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Can You Really "Do What You Love" These Days?

Is doing what you love a ridiculous concept in this economy?

I have always loved music. I received a music theory honors award in high school. So it’s not a surprise that I started college as a music major. It was a mercifully short experiment. As I like to say, I majored in music until I discovered that there were people with talent in that field. Simply “doing what I loved” would have been poor career advice for me. And yet, it is advice I have always followed.

In a Chronicle of Higher Education essay, Susan Basalla, co-author of So What Are You Going to Do With That? A Guide to Career-Changing for M.A.'s and Ph.D.'s wondered if this standard bit of career advice was worth doling out anymore. She comments on the “irritating vagueness” of the phrase, particularly for someone in the job search process. And that was in 2002 when job prospects were certainly better than they are now.

Living by her brand as the “Brazen Careerist” Penelope Trunk calls “do what you love” one of the worst pieces of career advice ever. Ever provocative and funny, she writes that she loves sex, but doesn’t plan to earn a living that way. She also notes, and rightly so, that “Do What You Are” may be a smarter path to follow.

Today’s economy, coupled with endless media coverage about the best-paying jobs and the need to pursue a “practical” education, seems to give lie to this classic career advice. (On a lighter note, here's a link to a Monty Python sketch about an accountant who wants to become a lion tamer.)

So where did this controversial advice begin? Like its companion philosophy, Follow Your Bliss, the philosophy of “do what you love” has been around for centuries, dating back to early spiritual texts. But it was Marsha Sinetar’s 1989 book Do What You Love the Money Will Follow that is responsible for promoting the much heralded-- and maligned—phrase into the common vernacular.

Unfortunately most job seekers haven't read her book, and the phrase has been turned into a bumper sticker, devoid of meaning and potentially dangerous in its simplicity. It reminds me of another common piece of advice, “Leap and the net will appear.” Yes, sometimes it does. And sometimes you just crash.

So maybe it’s time to revisit what Sinetar actually said because the bumper sticker philosophy has erased the depth and intelligence of her book.

In the introduction to her excellent book, Sinetar specifically cautions readers from taking a mindless approach to their career. She clearly states that she is not “suggesting in any way that doing what one loves means doing what one feels like doing.” She describes people who are still waiting for the money to follow: an actress who has yet to catch her break; students enrolled in “tedious, often boring” graduate studies they hope will propel them to what they love; a painter who, knowing it will take years to master her craft, works at a day job and paints on weekends.

Rather she makes the argument for a cohesiveness between love, work, and play, and finding a way to express yourself through a fully-lived life. She herself transitioned from a career in public school teaching and administration to being a self-employed consultant and writer. Hardly a wild and crazy abandon-all-reality choice. Yes, she followed her own advice and is doing what she loves, but in a thoughtful manner. Sinetar sees the value of balance, compromise, and choice.

I am reminded of a quote from one of my favorite movies, The Peaceful Warrior: “A warrior does not give up what he loves. He finds the love in what he does.” Sinetar understands that there are compromises and creative solutions along the path to doing what we love.

She carefully notes that the money doesn’t just “follow”—we must do the work first, invest in ourselves, and gradually see the results of our efforts. She also guides her readers thoughtfully through the dangerous curves of the “Big S” (“Shoulds”) and the “Big R” (Resistance) which can derail our life plans. (For more on overcoming career resistance, see Do the Work.)

Sinetar focuses instead on “right livelihood”-- the ability to craft a vocation that is authentic. The concept of right livelihood fits nicely with the latest findings in positive psychology. Finding the love in what you do in all aspects of your life (see my earlier post on Job Crafting) might be the best way to move forward in today’s career path. It’s all about mindfulness.

Take a few minutes and ask yourself if you have found your right livelihood. Are you pursuing what you love-- or have you found the love in what you do? Because it might be that doing a less-than-ideal job that puts food on your family's table is one aspect of the love you can find in it. And then you can begin to seek openings for what else you can love. Even in this economy there are ways to incorporate what you love into what you do. Because the truth is you probably love many things. Once music was off the table, I shaped my career around other loves. Psychology. Writing. Literature. Art. Teaching. Counseling. Films.

Your “right livelihood” will evolve over the years. In my book, I write about wandering as a career strategy because I believe in chaos theory and planned happenstance. But I always caution my readers to “wander wisely”—that is, in a mindful way. “Do what you love” can be the best or the worst career advice depending on your self-awareness and mindfulness.

©2012 Katharine Brooks. All rights reserved. Find me on Facebook and Twitter.

Image credit: Flickr Creative Commons

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