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Bad Career Advice: Do What You Love and You’ll Never Work a Day

This post is part of my Bad Career Advice series in which I expose outdated, clichéd, and counterproductive advice for exactly what it is.

Oh man, this one kills me. It’s so frequently repeated that hardly anyone questions its truth anymore. And the sad fact is this: If you do what you love for a living, you’ll probably end up loving it a little bit less.

Let me back up for a second: Yes, it’s a wonderful goal to strive for finding work that you enjoy. In fact, it should be a goal for everyone. But this absurd axiom suggests that you can simply take what you already love, turn it into something for which you get paid (meaning, you have clients and bosses and deadlines and obligations…) and it won’t ever feel like anything other than that thing you love. This is a blatant, hurtful lie that far too many people fall for. And they end up feeling like something is wrong with them, when really something is wrong with the idea they’ve been sold.

When something you love becomes work, it fundamentally—and unavoidably—changes the way in which you interact with it.

Work IS NOT Play

In his book, Hardcore Zen, author and Zen Buddhist Brad Werner says the following:

“…even the best job in the world [is] still just a job.  Even Johnny Ramone said that being a rock and roll guitar player was a pretty good job, but that, in the end, it also sucked just like any other job.”

Yep. Ain’t that the truth?

Work is called work because it’s not play. Once you depend on something to put food on your table, it becomes something different. It’s no longer “that thing you do for fun”; it’s “that thing you have to do for survival”.

That doesn’t mean you won’t end up enjoying or maybe even loving the work you do. But it will also be work. You probably won’t mistake it for anything else.

Once you take an activity you love (for me, writing) and start doing it for pay, you involve the opinions and needs of others. Writing for a living means I often have to set aside my personal artistic vision, and simply follow the instructions of my client. I sometimes call myself a “writer monkey” because I feel so caged in. I still write for myself, to explore my own ideas and personal style, and, on most days, I’d say I love the work I do…but these are two different things. The writing I do for work is not the writing I do for play.

Work is MORE than the Work

Instead of focusing on doing what you love so work won’t feel like “work”, take some time to figure out what work means to you. What do you want to get out of it mentally, physically, socially and spiritually? (Get my free mini-workbook if you need help with this.) Then, see how your talents match up with that. For example, if I happened to be the type of person who wanted a lot of social interaction at work, my career in writing (no matter how much I love the activity) would be quite a letdown.

Work is about more than the thing you’re doing. It offers nourishment in a number of different ways. So, when you think about finding work you’ll enjoy (work that, hopefully, can be truly nourishing) think about the entire experience.

It’s dangerous to suggest that work can be anything other than work. Doing what you love can certainly make it a more enjoyable experience. But you’ll also experience a new side of that activity, and it won’t be comfortable. You’ll have to face the inescapable truth that there’s no fooling yourself. Work isn’t the same as play, no matter how similar they might appear on the surface.

I’m very lucky to do what I love for a living. But sometimes, I’m like the gourmet chef who lives off takeout and frozen meals. When you do an activity all day long and depend on it for survival, the playfulness can disappear quickly. Just like in a marriage, it sometimes takes effort to stay in love. At the end of the workday, I have to force myself to write for pleasure after I’ve been writing for eight hours already.

Do I sound cynical? Perhaps a little. But too many people sit around convinced that if only they could turn their NASCAR obsession into a fulltime job, they’d finally be happy. I encourage you to take a deeper look at the things you love and what work means to you. There might be a happy intersection of the two, but don’t force it.

Photo Credit: Bob_King (Flickr)

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17 Responses to “Bad Career Advice: Do What You Love and You’ll Never Work a Day”

  1. THANK YOU! I couldn’t agree more!

    I think there are so many internet entrepreneurs who are selling false hopes and dreams to desparate and unhappy people.

    Although Gen Y has been raised to think that everything is fun, instant and entertaining, the reality is that it is NOT.

    You’re right, work is work. Be thankful for it, do a great job, and don’t expect it do be a play date.

    Thanks for shedding light on this important topic!

  2. Rich says:

    I disagree. This saying is not meant to be taken so literaly. If you love what you do for a living and enjoy the work/stress that is involved with it, it doesn’t really feel like work. If you pick a career soley for the income, it becomes just that; something you do soley for income which is what i think is meant by work. If you are lucky enough to have a hobby that can double as a career than it is not something you do soley for income because you’d still be doing it even if your not getting paid for it. While the guitarist said his playing still felt like work, I’m sure he wouldn’t have chosen any other career given the opportunity.

  3. Chrissy says:

    Hi Rich – Thanks for contributing. I love disagreements so please keep it coming :)

    To address just two things:

    (1) Though you say it’s not meant to be taken literally, it is. Every single day.

