Is “do what you love” good or bad advice?

do what you love

I read this on Quora this week and thought it was a great question. “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”, or so the saying goes (attributed to Confucius, which seems a tad anachronistic). “Follow your passion” is another version with a similar intention. But is this good advice? Or is it advice that’s best ignored?

Good advice?

There seems to be some deeply ingrained assumption in Western society today that work should be a hard slog. We’re accustomed to seeing status updates on Monday to the tune of “FML”, and at the other end of the working week “TGIF!” or the now common “It’s f**k this s**t o’clock!” Putting to one side the questionability of whether these people should be posting about how much they hate their jobs on a public platform like Facebook, this common practice reflects the standard pattern of Monday to Friday being for boring but necessary office work, and Saturday to Sunday being for the things you really love to do.

I happen to believe that work should not be a hard slog; at least not all the time. You spend a large portion of your waking hours at work and if you hate those hours then nothing you do outside of work can ever make up for this; just as a nice comfortable pension can never make up for decades of forfeiting your life through meaningless drudgery. [For more on this, read my post on Why there’s no such thing as work-life balance.]

Now to some this may seem selfish and privileged and ‘Millennial’ but let me ask you this: who benefits from an employee hating their job?

I would argue that not only is it not in the interest of the employee but it’s equally not beneficial for the boss, for the company as a whole, for the shareholders… for anyone, in fact.

Doing work that you love means doing it wholeheartedly, it means being motivated and inspired, it means wanting to go the extra mile. It means being willing to learn, to do what it takes to get better and to excel at what you’re doing. It means actually enjoying your work and being fun to be around in the office (or whatever your work place may be). And it means having the energy and the disposition to continue the learning and having fun outside of the office.

Surely all this can only be a good thing?

Bad advice?

The first objection to this kind of advice might be: How do you know what you love? Maybe you have more than one passion? How should you decide on which of these loves to pursue as a career?

Even if you do know what you love, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should do that as a job. I’ve always loved being on the stage but I don’t actually want to be an actress with all the competitiveness and struggles that come with that, and I’ve had a great outlet for this passion via years of doing amateur theatre. Likewise I love gazing at the stars but that doesn’t mean that I want to be an astrophysicist and spend my days in a lab doing complex calculations or staring at a tiny patch of sky through a telescope.

Another argument is that you may find that your love dwindles if your big passion becomes your main means of survival. There’s a difference between writing whatever you feel like whenever you feel like it, and having to revise your draft for the 39th time ahead of a deadline from your publisher (or, worse, not getting a publishing contract at all). In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert urges that you not put such pressure on your art; she herself had published several books successfully before Eat Pray Love but it was only when that became a huge bestseller that she finally quit her day job to become a full-time writer.

Moreover, you’re never going to love every aspect of your work – although running your own business brings a lot of advantages, for example, such as a great degree of freedom and independence, opportunities for creativity and innovation, a huge amount of flexibility… there’s also the downside of doing all your admin, your taxes, having to constantly market and sell yourself, making all your decisions alone, and so on.

So if you don’t want to follow the advice, “do what you love”, then what’s the alternative?

The opposite, I suppose, is “love what you do”. Part of this is simply an attitude, rather than the nature of the work itself. You may have heard that classic tale of the bricklayers: both are doing the same exact work, laying brick after brick, but one will describe his job as “I’m laying bricks,” while the other sees the bigger purpose: “I’m building a cathedral.”

In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport argues that instead of following your passion you should work hard in whatever job you happen to find yourself; once you’ve built up your ‘career capital’, you will have more freedom to do more interesting work. (I find this to be partially accurate – the opportunities I have today in my independent life are certainly a result of the career capital I built up over the years in my corporate career – but the idea that you should focus on building your mastery in a meaningless job that you hate is an incredibly depressing and, I think, wrong deduction.)

Something in between?

Personally, I do believe that you can do your best work if you’re enjoying it; but more than simply doing what you love, it’s also a question of doing something that’s aligned to your values and your skills.

In his new book Born for This, Chris Guillebeau talks about the Joy-Money-Flow model: “winning the career lottery”, he says, happens at the intersection between work that you like to do, work that supports and sustains you financially, and work that you’re really good at. In a similar vein, Dan Pink talks about the three things that are required for motivation: autonomy, mastery and purpose. You may also have seen some variation of that diagram that shows an intersection of “that which you love”, “that which you are good at”, “that which you can be paid for” and “that which the world needs”.

Such models and charts may be an over-simplification but I think their intent is right, and they definitely get closer to the heart of the matter than flippantly handing out the advice that you should “do what you love”.

If what you love is something that will clearly never make you any money then it may not be a good idea to give up everything to pursue that full time. You may not be able to quit your job and become a famous rock star tomorrow; but on the other hand there are always going to be elements of that dream, however crazy, that you can achieve within a reasonable time frame. Maybe you can play some gigs in your local pub? Record a track with some of your similarly inclined friends? Or just rock out in your living room?

So, yes, I believe you should do what you love – but it doesn’t follow that you should only do what you love; nor that this piece of advice gives you any kind of roadmap on how to do it.

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4 Responses

  1. This is oversimplified, but work at the highest-paying job that you can get and yet still tolerate. And make sure that your college degree will get you a well-paying job.

    1. Hi Bill, I find a job that you can “tolerate” to be a very low bar. I recognise that I’m speaking from and to a privileged background but for those of us fortunate to be in the position where we’re choosing between good and better, I’d recommend thinking about what “success” looks like to you and what kind of work (and lifestyle) best fits with that.

      Have you heard of ikigai? It brings together making money, yes, but also doing work you love, that you’re good at, and that makes a positive impact in the world.

      Thanks for your comment!

    1. Hi Timothy,
      I’ve just re-read this post, written four years ago, and to me, it still applies 100%.
      There are definitely challenges as a result of COVID-19, for some more than others – depending on the industry you’re in and how your company and you are being concretely affected. However, my approach – getting clear on what you really want to do (in fact, the ikigai framework that I mention in the article is something that I now actively use with clients), along with the practical parameters of your income needs and family situation, and then taking steps to move in that direction – is as effective as ever. It might just be that your income needs have shifted, or that you’re more risk-averse than before, and that you need to be more patient in terms of making the shift.
      What are your thoughts?

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