1 December 2009

Do what you love and starve?

Personal Prelude

A couple of years I ago, I read Steve Job's Stanford commencement address “You've got to find what you love”.
This inspired me to not give up my dreams and try to live my passion. Despite my parent's cautioning to get a simple and steady job, I worked for an IT consulting company after graduation and the loads of prestige and money of this profession kept me happy for a while. (I also have to admit that many of my job tasks were interesting and the climate at the company was also excellent.) But then things didn't go as well, a had an assignment that I didn't like, working all on my own. I felt very unhappy, so I decided to take on my old dream of revolutionizing computer programming and applied for grad school. I already had a plan for my research work and I applied directly to the professor who's theories I was going to use.

A year later I started grad school, I took interesting courses, did some TA'ing and most importantly worked on the research that I wanted to work on since my undergrad, but had previously never found anybody to work with. It was a flying start and me and my professor refined my idea into a blueprint for a programming tool that seemed really great. But just as all complicated projects, it had lots of corners and special cases which I couldn't all get into a single clean framework. I was quite disappointed because I had aspired to create a theory that was as simple and beautiful as the very foundational theories of Computer Science which had inspired me to work in research in the first place. Furthermore, although other students in my lab were quite enthusiastic about my research and eager to see my results, I couldn't manage to get any of them closer involved and collaborate with me. Frankly, I was not very open either and tried to find the perfect technical solution for every small subproblem in the way. I slowed down big time and probably seemed very closed and distracted to my lab mates, instead of open-minded and welcoming their collaboration.

How to do what you love

So I started to think about the “do what you love” idea again. At that time, I really loved my research ideas and I still think this project is a great thing to do and would be a great contribution to the world of research in general. But somehow I couldn't deal with the research world and I just couldn't get myself to write that Master's thesis that was the next step in my academic career. I thought about it a long time: how can I get myself to write? I know that rewards don't work for me. I know that getting rid of distraction doesn't work for me (because I will just fall asleep)... so I decided to give up. If I am that bad at what I am doing, it really only makes me depressed. So what does it mean to do what you love? And should one try to do it?

Good articles on the subject are very controversial:
I found it especially interesting that the latter two posts are from the same author and seem to be contradictory at first.

But after I thought about all those things, I think that the contradictions can be resolved. In brief, yes, you should like your work in the sense that you should like doing most of the things that your work requires you to do. But not everybody can make their favorite pass time into a job. There are simply many more people who like to make music (or other forms of art) than people who actually can make a living of it. There are also more amateur athletes than professional athletes, more cinema lovers than professional critics, more sport fans than professional sport reporters. Many people like photography, but very few can do it for money.
I personally like writing so much that I keep a public blog and don't expect to make money from it. They only thing I wish, is to get in touch with people who have similar ideas as I do. Connect, exchange, and communicate. It didn't happen much yet, but I am truly happy about every blog comment that I receive.

A job versus a hobby

Obviously, making money from you favorite pass-time can't work for everybody just because too many people share the same pass-time. Those who can make money from it, are either really good (rock stars), get only little money and possibly need other jobs to make a living (many of the artists in the Fringe festivals, for example), or they have a really hard job which drains a lot of time and energy, probably with most of the job tasks not being the one activity that they actually like. (See Nemko's piece about this.)

If you think about “doing what you love” in the sense that many people love the same things and only few people can do them, the world seems like a zero-sum game: only a few people get the great jobs as rock stars, movie critics, video game testers, photographs, or president of the United States, for that matter. All the others would lose out. But that's obviously not the best way to view things. There is, in fact, some distinction between work and play. And most importantly, the challenge to “find what you love” applies to both! As much as one can be stuck in a stupid and unfulfilling career that sounded great when one was young, one could be stuck with some stupid and unfulfilling hobby, such as golf, just because it's the thing people do, but one never took the time to actually find something interesting!

I think that it's indeed very important to experiment with new activities to find what one really likes to do. Having a truly interesting and satisfying hobby is important for one's happiness and life balance for many reasons. Nobody would stop doing a great activity just because they couldn't make money from it! New and interesting hobbies will not pay you in cash, but they make you happy and thus make you a better person, too! And if you develop a habit of experimenting with new things, this helps your professional life as much as your private life.

