Doing What You Love

It’s a paradox.

Any time you hear the story of a wildly successful person, they tell you to “do what you love.”

Yet for most, this advice rings hollow.

How do we reconcile these two facts?

The problem is survivorship bias.

It’s probably true that people become successful by doing what they love.

But it’s also probably true that most people who do what they love don’t become successful.

Here’s what I think is the actual mechanism of action:

1) Great success comes from doing something original.
2) By definition, the original isn’t understood at first.
3) Only people who are doing what they love will persist long enough for the world to catch up.
4) But there’s no guarantee that something original will ever be accepted.

I may be the first person to make chocolate sardine candy, and I may love it, but no matter how long I stick with it, I’ll probably never build a successful candy business on it.

So instead of “do what you love,” we should say, “Do what you love, if what you love is a) original, b) plausibly something the world will come to value (even if it doesn’t value it now), c) something you won’t regret doing even if you never become successful.”

A bit of a mouthful, but more useful as career advice!

(Inspired by Steve Martin’s excellent memoir, Born Standing Up.”

13 thoughts on “Doing What You Love

  1. Well put.

    Like any piece of advice, if you take it out of context, it doesn't work.

    The last time I was stuck doing something I really didn't enjoy, I remember thinking "life is short…I've really got to be doing what I love" and making the decision to start something new.

    But I spent a lot of time choosing wisely before I jumped. 🙂

  2. Condition b) is the really important one. And it's tricky because I'm sure anyone who loves something can create a narrative where the world comes to value it.

    How do you teach someone to use a strict and believable definition of 'value'? Maybe have them read about economics?

  3. Alex,

    There's a pretty simple test I recommend: Try to get someone to give you money for it.

    It doesn't have to be easy, but if it is valuable, there's probably someone in the world who values it.

    Sounds like I should write a longer essay on this!

  4. At Boston College they teach students to ask these three questions when discerning vocation:

    1) What do you love?
    2) What are you good at?
    3) What does the world need?

  5. For me the problem is telling what I love apart from what I really really like.

  6. Right on. The type of naive advice like this is what leads people to choose majors in fields that have very little or no practical application. They do what they love in school & pay a lot for it only to find themselves stuck with student loans & unable to find a job after.

    I sympathize with the Occupy movement, but every time I hear one of the protesters whine that they've been unemployed for 2 years after telling the reporter that they majored in South Central Vietnamese poetry I want to crawl into the TV & slap them.

  7. I've always been suspicious of this sort of thing, both for its new-agey "empty profundity" – it sounds inspiring while giving little in the way of actionable advice – and being frankly irrelevant for 99% of humanity. Most people never find anything they actually "love" doing, and while many people who are successful become so because they're highly good at something, it's hard to say they "love" doing it.

    For example, I'm awfully good at organizing data for large-scale searches of the sort that "cloud" companies do, and make a good living because this is a rare skill (and it's even rarer than it should be because the "book methods" in this area suck, but that's another topic). Do I "love" doing it? There's an element of satisfaction when I get something to work that nobody else can, or that someone who should know better claims can't be done, but I'd probably be happier running a dive boat in the Caribbean or something. But my current skill is reasonably interesting and financially rewarding.

    Also, I know many people who's "love" is vegging in front of Xboxes with their "virtual friends" for hours on end. Hard to see how they become "successful" doing what they love.

    I'll admit to a bit of crusty conservatism, ie:

    1. The world gave you life. It owes you nothing else.
    2. Much of life is boring. Deal with it.
    3. You only have the right to pursue happiness, not to "be happy". Once you figure this out, you'll be happier.

  8. Remnant

    The problem with this advice is that, historically, many of the worthwhile things were not considered so during the era when they were created.

    Not only would people not pay Socrates to "do what he loved", they put him to death for it. The eventual harvest of Socrates' thought is the scientific method, logical reasoning and other ideas that have contributed immeasurable to mankind's wellbeing.

    Although we all now know that this is true of pure mathematics, it was not always the case. When people pursued pure mathematics, it was seen as frivolous but its practical applications are numerous once the science catches up with the math.

    And how about art? Beethoven lived and died in poverty. He has generated far more money in any given month of the 21st century that he generated in his lifetime.

    Nonetheless, there is a paradox here which is that it still remains extremely bad advice for most people to "do what they love". But the fact is that we often cannot predict how things will turn out in the long run. Basically, if you do decide to do what you love, don't blame others or look for a handout if it doesn't work out.

  9. Anonymous

    "Do what you love" is life advice, not financial advice. That's all there is to it.

  10. Great discussion!

    The easiest way to tell what you love is to see if you keep doing it as time goes by. Love persists where fads do not.

    I think a big issue is that people take "do what you love" way too literally. I love reading, and I love talking with people. But knowing those two facts isn't enough. I need to figure out which occupations tap those loves, and what subset of those occupations are actually a good fit for me.

    Those two loves could lead one to any of the following occupations:
    * Literary critic
    * Bookstore clerk
    * Reference librarian
    * Marketing professional

    Guess which one of those occupations is better suited to provide a lucrative career?

  11. I think this is brilliant advice.

    I would just add: and keep refining your beliefs about what you love throughout your life. We often think we love stuff when actually it's just zoning us out (boozing, crap telly), or confuse what we love with the emotional needs it happens to meet (performing music/ being applauded) or just change our preferences as time goes by. Plus we come across things we never knew existed. And we need to practice and get better at loving- it's an active skill, not just a feeling.

    Big subject!

  12. Amen! "Doing what you love" is one of the reasons why the most eccentric products in the market get noticed but hardly ever sell. It's just them who get to appreciate what they did. If someone is dead serious of earning profits, then he must also take into account what his target market wants and determine what interests of his would help him meet such wants.

  13. I believe its all about having a VISION. you need to know what you are seeking plus execute your plans at the RIGHT TIME, that's the trick.

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