Thursday, May 21, 2015

Is 'Doing What You Love' Overrated?

My 60-something mother jokes about what she's going to do when she "grows up."

She doesn't feel called to her work. She works to get paid and meanwhile dreams about all the other possibilities.

Of course, there are too many possibilities, an overwhelming number, and there isn't time to pursue all of them, much less one of them.

I've been lucky to know what I love. There's never been a question. Any temptation I've ever felt about a different career in geography or behavioral economics or dentistry have always snapped into place with an immediate follow-up thought: "I should write about that."

Writing was my first love. I would do it if I had to pay to do it, rather than get paid to do it. I would work a different paying job in order to support doing it. I write even when I don't need to do it.

I used to go to church with my mom every so often, where they'd hand out programs so the congregation would know what to sing and when to stand. I'd always bring a pen, and I'd copy edit the hell out of it, nixing an extra space, pointing out inconsistent spellings, circling straight apostrophes that should be curly. I couldn't help myself. I am drawn to look closely at words.

Not every day at work is pure joy. Not every writing assignment fills my heart with elation and gratitude. And not every career step in the last 15 years was perfectly befitting of the massive amount of potential I assumed I had as a writer (one must be both confident and cocky to follow this pursuit). I took plenty of jobs that weren't ideal, but were close enough. I learned a lot by doing work that didn't seem to suit me to a tee. Through proximity and hard work, I figured I'd eventually get closer to my target as time passed. And I did. The trajectory was always right, even if each and every assignment wasn't.

When I talk with people who aren't so fortunate as to know what they love, I feel detached from the conversation, like I can never really know them or their mental struggles. I don't know what that's like to not be compelled to do a particular thing every day of your life. It must be agony.

Societally, we certainly make it seem like it should be agony. How much guilt and pressure we put on one another to find a "passion" and have a lucrative career! The message is: If you are not doing what you love, you must be unhappy, and you are failing at life!

It's a load of horse shit. 

Last night I read How to Do What You Love by Paul Graham (2006). It's a blog post that's upheld as having some kind of magical and yet realistic insight into life and the philosophy and economics of doing what you love and refusing to do things you don't love. It's also a load of horse shit, by and large. If, on the one hand, you are a well-to-do man born into a country that gives you some status off the bat for your particular race and gender, Graham's essay might strike a chord and inspire you to change a few fundamental aspects of your life and your way of thinking and living. On the other hand, if you are struggling to raise a family and live in a world where you have to work harder than other people do to earn the same things that privileged people come by much easier, then Graham's underlying premises fall to pieces.

Furthermore, maybe work doesn't matter that much to some people. Maybe how they spend their 35, 40, or even 70 hours a week earning money isn't what matters most to them. What about family? What about travel? It's not so crazy to think that people might choose to have two weeks of pure blissful happiness a year while, say, traveling, in exchange for 50 weeks a year working very hard at a job doesn't necessarily fulfill their soul. Who are we to judge?

I hate that we deny others' happiness simply because they work jobs that don't fill their hearts with meaning and purpose. Why do we inflict anxiety on people for earning an honest living?

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2 comments:

Daniel Pasos said...

It's amazing how most people's actions are based on what's expected of them, not just careers, also what we're supposed to want in life. Thanks for sharing!

Christian Tietze said...

This struck a chord with me. I used to consider myself privilege, because I am able to go to university. But I picked a path of doing what I want to do -- and carry the cost of living below what's considered "poor" people's income in my country. I learned to see the contribution of others in a new light: there's value in everything humans do. It does nobody good to look down on them and tell them they're just doing it wrong.

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