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“How to Do what you Love”

Continuing with my blog theme for the last weeks (or years) I wanted to post some quotes after reading Paul Graham’s long (but very good) essay on the subject of doing what you love. I found this quote particularly interesting based on what I wrote about last week in terms of not knowing what doing what you love really means:

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.

I think I still struggle with this, even though I believe it in. I’ve only had flashes in my short work life where the work I was doing was actually fun, where I couldn’t believe that anyone, anywhere, could categorize it as “work.” I guess this is something that takes time to absorb and live… old habits and beliefs die hard.

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. You can’t blame kids for thinking “I am not like these people; I am not suited to this world.”

Actually they’ve been told three lies: the stuff they’ve been taught to regard as work in school is not real work; grownup work is not (necessarily) worse than schoolwork; and many of the adults around them are lying when they say they like what they do.

I wonder if this is true? Do most people genuinely not like what they do? I realize that no matter what you do, there are always going to be parts you don’t like or get stressed over, or people you can’t stand, but I’m hopeful that we all have the possibility of spending most of our time doing something we generally enjoy. So what separates the few who do love what they do? How did they get there? I really like this:

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. Ideally these coincided, but some spectacular boundary cases (like Einstein in the patent office) proved they weren’t identical.

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. 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.


Most people are doomed in childhood by accepting the axiom that work = pain. Those who escape this are nearly all lured onto the rocks by prestige or money. How many even discover something they love to work on? A few hundred thousand, perhaps, out of billions.

I still struggle with this. I feel like anything great worth doing will come with quite a bit of pain. I feel like on some level that doing what you love is like getting your body in shape after a long break from exercise. It’s going to take discipline, it’s going to hurt, and you’re going to hate it some, if not a lot of the time, at least to start. But after you break through the habits and your muscles begin to build, things get easier. I can see this approach will not get me anywhere, or at least the places I’m trying to go. Perhaps part of my problem has been I’ve been pushing so hard on doors that are meant to be easily pulled open…pushing harder does not get me any closer to opening it. That reminds me of this:


It’s really hard to let go of what I’ve been taught, and what I’ve told myself. Part of finding what you love to do, is not pushing through the pain but instead noticing it and reacting to it. More good quotes:

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.

I struggle with this as well. As I’ve said, I don’t think I’ve ever done anything that just felt so great, that felt like it was my “calling.” I’m not really looking for that because I don’t think I ever will. But I will give myself a pat on the back for continuing my search, seeking out new opportunities when the current one doesn’t at least feel right. Or as Paul later describes… I’ve never found something that I enjoyed enough that the concept of “spare time” seems mistaken. It seems that I continually put myself in work situations where I can’t wait to do something other than what I’m doing. Not exactly practicing what I preach. What you should do:

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.

What you should not do:

What you should not do, I think, is worry about the opinion of anyone beyond your friends. You shouldn’t worry about prestige. 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?

It’s really amazing how greatly this impacts people’s lives, including my own. How crazy is it that we could put ourselves in a position to do something we don’t like or hate, potentially for the rest of our lives, in hopes we look good to others? At the end of your life are you going to look back and say “Whew, I’m glad that I lived the way all those people thought I should?” I doubt it.

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. A comparatively safe and prosperous career with some automatic baseline prestige is dangerously tempting to someone young, who hasn’t thought much about what they really like.

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. How many corporate lawyers would do their current work if they had to do it for free, in their spare time, and take day jobs as waiters to support themselves?

This is something I think we’ve all heard at some point in our lives: “What would you do if you had 10 million dollars?” I think most people would say they would quit their jobs, retire to some beach house, and live happily ever after. We know this isn’t true. Spend some time and read about past lottery winners. They learn the hard way (yes, it’s hard) that money is not the answer. They often find themselves lost and completely unhappy. I think most people believe deep down there is some dollar amount that would make them happy for the rest of their lives. If they could just hit that, either through lottery winnings or their 401k or being an entrepreneur who sells their company, they think they will live happily ever after. These expectations are so high, that when some of the few actually hit this number they are usually overwhelmed and saddened. It’s hard not to think: “I made it, but is that all there is?”

This is why it makes so much sense to fill up your days doing something you enjoy, something you care about. Because if you can end the day generally feeling good about what you do, about your life, your loved ones, your path…then you can end the week feeling the same way, and then the month, and then the year, and then year after year..all feeling pretty good. You don’t need to hit the lottery or sell your company, because at the end of the day you feel good.

Finally, words of encouragement:

It’s hard to find work you love; it must be, if so few do. So don’t underestimate this task. And don’t feel bad if you haven’t succeeded yet. In fact, if you admit to yourself that you’re discontented, you’re a step ahead of most people, who are still in denial. If you’re surrounded by colleagues who claim to enjoy work that you find contemptible, odds are they’re lying to themselves. Not necessarily, but probably.

I guess I’m a step ahead, but that doesn’t mean I feel any closer getting somewhere. Whew, patience. Go read the article, it’s worth your time.

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2 comments on ““How to Do what you Love”

  1. Zak says:

    Excellent reflection and commentary of Paul's essay!


  2. Zak says:

    Excellent reflection and commentary of Paul's essay!


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