I’d rather be a failure at something I love than a success at something I hate. —George Burns
Imagine me not being a photographer. It could have happened. My degree is in music, after all. I loved it then and still do. Yet, the reality of the world was such that I was not afforded the opportunity to pursue that career. I love what I do, but only because I’ve developed that emotion over time. When I first started, I assumed it was just a temporary gig and couldn’t wait to move on. Had there been someone standing near my ear back then telling me to do what I loved, I would have set that camera down and never looked back.
I’m fortunate in that my skill set and interests are broad enough to offer several different career paths, any of which might have been successful. Not everyone is as fortunate, though. Generations before me weren’t even given the option of falling in love with their work. “Grow up and find a good job,” was the mantra parents repeated to their children. If you were lucky, that job might be at least mildly interesting, but no one really expected you to like it. Work was just something you had to do. If you wanted to enjoy something, get a hobby.
Today, however, we see articles encouraging people to either do what they love or follow the money. Both are bad advice. The first sets one up for idealistic disappointment if not outright disaster. The second is based on greed which eventually leads to hate and that rarely ends well. Contentment is more likely to be found somewhere between the dream and the disaster. The key is not what you love but knowing what you do well.
What Does It Mean To Love?
You love your mom. You love your spouse or whatever you call that person who sleeps on the other side of the bed. You love your pets. But, what does it really mean to love your work? Do you take your work home with you? That’s not healthy. Do you live for your work? That’s a quick path to personal destruction. The reality is that we don’t actually love our occupations as much as we love the concept or idea of spending our days engaged in a specific activity.
I recently came across an article headlined, “You’re not meant to do what you love. You’re meant to do what you’re good at.” by Brianna Wiest, the founder of a magazine called Soul Anatomy. The magazine is a blend of Western psychology and Eastern philosophy that often starts out sounding like good advice but ends with an over-the-top dose of feel-goodism that negates what might otherwise be a practical statement. While I am not comfortable wholly endorsing Ms. West’s thesis, she makes some observations that are sounder (yes, that’s a word) than we care to admit. Such as:
People usually can’t differentiate what they really love and what they love the idea of.
One doesn’t just wake up one morning and say, “I love the idea of dentistry, I think I’ll go drill some teeth.” There are requirements and licensing that stands in the way of that happening. But even then, how many people have gone to med school not because they love medicine but because they love their parents and don’t want to disappoint them? Do we always know what we love?
Work Is Just Work
Ms. West gives the dreamers a bit of a slap in the face when she writes:
You can choose what you love to do, simply by how you think of it and what you focus on. Everything is work. Everything is work. Everything is work. There are few jobs that are fundamentally “easier” than others, whether by virtue of manual labor or brain-power. There is only finding a job that suits you enough that the work doesn’t feel excruciating. There is only finding what you are skilled at, and then learning to be thankful.
One might challenge that this is an example of the backward thinking that prevents people from enjoying their life and progressing socially. Strictly adhering to such a statement leaves one stuck in a socio-economic stratus with little room for advancement or happiness. All that clap-trap about changing how we think about a job is brainwashing people into being mindless automatons that do as they’re told. This isn’t the way to have a better life.
At the same time, though, she’s correct in that everything is work. Even though I enjoy being a photographer, I’m not a fan of early call times, late nights editing and processing to meet a deadline, and clients who have their head stuck up their ass. No matter what one’s profession, there is always an aspect that just comes down to pure labor. One can love the career without having to enjoy every minute performing those tasks.
Some Things Need To Get Done
Imagine a world where everyone only does what they love. Right off the bat, we eliminate at least a third of the adult population who will happily spend the bulk of their day having sex, or recovering from it. Those people aren’t going to get anything productive done at all. Sporting enthusiasts are dropped from the productivity list as well, as are those who have an unhealthy relationship with food. When we tell people to do what they love, we’re ignoring the fact that what they love may not be healthy, or even intelligent.
In order for the things in our world to operate with the efficiency we expect, we need people who don’t have to be in love with their occupation. We need people who lay buried cable. We need people who build bridges and are good at it. We need people who can keep the electric grid up and running 24/7. We need those guys on the ground with the orange sticks telling the airplane pilots how to maneuver that jumbo jet. Those are not glamorous jobs and probably don’t stroke anyone’s ego much, but watch how fast things grind to a halt if those people are off, “doing what they love.”
There’s nothing wrong with working for the sake of having a job and getting it done. If anything, it’s insulting to define a person based only upon one aspect of their lives. The person who handles your baggage at the airport may have mad art skills but can’t figure out how to make it pay. Your waitress who just spilled your dinner in your lap may play guitar better than Carlos Santana. We look at people and only see what they’re doing in that particular moment. We are not defined merely by what gives us a paycheck.
Working Those Mad Skills
Let’s make one more trip back to Ms. West’s article:
Your gifts are not random, they are a blueprint for your destiny. There’s more to your life than just what you think will make you happy. Your real talents may not stroke your ego as much, but if you apply to them the kind of higher thinking that allows you to find the purpose within them, you will be able to get up every single day and work diligently. Not because you are stoking your senses and stroking your ego, but because you are using what you have.
I start wincing about half-way through that paragraph because I’m not inclined to buy that “higher thinking” horseshit. Where she’s accurate, though, is in how one’s natural skills and abilities play into what we probably should be doing. Take people who have a gift for communicating as an example. They’re not all well-paid entertainers, but people who teach, people who inform. Do they need to love what they do? No, but it sure does help for them to be good at doing it. Knowing what you do well, being able to identify those skills to which one is naturally gifted, is more important than whether one loves a specific occupation or activity.
As school is starting back this fall, my eighteen-year-old is being asked to assess his career choices, decide whether he’s going to college next year, and choose activities that might support what he wants to do the rest of his life. While the assignments are required, I know that to some degree they are a waste of time. He will hold many different jobs over his life span. Some he will hate. Some he will tolerate. What’s important, though, are the ones he does well.
And look out, he doesn’t have to love what he’s doing to totally blow everyone’s mind. The kid is scary good at the things he does well, even when he doesn’t realize he’s doing them. Loving what we do isn’t a requisite for happiness. Adjust accordingly.