You’ve all heard a variation on this proverb: “Do what you love.” It is one of the worst things you can say to young, impressionable people. And it is frequently repeated by the extremely small minority of people who are incredibly fortunate to do what they love for a living. But for the rest of society, it is terrible advice.
I’m very satisfied with my job. It pays well, has excellent benefits, the hours aren’t long, and it’s only a mile from where I live. So what do I do? I work as a mid-level software developer in one of my company’s IT departments, and it is about as exciting as it sounds. The job itself is excessively dull and endlessly frustrating. If you asked me if I liked my job, I’d tell you that I dislike it quite a bit.
Just about anybody who ever majored in computer science in the last 20 years did so because at some point in their youth, they wanted to be game developers. Maybe 2% of those who graduate with a degree in CS actually go on to live their childhood dream. And most of them will face brutal hours and relatively low pay that they might have to fight in court to get. Most of them will eventually burn out and exit the industry and end up taking the high paying, but extremely dull, job in IT.
Even when you consider apex positions in glamor industries, a lot of the people there don’t even really love what they do. Do you honestly think that Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg took starring roles in 2 Guns because they were enamored with the source material and wanted to bring an artfully crafted film adaptation to the masses? Get real. They just wanted a paycheck while trying to stay relevant in show business. For every Daniel Day-Lewis, there’s a dozen Jon Cryers mailing it in on bland, utterly predictable sitcoms on CBS.
We’ve all come across the people who just gush over their jobs. They’ll humblebrag about how busy they are or post a picture of something cool from their workplace on Facebook, and yet I can’t buy the central premise. I don’t think they love their job. I think they love everything that the job provides: money, high social status, and a sense of self importance.
It’s too easy for them to convince themselves that it’s really the job they love. Or maybe it’s just the fact that it’s not polite to boast about being on the right side of the income and status distribution so they settle for trite things like “my job keeps me really busy, but I wouldn’t have it any other way!” Not only is it disingenuous, it’s also sending out a bad message about work to the people on the outside looking in.
Many people would love to make their passion their full time job but the reality is there simply aren’t enough cool jobs to go around for that to happen. Want to be a big shot politician? There are only 537 elected positions at the Federal level. How about a famous movie star? There are only 8 major film studios in Hollywood and they each churn out maybe 5 tent-poles in a given year. Pro quarterback? Just 32 starting positions in the NFL. The further you go up the glamor and prestige ladder, the less slots are available while the number of people who want to fill them increases.
It’s a fool’s errand to, in a work context, do what you love. If that were the case, half of the population would just play videogames and watch football for a living. Because the cold, hard fact of life is people are most passionate about themselves and their personal interests. Very rarely does that passion ever intersect with the lucrative world of professional services.
For the rest of us, we have our boring day jobs, counting down the minutes until we can go leave. After work, we can finally do what we really want to do. And most of us really want to eat at restaurants, watch movies and TV, go to concerts and sports games, hang out with friends, and travel. I don’t mind if you say that you love those things.
Just don’t say you love your job. There’s a reason why they have to pay us to go to work.