someone. That’s why there were times I loved my Walmart job, because whenever I did something I didn’t have too to help out another employee they would be so grateful. I want to take weight off of peoples shoulders, improve their lives in some way…

However, I’m extremely squeamish. So being a doctor is out. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, I think I’m like this just so I won’t become a doctor so that I can do what I was meant to do. I just wish I knew what it was… I think being a Paleontologist would be awesome, but it doesn’t exactly improve anyone’s life (even if it improves their knowledge). Right now I’m at Job Corps getting a high school and learning to be a facilities maintenance worker because I had fun welding pipes together when we got to try out all the trades. Nothing at Job Corps seems to align with my desire to help people, I just need a way to get a high school diploma x.x

For what it’s worth, this was another great article I’m sure you get that way too often lolz.

Robby December 25, 2011 at 9:57 am

I really can’t imagin a career related dream. The best I can come up with is a buisness, investments, or residule income of some sort that would free me from the need to do alot of work. I would rather try and find fulliment in things like surfing, mountain biking, working out, eating a good diet, reading, having a good soicial life ect. I think that if even there is something that I could invision as a perfect career, that I would get tried of it over time and there might be asspects of it that I did not consider that I would end up not liking. I think that finding your dream career might work for some people, but it probable drives just as many people cazy.

Ryan Lamoreaux January 2, 2012 at 8:18 pm

I’m having a hard time crafting a thoughtful, honest response. I guess I need to meditate.

Dar January 13, 2012 at 11:27 am

I used to know what I loved doing. I loved it more than anything. I wanted to share it with others. It seemed as if I needed direction. I never ever found it. I went several years feeling this desire and this lack of direction, feeling my ‘gift’ squandered and my life unfulfilled. I couldn’t take wanting something that it seemed would never come. I just realized now that I really did give up on it, for I do not think about it anymore, for the first time I don’t dream about it happening, or feel bad that it isn’t. Although I must admit even that seems kind of sad now that I realize how far it has come.

I can’t imagine a career that will really ‘make me happy’ in the sense that I’d truly enjoy it and that I would feel was meaningful. I can’t seem to find that clarity when it comes to work, what can I do to make money that I’ll love. I just don’t know. For the moment I’ve settled on pursuing something that will make good money with the goal of never really working full time but still having all the comforts I have now. Then at least I’d have more time when I do figure it out.

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