    (2) Is doing something you love for a living better than the alternative (i.e. doing something you hate)? Yes. But that’s beside the point. Doing something you love, while being more enjoyable than doing something you hate, is still work. As long as it brings in an income and isn’t being done out of the goodness of your heart and the sheer enjoyment of the task, it’s work. No way around it. About half the people I talk to who have turned their hobby into a career say it fundamentally changed the way they feel about the hobby. Would they take it back? Probably not. But it certainly isn’t just a hobby anymore.

    Of course, that’s just my two cents. And you’re right. I’m sure Johnny Ramone wouldn’t exchange his career for any other. He just doesn’t want people to delude themselves with thinking it’s all sunshine and rainbows.

  4. Sgcray says:

    I agree with this now in life. I loved doing something. And I left a career to do that. Even though it paid less. It seemed a great thing to do then. I was bragging about it to friends, that I was not in a rat race, and I would do what I truly wanted to do for work. And now that I am doing it for work, it sucks. Now I really hate this, and I would rather do anything that pays more. Work is work, and it should be nothing more in life.

  5. cicek says:

    Sgcray, thanks for sharing your experience. I’m sorry that you now hate your work, and what you used to love. I hope that you will be able to find your way towards a work-lifestyle that makes you happy. I am at a stage where I am possibly about to walk the path you did. I will certainly take pause and ask myself important questions about what I want out of my work. This is a great website, Chrissy. Thank you!

  6. Brynhild Tudor says:

    I spent years as a musician and when it became work, I didn’t love it anymore. I find your article quite contradictory, in that you state you hope everyone should find work that they love, then turn around and say work is work. Which is it? For me, when something becomes work, I no longer enjoy it and the passion is gone and the activity isn’t fulfilling. If I love work, it’s not work. All I’m saying is that you cannot expect people to find a job they love while still calling it work and expecting them to still enjoy it or be fulfilled in the long-term.

    I do wholeheartedly agree that you interact with a hobby in a new way once you make it your career path. There’s a lot of drudgery, gruntwork, etc. that you don’t have when the activity was still a hobby. I wanted to turn music into a career precisely for the reason that society values our “have to do” rather than our “want to do.” If I want to practice for an hour daily, society says that’s not a *need*, then points out our responsibilities (kids, house, spouse, job, etc) because those are the things we’re *supposed* to give our attention to (our have to do) before we focus on what we enjoy doing out of pure desire (our want to do.) Which is why we rarely have time for the things we actually want to do in the first place. Turning our passion into a career seemingly would solve the problem, but upon closer inspection, if people were truly honest with themselves, they might say they may want to be musicians but they don’t want all the gruntwork that goes along with it (pay their dues, hours of endless practice of extremely difficult pieces out of obligation, prepare for gig deadlines, start outreach programs, teach publicly or privately, get rejected at auditions, pressure to maintain high technical standards all day every day, keep a hectic touring/performing schedule.) It doesn’t mean they’re lazy, they’re just being honest with themselves, and trying to figure out why they love what they love. Many people dislike the corporate world precisely for the reasons you mentioned, yet they also do not want to start their own business, because the reality is that being your own boss does carry an enormous amount of responsibility, paperwork, etc. that people do not want, even though they love their chosen activity. Likewise, there are benefits to working for someone else (no self-advertising) and there are benefits to working for yourself (setting your own schedule, doing whatever/whenever/wherever you want) and honest people would say they want the best of both worlds without the disadvantages.

    I’m no longer involved in music and so have no gruntwork to deal with, which is why I enjoy it more. There’s no pressure or requirements, and though I want to do the best I can at my occasional performances of easier pieces (I enjoy playing less technically challenging works that don’t require as much practice time, but playing them well), sometimes I just don’t feel like practicing, so I take those days off. I’m in another endeavor now and am still trying to figure out how far I wish to take it, the line between hobby and career. I still haven’t found the line yet and perhaps it’s an unsolvable problem that we’re not meant to know the answer to because of its intangibility in explaining where that line is.
    You’re supposed to do what you love for a career, yet when you do, you love it less! You said it yourself and yet people are supposed to love it and be fulfilled?

    So while I agree with your article, I do think your solution of “everybody should find work they love but it’s still work” is contradictory. It is far more realistic to say that you may never be totally, 100 percent happy and fulfilled with whatever job you have because there are aspects you don’t like about it, but you do the best you can with what you have. And while money is definitely not the sole reason people choose careers, it’s certainly a big one, and it does have merit if people do not wish to start their own businesses, so it’s the lesser of two evils, damned if you do and damned if you don’t, kind of thing. I do not love something or find it fulfilling precisely because it’s called work. Honestly, much as I adore music, I’d choose something else that would let me pursue music to as high a level as I wished. This other occupation would be a part-time, well-paying job that I would enjoy long-term, which would let me pursue music as a hobby on my own terms without gruntwork and put far more priority on what I loved/wanted to do, rather than what I was obligated/required to do for the job.
    So I could do a hobby without gruntwork, and I could get paid doing something else equally enjoyable, that would be called “play” rather than “work.) Needless to say, this job does not exist in society. So while I wouldn’t trade my years at music school for anything, I would also avoid the gruntwork of being a musician, or any job, for that matter.
    Alternatively, if I could keep my hobby lifestyle exactly the same and receive a paycheck for it, I would. But that’s not how work is.

