How to (and Not to) “Do What You Love”

Do What You Love

Some years ago, a doctor asked me what I did for a living. I replied, “graphic design”. He said: “Then you must love what you do.” His response made me realize that we culturally associate certain careers with the idea of Doing What You Love (DWYL), and that doing what you love can become a coveted status. For those who pursue these cliches of DWYL, actually doing what they love becomes secondary to the societal perception that they are doing what they love.

Doing what you love is not easy, because knowing who you are and what you love is a lifelong process. But once “do what you love” is repeated as a thoughtless mantra, it can serve the opposite purpose of obfuscating what you truly love. There are many such traps of doing what we love.

“Do What You Love” Does Not Mean “Do Only What You Love”

Is it ever simply a case of just doing only what we love in our lives? I wouldn’t think so but some people seem to interpret DWYL this way. But, what we don’t want to do is done for the sake of what we love to do. The former serves a purpose for the latter. The composer, John Cage, and the author, Paulo Coelho both understood that it meant doing both.

In an essay entitled “Ten Things I have Learned”, Milton Glaser recounts a speech by John Cage that he heard on the radio. The interviewer asked Cage: “Now that you have reached 75 have you any advice for our audience about how to prepare for your old age?” His response was: “Never have a job, because if you have a job someday someone will take it away from you and then you will be unprepared for your old age. For me, it has always been the same ever since the age of 12. I wake up in the morning and I try to figure out how am I going to put bread on the table today? It is the same at 75, I wake up every morning and I think how am I going to put bread on the table today? I am exceedingly well prepared for my old age.”

This story is interesting because it reveals a different aspect of his life that is not commonly known. Reading his books and other interviews, you would not think that he ever worried about making a living. You would assume that his adventurous life was filled with nothing but what he wanted to do. But that apparently was not the case.

In “The Alchemist”, Paulo Coelho has this great analogy where a wise man tells a boy to go enjoy looking around his house and his garden while holding a spoon with two drops of oil. He is told not to spill the oil. The boy is unable to enjoy the view because he is too worried about the oil. Then he is told to simply enjoy it, but he comes back with an empty spoon. The wise man says, “The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, and never to forget the drops of oil on the spoon.”

I believe the point Coelho is trying to make is that happiness is achieved when you become at peace with contradicting forces of life. Many people want to just enjoy the view without worrying about the spoon. They see the spoon as just a nuisance. So they don’t try to master doing both simultaneously. That’s a mistake. To be good at doing what you love, you have to also become good at doing what you don’t want to do. In the end, they all contribute to the same end.

“Do What You Love” Is Not the Same As “Be What You Love”

When you ask grammar school kids what they want to be when they grow up, many of them answer with cliches of DWYL, like artists, photographers, actors, singers, and designers. In other words, career paths that other people have paved. Paths in which artists and musician, etc., found what they love and figured out how to make a living doing. But following such pre-existing paths would not lead us to finding what we love. We are not them. We need to find our own path. Indeed, following a pre-existing path might even prevent us from finding our way.

In 1976, when Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak formed Apple Computer, the market and industry of personal computing had yet to be created. There was no way for Jobs or Wozniak to know if they could actually make a living from it. There was no job title or label for the career and industry they were in the process of inventing—it simply unfolded. They were not following a path, they were making one along the way. And this is the point, when we truly follow our curiosity (DWYL) we are embracing our idiosyncrasies and herein lies the possibility of discovery. In this sense, while we may admire and be inspired by the Jobs’ and Wozniak’s of the world, trying to emulate them will not guide us towards our own idiosyncratic imagination and in fact, may even be a hinderance.

We confuse doing what we love and being what we love when we listen to our egos. Ego is a self-image, an idea of self. You need an ego in order to manage your relationships with others. To have some degree of control over the behaviors of others, you need to create an idea of yourself and project it, so that what others think of you is in line with what you think of yourself. This gives you a way to predictably control your position in the society. When you accidentally do something that contradicts the image you so carefully created and installed into the heads of everyone around you, you feel fear and pain because you are a social creature and depend on others to survive. Your survival instinct punishes you for doing or saying things that contradict your self-image. For the same reason, you fiercely defend yourself when others contradicts your self-image.

When we say, “I want to be a filmmaker,” “I want to be a professor,” “I want to be an artist,” “I want to be a billionaire,” “I want to be a humanitarian,” and so on.., often it is the idea of these things that is attractive. Such roles carry a social and cultural capital that is infused with power, authority, and respect. They are thus easy to love. The proof comes with the work. Over time, the lover of the label “artist” will lose interest while the artist will make art. When you are doing what you love, there is no sense of what you will end up becoming. You may or may not ever get a title that people recognize, or you might get one that does not sound so glamorous or culturally respectable.

