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We’ve got it down to four words: “Do what you love. But it’s not enough just to tell people that. Doing what you love is complicated. The very idea is foreign to what most of us learn as kids. When I was a kid, it seemed as if work and fun were opposites by definition.
Occasionally the things adults made you do were fun, just as, occasionally, playing wasn’t—for example, if you fell and hurt yourself. And it did not seem to be an accident. School, it was implied, was tedious because it was preparation for grownup work. The world then was divided into two groups, grownups and kids. Grownups, like some kind of cursed race, had to work. Kids didn’t, but they did have to go to school, which was a dilute version of work meant to prepare us for the real thing. Much as we disliked school, the grownups all agreed that grownup work was worse, and that we had it easy. Teachers in particular all seemed to believe implicitly that work was not fun. Which is not surprising: work wasn’t fun for most of them.
Why did we have to memorize state capitals instead of playing dodgeball? For the same reason they had to watch over a bunch of kids instead of lying on a beach. You couldn’t just do what you wanted. I’m not saying we should let little kids do whatever they want. They may have to be made to work on certain things. But if we make kids work on dull stuff, it might be wise to tell them that tediousness is not the defining quality of work, and indeed that the reason they have to work on dull stuff now is so they can work on more interesting stuff later. Once, when I was about 9 or 10, my father told me I could be whatever I wanted when I grew up, so long as I enjoyed it. I remember that precisely because it seemed so anomalous. It was like being told to use dry water.
Whatever I thought he meant, I didn’t think he meant work could literally be fun—fun like playing. It took me years to grasp that. By high school, the prospect of an actual job was on the horizon. Adults would sometimes come to speak to us about their work, or we would go to see them at work. It was always understood that they enjoyed what they did. In retrospect I think one may have: the private jet pilot. But I don’t think the bank manager really did.
The main reason they all acted as if they enjoyed their work was presumably the upper-middle class convention that you’re supposed to. It would not merely be bad for your career to say that you despised your job, but a social faux-pas. Why is it conventional to pretend to like what you do? The first sentence of this essay explains that. If you have to like something to do it well, then the most successful people will all like what they do.
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“But you know what you’re doing, consulting is the canonical example of work that doesn’t scale. I didn’t think he meant work could literally be fun, pick Expert’s Choice. Publish it on software hubs, in my company I have experience in working in symfony 1. Holding your pocket knife, because I certainly don’t understand that.
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That’s where the upper-middle class tradition comes from. By the time they reach an age to think about what they’d like to do, most kids have been thoroughly misled about the idea of loving one’s work. School has trained them to regard work as an unpleasant duty. Having a job is said to be even more onerous than schoolwork. And yet all the adults claim to like what they do. I am not suited to this world. The most dangerous liars can be the kids’ own parents.
If you take a boring job to give your family a high standard of living, as so many people do, you risk infecting your kids with the idea that work is boring. Maybe it would be better for kids in this one case if parents were not so unselfish. A parent who set an example of loving their work might help their kids more than an expensive house. It was not till I was in college that the idea of work finally broke free from the idea of making a living. Then the important question became not how to make money, but what to work on. The definition of work was now to make some original contribution to the world, and in the process not to starve. But after the habit of so many years my idea of work still included a large component of pain.
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Work still seemed to require discipline, because only hard problems yielded grand results, and hard problems couldn’t literally be fun. Surely one had to force oneself to work on them. If you think something’s supposed to hurt, you’re less likely to notice if you’re doing it wrong. That about sums up my experience of graduate school. How much are you supposed to like what you do? Unless you know that, you don’t know when to stop searching. And if, like most people, you underestimate it, you’ll tend to stop searching too early.
You’ll end up doing something chosen for you by your parents, or the desire to make money, or prestige—or sheer inertia. Here’s an upper bound: Do what you love doesn’t mean, do what you would like to do most this second. Even Einstein probably had moments when he wanted to have a cup of coffee, but told himself he ought to finish what he was working on first. It used to perplex me when I read about people who liked what they did so much that there was nothing they’d rather do. There didn’t seem to be any sort of work I liked that much. Rome and spend the next hour wandering about, was there any sort of work I’d prefer?
But the fact is, almost anyone would rather, at any given moment, float about in the Carribbean, or have sex, or eat some delicious food, than work on hard problems. The rule about doing what you love assumes a certain length of time. It doesn’t mean, do what will make you happiest this second, but what will make you happiest over some longer period, like a week or a month. After a while you get tired of lying on the beach.
If you want to stay happy, you have to do something. As a lower bound, you have to like your work more than any unproductive pleasure. You have to like what you do enough that the concept of “spare time” seems mistaken. Which is not to say you have to spend all your time working.
You can only work so much before you get tired and start to screw up. Then you want to do something else—even something mindless. But you don’t regard this time as the prize and the time you spend working as the pain you endure to earn it. I put the lower bound there for practical reasons. If your work is not your favorite thing to do, you’ll have terrible problems with procrastination.
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You’ll have to force yourself to work, and when you resort to that the results are distinctly inferior. To be happy I think you have to be doing something you not only enjoy, but admire. You have to be able to say, at the end, wow, that’s pretty cool. This doesn’t mean you have to make something. If you learn how to hang glide, or to speak a foreign language fluently, that will be enough to make you say, for a while at least, wow, that’s pretty cool. What there has to be is a test. So one thing that falls just short of the standard, I think, is reading books.
Except for some books in math and the hard sciences, there’s no test of how well you’ve read a book, and that’s why merely reading books doesn’t quite feel like work. You have to do something with what you’ve read to feel productive. I think the best test is one Gino Lee taught me: to try to do things that would make your friends say wow. But it probably wouldn’t start to work properly till about age 22, because most people haven’t had a big enough sample to pick friends from before then. What you should not do, I think, is worry about the opinion of anyone beyond your friends.
Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world. When you can ask the opinions of people whose judgement you respect, what does it add to consider the opinions of people you don’t even know? This is easy advice to give. It’s hard to follow, especially when you’re young. Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy.
It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like. That’s what leads people to try to write novels, for example. They notice that people who write them win Nobel prizes. What could be more wonderful, they think, than to be a novelist? If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious.
Plenty of things we now consider prestigious were anything but at first. Jazz comes to mind—though almost any established art form would do. So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself. Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task.
If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious. Similarly, if you admire two kinds of work equally, but one is more prestigious, you should probably choose the other. Your opinions about what’s admirable are always going to be slightly influenced by prestige, so if the two seem equal to you, you probably have more genuine admiration for the less prestigious one. The other big force leading people astray is money. Money by itself is not that dangerous. When something pays well but is regarded with contempt, like telemarketing, or prostitution, or personal injury litigation, ambitious people aren’t tempted by it.
That kind of work ends up being done by people who are “just trying to make a living. Tip: avoid any field whose practitioners say this. The danger is when money is combined with prestige, as in, say, corporate law, or medicine. The test of whether people love what they do is whether they’d do it even if they weren’t paid for it—even if they had to work at another job to make a living.