    Unless we do away with money completely, or a new eutopia emerges from the ashes of 2012 when the world supposedly ends due to the Mayan calendar, I see no way around this passion-career dilemma.

  7. Adrian M says:

    I disagree with this article. I started Computer Programming as a hobby when I was 15 years old. I decided that is what I wanted to do for my career. I worked to obtain my degree for Computer Programming and now I’m three years into my career. I don’t feel like I enjoy computer programming any less than when I first started when I was 15 years old. I enjoy going to work every day and I feel lucky that it was easy for me to identify what I wanted to do for my career.

    A lot of people my age haven’t went to college because they don’t know what they want to do for a career. They don’t want to “waste” money on an arts and sciences degree because they will spend much money going to school for this and not have much more job opportunity than a high school degree.

    I completely agree with “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”

  8. […] was relieved to find a kindred soul here. The author […]

  9. Andrew says:

    I have to disagree, I spent 7 years working in finance and hated it and always thought if I do what I love I wouldn’t work a day. So I quit in my min 20’s, went to University and became an Archaeologist. Doing it for a few years now and I love every aspect of it, and I honestly feel very time I go to a site or different place to dig, or sit in a box going over everything, it feels like I’m doing my “hobby” and getting paid and sent around the world for it. Love every moment, and the hard work for sometimes 12 hours a day and sometimes 7 days a week doesn’t bother me a bit, – 8 hours in the office in finance used to kill me.

    So for me it stands true, do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.

  10. […] hear a lot of people say the old saying about passion and work: “love what you do and you’ll never work another day in your […]

  11. giselle says:

    I completely subscribe to the saying. My life and career as a journalist is a living example of loving what you do…and not ever feeling like its work. I believe alot of people have dreams of what they BELIEVE they are meant to do, but perhaps deeper introspection may reveal another hidden passion/talent that was overlooked or untapped. I feel as though I’m getting paid to do a hobby…and the strange thing is, at my very first interview for the position of trainee news reporter, I remember saying to the panel that I would do the job for free if given the chance …and I meant it! Other jobs felt like work, but as now I actually get an adrenaline rush while on the job and feel a great sense of satisfaction at a job well done at the end of the workday.

  12. firefly says:

    Well, if I got paid for doing what I love, I’d have to move to Nevada since that’s the only place in the US where such a thing is legal LOL

  13. […] Do What You Love and You‘ll Never Work a Day! […]

  14. Madge says:

    For 25 years, I climbed the corporate ladder. I achieved success by today’s standards. Afterall, I was rewarded with promotions; I gained a VP title and a six figure salary. I worked 60 plus hours a week, sacrificing my personal life and my health. I was stressed out, drinking too much, filled w/ anxiety, and I longed for the weekends. I hated my job, but loved the money.

    At 47 years of age, I got sick and could no longer work 60 hours a week. After each surgery (3 total), I would go back to work. Since I was no longer available to my employer 24/7, I was treated like I had the plague.

    Next, I suffered a debilitating car accident coming home from physical therapy. My doctor said you must stop working and go on disability. I went on disability and six months later, I lost my job. I needed a year to recover. Did my business cronies come and visit me? No. Did they call to find out how I was doing? No. When I was terminated, did my boss call me? No. He had the HR person tell me they could no longer hold my job. My peers and my superior keep right on going with their lives, for fear what happened to me would happen to them.

    After the disability ran out, I knew that I could no longer work in the corporate world. I was living in chronic pain and the pain meds wrecked havoc w/ my cognitive abilities. When I was feeling about 50% better, I started my own business. All of a sudden, work felt different. No more waking up at 4:00 am filled with anxiety. No more pits in my stomach. Why did I feel so different? It was because I was stress free and I was loving every minute I was working.

    I chose a business that allowed me to work with products that I personally love and use. I could never have started this business at 25, because I lacked the experience the corporate world taught me. However, at 50, I am working and it no longer feels like work. The only people I am beholden to are my customers, and they are reasonable and understanding. I do what I love, and it pays the bills. I am working! I am enjoying a stress free work environment and I am having fun. “Fun” is a word that doesn’t exist in Corporate America….

  15. BlahBlah says:

    I’m calling nonsense on this. If you can make a living doing something you enjoy, do it. I would rather make living doing something I love than make a killing doing something I hate. Money can’t pay for the pain you put yourself through doing a job you hate.

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  17. […] to love what we do and have the necessary business knowledge to actually get it going properly. When a hobby is no longer enjoyable as it is run as a business, it is better to focus on something else. You will need to think like a […]

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