Do We Have to Do What We Love in Our Careers?

No, but we should try our best to synthesize both. (I think this is partly what Coelho is trying to say with his analogy.) To do this, you have to ask questions that dig deeper into what exactly we love. For instance, you might love photography but photography as a business might not be viable for you. Instead of giving it up and getting a job as a salesman to finance photography as a hobby, think deeper about why you love photography, what aspects of it you love. If you can figure this out, you might find that there are other mediums or fields that can satisfy the same criteria. After all, photography is a relatively modern invention. What would you have done if you were born 200 years ago when photography did not exist? You cannot be so inflexible. I know someone who was a graphic designer but switched to being a photographer because he loved being outside. If being outside is what he loves, there are many other careers that can satisfy his criteria. Even if his career as a photographer stalls, he could find another career where he would still be happy.

To make a living doing what we love makes economic sense too. When we do what we love, we feel energized from it, not drained. We don’t need to recharge ourselves because our work would generate energy, not consume it. It’s certainly not easy to synthesize what we love to do and how we make a living, but I think we should try our best. When we do what we love, we do better jobs. Other people benefit from it also. Would you rather go to a restaurant where the cook loves what he does, or another place where the cook just sees it as a job that he has to do? The difference that our passions can make in what we create is significant.

Is It Selfish to Do What We Love?

If you have children, this is probably a haunting question for you. The first question you should ask is: “Do I love having children?” If the answer is yes, you are already doing what you love. To support that pursuit of doing what you love, you also have to do many other things you don’t want to do. If doing what you love is selfish, then having children too is selfish. To say that you are sacrificing yourself by supporting your family, is hypocritical and selfish. Nobody forced you to have children. You chose to have them because you wanted them.

By doing what you don’t want to do, you are not contributing to the world any more than if you were doing what you love. Many people participate in humanitarian causes because it feels good to help others. If helping others were the only truly meaningful pursuit in this world, what would happen when we no longer have anyone who needs help? Ultimately what are we helping each other for? Helping others is no more meaningful than any other pursuits. If you love helping others, you are dependent on those who need help as much as they are on you. When we meet someone who is so self-sufficient that he never needs our help, we have a hard time relating to him as a human being. To help others, you need to be generous, but you also have to be generous to seek help from others. In this sense, self-sufficiency can be thought of as a form of selfishness and an anti-social behavior.

Does “Do What You Love” Lead to Wealth Inequality?

This is a question raised by Miya Tokumitsu in her essay on Jacobin Magazine entitled “In the Name of Love”. Income disparity is indeed a serious problem especially in the US. As a society, we need to decide where our desirable balance is (somewhere between everyone getting paid the same amount and the current disparity). What we have now is not healthy nor sustainable. Our society as a whole (therefore everyone including the rich and the poor) would suffer the consequences.

But we also should not be so hypocritical as to blame everything on our employers and government. We too exercise our own power by choosing one product or service over another. When we choose to buy a product because it is better than the others, we are reducing the likelihood of people making a decent living by creating something mediocre. If we were to compensate someone for simply doing hard work, we should not buy products based on how good they are. Instead, we need to look at how hard they worked on them even if they are mediocre or even flawed. If employers were to compensate their workers for working hard, then the consumers of their products too should pay based on the same criteria. But most of us do not.

To demand that we should get paid more because it’s hard (because we are doing what we don’t want to do) is a dehumanizing vicious circle. When you compare the Japanese work ethos with the American one, it becomes clear where this ends. In Japan, if you enjoy your job, others will make sure to take it away from you and find something you don’t want to do. If you are doing what you love, you are being selfish, therefore not working. In Japan, compensation is proportional to the amount of suffering you endure. Compensating for suffering is dehumanizing, and it ultimately leads to mediocre products. After their time ended as America’s favorite factory, Japan failed to reinvent themselves. Their work ethos was effective for mindless factory jobs, but when other countries like China and Korea entered the market, Japan could no longer compete with the same work ethos alone. Now their economy has been stagnant for over two decades.