In reality, many people achieve a good work live balance by making at least some money from their hobby: I know a person who loves photographing and vowed to get at least enough photo jobs to pay for his camera. I also played at a volunteer theater company where we made just enough money to pay for all our costumes and props. And I know of a sailing school where some instructors teach for free; to them this is not working for free, but getting to sail without paying for the boat! Some people also do not make money by doing what they like, but they save money doing it: this is the case for people who do repairs on their own house, their own computer, their own bike; or those who love to cook and bake or knit and tailor. Those are all just hobbies, but they have an economic impact. For one thing, they encourage people to take a job that leaves them more free-time at the expense of less pay, because those people have inexpensive (or zero-cost) pass-times and all they need to be happy is to spend their time as they please.

And finding those hobbies that make you truly happy is as important a life-task as finding the right career.

Power and prestige

I hope I have convinced my readers now that your job doesn't need to be the thing that you love to do most! Once you assume that your job is mostly there to make money and leave you lots of free time, you might think that it would be best to go for a career with the highest hourly pay. Go for the money! But unfortunately it isn't that simple either. Besides taking your time, work also drains your energy and you don't want to be all drained out by the time you leave your workplace and head to your playground. I think there is still a fundamental problem with people having too little of a clue what different jobs are about and what skills and personality they need.

A large part of the problem is that some jobs are very well-known (and although most people wouldn't do them as a hobby) they are still very much sought-after. Some people call those the “prestigious” jobs which I think is entirely befitting. The prestigious jobs are usually what kids come up with when they have to pick a career. Lawyer, doctor, pilot, all those people you see on TV! Marty Nemko's post cited above makes a good point about how to avoid those jobs and instead going for something rather unknown, which most people wouldn't even think about as a career. As it turns out, if a job is both not well-known and not very easy, it often pays actually pretty well!

When it comes to jobs, prejudices go around just as much as they do about pass-times. Only that it is much harder to actually try something and find out what it really is like. If “doing what you love” and “finding meaning in life” are needs fulfilled by your pass-times, your family, volunteering, and your social life, what are the criteria left to find a job? Obviously, it should pay appropriately, also it should not burn you out or take too much time, furthermore it should not come with any cranky office politics or other inappropriate stress, also it should be legal and ethical. Finally for many people it's also good to have a bit of challenge on the job, but it doesn't need to be super-exciting, since that's what your hobbies are for.
A word about ethical jobs: what I mean is that it not should involve any semi-legal scams such as selling unnecessary stuff to senile old people. I don't mean that every job must work to make the world a better place, e.g. by saving the environment or making sick people well. This is too much asked of a job and better left to volunteering (except for the few who actually can make money that way). All I mean by ethical is ‘fair’.

Where am I going now?

I think that my first career choice as IT consultant was both driven by a desire for money and for prestige. The second one as an academic research was driven by making my pass-time “having ideas” into a career, and obviously by dreams of becoming a famous inventor/professor. Both times I was lucky enough to get just what I wanted (or desired): I got the job, a got admitted to grad school – but neither seemed to be the right thing. Now I hope that I am smart enough to make my next choice closer to what I actually need. In career just as in other parts of life, what we need to make us happy is not always what we think it is. The “need” can be just the opposite of the “desire”. That's why we have to experiment so much. That's why we have to question our believes and find out what part is just cultural perception and external pressure and who we are really on our inside. (Did I want to go consulting just to show my parents that I can do it? Are they right and I should rather take a simple and steady job? In any case I'd rather suffer all my life in bad jobs than admitting that my parents were right; ha!)
Our current culture does just not recognize enough how different people are and there is unfortunately almost no popular knowlegde on how exactly people are different. In our age people have a lot of useless knowledge (starting from things we learn in school and never need in our lives, going to a lot of pop culture and celebrity gossip). But, unfortunately, most people know much too little about themselves. Part of why I have this blog, is to learn more about myself.

2 comments:

Sarah, CH said...

I don't think job and past-time can be unbalanced like that.
I had a reasonably paid job once that left me lots of spare time. But it was so disgustingly uninteresting that it drained me of all my motivation. I spent my abundant free time watching live go by and doing nothing.
I now have a job that, while still paying reasonably, leaves me a lot less free time and certainly requires a lot of energy. Still, the motivation it brings extends to my free time as well and, suddenly, the little spare time that is left is filled with activities I couldn't get myself to do before.
Maybe, I'm just lucky. Nonetheless, one third of our life time is spent at work and it would be a shame to waste all that. My minimum job requirement: a job you can stick out for, a job that makes you want to answer the question What do you do for a living? without resorting to words like "crappy".

Robert said...

I totally agree with you. What a good job is depends on so many things and certainly on your personality, I still haven't wrapped my head around it.
I can't wait to see what the current job market in Berlin is and what great opportunities will be offered to me. ;-)

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