Why You Shouldn’t "Do What You Love"

How pursuing meaning and purpose is paralyzing young adults.

Posted Mar 11, 2019

You’ve no doubt heard the advice: Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. Follow your passion. With hard work and determination, you can live the dream. Create a life of meaning. Find your calling. And so on.

While well-intentioned, all that this advice has led to is a generation of young people who are confused, frustrated, and moving from job to job in search of that elusive “dream” career (whatever that is), or overwhelmed with indecision about how to get started in the first place. As one young professional said to me recently, reflecting on the tendency of young professionals to job-hop, “I keep thinking about that 27 jobs thing. People tell me to find my passion. What is that?”

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

What is that, indeed? Don’t get me wrong, I think everyone can, and should, explore and develop their passions. I think each of us should be striving for a life of meaning, in whatever ways that we each define that. If you can find a calling to pursue, more power to you.

But to hold that up as the ideal of a well-lived life does a disservice to a lot of young people who are just starting out, at a time when their brains may not even be finished developing yet. In fact, it can be truly paralyzing. What if you don’t know what your passion is in your early twenties? What if you have 14 different things that you love? What if the thing that you love doesn’t fall in the category (as defined by others) of pursuing a “higher purpose” or “giving back” in some way? How do you navigate through these first years post-graduation, then?

A useful process for thinking about your relationship to work, and making sense of what happens there, is to consider the three key work orientations. Those with a job orientation see work as a means to an end, allowing them to pursue other interests in their personal lives. Those with a career orientation are focused on achievement related to upward mobility. And those with a calling orientation align their work with their personal identity, which is how they find meaning.

What’s important to understand about these three work orientations is that there is no “right answer.” No one orientation is better than the others. What’s important is that you figure out what makes the most sense for you.

There is a fair amount of privilege to be found in the advice, “do what you love.” Some folks just need to do what they have to do to pay the bills, to pay back student loans, to cover the rent. We get into pretty dangerous territory when we start placing value judgments on how “meaningful” other people’s lives may or may not be.

Therefore, rather than “do what you love,” I’d like to argue, instead, that you “do what you’re good at,” or that you “do what you’re interested in, right now,” or that you “do what you like.” Life is a journey of becoming, of getting closer and closer to that thing you might eventually call “the dream,” through a series of experiences that help you to distinguish between those things that you like, and those things that you don’t. It’s all data to help you to make more informed decisions about how you spend your time and your life. When you first enter the workforce, you simply do not have enough data yet. The more likely scenario is not that you will stumble upon your passion one day, or that it will hit you over the head, but that you will grow into your passions over time.

So where do you start?

  • Do what you’re good at. What are your strengths? What are those things that seem to come naturally to you, or that you can do with little effort? Look for roles that allow you to do those things as much as possible, with opportunities to grow into areas that aren’t as strong or as familiar to you.
  • Do what you’re interested in, right now. It’s completely OK to take a role that aligns with your current interests, even if you can’t forecast how that will play out over a career. Remember, it’s all data. Your next experience will help inform the one after that, and so on. Stop trying to figure out the next 20 years. Simply figure out what’s next.
  • Do what you like. Chances are, if you are doing something that aligns with your strengths and interests, you will be doing something that you like. It won’t all be sunshine and roses; there’s a reason it’s called “work” and not “spa,” after all. But whether it’s the industry, or the mission of the organization, or the environment that you get to work in, find something that you like, and find a way to do more of that.

Finally, it’s worth noting that sometimes when we turn the thing that we love into the thing that we do for a living, it has the unintended consequence of turning a passion into work. For example, I love to travel. I love learning about new places, experiencing new cultures, and stepping out of my own limited world and broadening my perspective. One would think, then, that if travel was part of my job, then I would be happier. Well, travel is part of my job, and it actually diminishes that experience for me. Instead of being a life-expanding experience, it becomes just another thing on my to-do list. The thing that I love has become “work,” which actually makes it less of an object of my affection, not more so.

We all need passions. We all want to live a life that gives us meaning. But don’t let someone else place value judgments on your life, and whether or not it is living up to their definition of “meaningful.” The only person who should be defining your life is you.