But what happens when the DWYL work ethos swings to the other extreme? “Do what you love” as an idea overheats and becomes a social status and a dehumanizing ideal. Tokumitsu considers academia as the worst exploiter of DWYL but this sense of victimization is partly self-inflicted. Everyone in it is part of the problem, not just the employers. In academia, once you are granted a tenure, you can walk around without holding a spoon full of oil. This prospect is very attractive to many people who want to naively pursue “do only what you love”. The cultural capital of being a “professor” is quite significant also. If someone were to buy the same degree of cultural respect and authority with money, it could easily cost many millions of dollars. It is no wonder so many people flock to academia and are willing to make little or no money. It’s like shooting for the rock-stardom. Traveling the paths others paved is hard in a sense that they are highly competitive, but easy in that it does not take much imagination or creativity.

Tokumitsu is demanding colleges and universities to pay these “adjunct” professors well. In essence, she is asking them to remove the risk while keeping the potential reward still great. What this implies is a sense of entitlement. If we are to listen to her demand and pay these adjunct professors very well, where would the money come from? The answer obviously is the students. (Let’s keep in mind the fact that the income disparity in academia is not a significant problem like it is in other fields.) In other words, these students who are already paying huge amounts of tuition, should pay more so that adjunct professors can pursue a career with a great potential payoff while getting paid a comfortable salary along the way. Such a sense of entitlement should not be equated with the real struggles of workers like “Personal Care Aide” and “Home Care Aide,” that she mentions. If you want to be paid a decent salary, you should not pursue a career in academia. There are plenty of other careers where they pay in cash instead of in cultural capital. If most of these adjunct professors left the academia, the problem would be solved. The lack of supply would increase the pay for the remaining adjunct professors.

It’s true that certain ideologies can be used to exploit the very people they purport to support. “American Dream” is one of them. It is a way for our society to keep the poor quiet. They don’t complain about their predicament because they see it as a necessary cost of achieving the American Dream. But “do what you love” mantra does not affect these low wage workers; they know their jobs are not lovable. The DWYL mantra affects the more privileged who can afford to consider careers in fields like fashion, advertising, journalism, and academia. Is that really a problem? Not really. The more people flock to these fields, the less competitive the other fields would be, which in turn means higher wages for the less lovable jobs.

Is DWYL a Cultural Ideal Set up to Humiliate Us?

Perhaps the most critical ability in pursuing “do what you love” is our ability to check our egos. Our self-images are always grafted onto the existing value systems in our culture. To climb the social ladder, we need to effectively choose our grafting strategies. Attending reputable colleges, studying with well-known people, working for respected organizations, having friends who are powerful and influential, earning a PhD, etc.. These are all grafting strategies. Instead of creating our own cultural values from scratch, we try to piggyback on the existing ones. When you pursue “do what you love”, some of these grafting strategies become necessary, but we have to be careful not to turn them into an end in itself. DWYL as a cultural ideal can humiliate us just as not having a college degree can humiliate us. But at the end of the day, humiliation is self-inflicted by our own egos.

If you are trying to “do what you love” because you feel ashamed or humiliated by the fact that you do not love what you do, you are not doing what you love, but doing what your culture loves. If you cannot detach yourself from the feelings of shame or humiliation, you wouldn’t be able to do what you truly love. Your ego can attach to anything, even to the idea of detachment, as Buddha warned. Attacking the ideal or the people who are humiliating you is just another form of attachment. Ultimately what we need to let go is the idea that we have to find what we love. We don’t have to. If we can let go of that, we would be more likely to find what we truly love.

Is “Do What You Love” a Privilege?

Yes. But the status as a privilege should not stop us from taking advantage of it. Privilege in and of itself is neither good nor bad; it’s a matter of how we use it. If we were to stop ourselves from using any privileges we have, we wouldn’t be able to achieve much in life. The fact that we can see, walk, jump, smell, or hear is a privilege if we think about those who cannot. Should we then act as though we cannot do any of these things? That would not make sense. By the same token, the fact that there are billions of people around the world who cannot afford to pursue DWYL should not stop us from pursuing it. If you really want to help others pursue DWYL, stay out of the glamorous, obvious, and overcrowded fields like design, journalism, photography, and academia, so that others would have a better shot at succeeding. Instead, pave your own way so that you can inspire others to follow you.

I switched my own careers many times in pursuit of what I love. (I rarely do graphic design myself these days.) DWYL is an endless game with many ups and downs. I’m constantly trying to figure out who I am as well as what the world is, which is ultimately one and the same question. To me, taking into consideration what the market (world) wants is critical in understanding what I want. Holding the spoon full of oil helps me understand who I am. Since the market evolves constantly, and these days very fast, I have to constantly evolve also in order to keep doing what I love. Doing what you love is not a permanent status you achieve, nor a quality inherent in any pre-existing career paths. It’s a life-long challenge in which you pave your own way.