The other day my friend came to me for advice. She’s going to start a PhD, but she’s worried she can’t handle it. Thing is, her concern is something I hear only too often, from too many people.
“I just don’t think I’m cut out to be a scientist. You hear all these stories of all these people who are passionate, driven. Who want more than anything to learn, to understand. But me? Sure, I like what I do, but it’s not all I want to do. I’m just not that passionate. I’m interested in too many things. I don’t think I can do this all day, every day, my whole life.”
You hear this all the time. “Do what you love.” “Follow your passions.” This advice sounds great, but is it really?
The activist giving their all at a non-profit, living in poverty. The soldier who wants to serve their country, sacrificing their youth and health for their squad. The college grad at a startup, burning out to build the next Facebook. The artist, slaving away in obscurity. All of these people are following their passion, doing what they love, but are they happy? Most of them are nowhere near. They’re just burning themselves out, while others take advantage of their naivete.
I told my friend: “do what you love” is terrible advice. If you do what you love, you’ll stop loving it some day, and on that day, you’ll have nothing to go on. A better idea is to do something you can tolerate. Something you like. And then, make it lovely.
As much as we like to believe in grand narratives, they aren’t what make us happy. The things that make us happy are smaller, more mundane. Happiness is good quality of life. You want a job that makes you happy? Find something you can tolerate. Then make it great. Live close to work, enjoy a walking commute. Work with happy, friendly people who you enjoy seeing every day. Optimize the little things. At the end of it all, a lifetime of contentment is worth more than constant striving towards an unrealistic passion.
If you hear the stories, it’s because they make good stories, and are good to tell and to hear. Same for advice, probably.
We need grand narratives to give us meaning, I think. Isn’t that the trouble with the modern world? We have all this plenty, and are generally unhappy? Mentally ill, not enough of the right kind of stress, too much of the wrong kind?
This seems like an argument to be a Last Man, which is strange to me. Are people this discontented with their lives?
From what I see, a lot of this comes out of the college experience. Especially in programs that don’t have a concrete path forward.
Take, for example, medicine. Or business. Or engineering. In these programs, you’re working towards a specific goal from day one: employment as a professional. You’ll often get internships and develop relationships with employers early on in your degree, and by the time you graduate you have a pretty good idea of where you will work and what you will do.
Contrast a vaguer degree. Most sciences and most liberal arts. These programs are a lot more flexible. Your median physics grad is probably not going to be a physicist. Your median English grad is probably not going to be a writer. This is somewhat freeing; you’re not railroaded into one path. But the options can be paralyzing.
My impression is that universities tend to fill this void of purpose with these grand narratives. Maybe it’s a youthful idealism thing. Maybe it’s a privilege thing. Maybe it’s an ivory tower thing. In the absence of concrete, achievable goals, people around that time pick up very unrealistic aspirational goals.
Being sheltered in their university programs from the rigours of the adult working world, they never get a reality check to keep those goals in perspective. And then, once they graduate, they’re dumped headfirst into it with no transition support. The end result, at least among the people I’ve spoken to, is a sort of denial where they double down on their unrealistic aspirations, and hurt themselves trying.
The really sad thing is that a lot of the people I hear this from, imbue these goals with morality. This isn’t just what they do, or what they want to do. It’s what they’re supposed to want to do.
Thing is, when you convince people that they have a moral obligation to do things that are impossible, you’re creating a lot of sorrow. I wish we had narratives to counterbalance this. Narratives that said “you know, if you do X and Y and Z, you’re living a fine life. You don’t have to cure cancer to be valuable, just do your part and that’s laudable”.
We don’t all have to aim for the stars. Most people will be happier if they focus locally
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That last sentence I agree with. I suppose my university experience was different: I went into one of the vaguer degrees, but acknowledged that I was being trained in the tradition of my field, which had a history that spanned the centuries, so there was a grand narrative prepared. Even if I end up not continuing to work in my field, I still consider myself to be “educated as a x”.
Great post. I agree with all of this advice, and I say that as someone who has tried both paths.
Your friend needs to read Cal Newport’s “So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love” http://www.amazon.com/Good-They-Cant-Ignore-You/dp/1455509124
This sounds like a book in a similar vein. I’ll forward the recommendation. Thanks!
Checking into the conversation late–maybe too late to join the discussion at all–but I sort of disagree. Or maybe, I need some clarification.
I agree that many people substitute vague, “do what you love” advice for actual, practical help finding jobs or identifying professions. And I agree that calling it a “dream job” can seriously backfire and lead to dissatisfied professionals searching forever for some mythical perfection which doesn’t exist. Sort of like the Hollywood trope of finding your soulmate.
But that’s no reason to abandon the idea completely.
The people I know who are really awesome at their work, who are contributing to their families & communities, and who are able to maintain a high level over the long-term, are people who are uniquely suited for the jobs they do. Who derive great satisfaction from the work, apart from the paycheck. I watch them closely and don’t see them burning out; they keep growing stronger because they actually love what they do, moment by moment, and revel in learning to do it better. Not that the jobs are perfect, but that the love of the work makes the imperfections tolerable. Some are white-collar; some are blue-collar. Some have always known what they wanted to do, and some worked their way through several different types of jobs before they found their match. But each of them has found (or created) work which uses their particular strengths to fill a need in the broader community, and found the activity itself engaging and rewarding over the long-term
“Do something you can tolerate, and then make it lovely,” isn’t bad advice. it’s certainly better than fretting away years without stable work because you are hyper-focused on some vague feeling of “love.” And it may work for some people, long-term. Again, like finding a spouse: many people live beautiful, fulfilled lives simply by marrying someone they get along with–and then putting serious effort into making the relationship beautiful.
But that doesn’t mean it’s the whole story. Or that people who are looking for more are doomed to fail.