How to do what you love.
February 20, 2012 6:42 PM   Subscribe

To do something well you have to like it. That idea is not exactly novel. We've got it down to four words: "Do what you love." But it's not enough just to tell people that. Doing what you love is complicated. From How to do what you love, by essayist (and programmer, and entrepreneur) Paul Graham.
posted by shivohum (39 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Initially I misread and thought this was a new Paul Ford essay, but no. Click through and it's just the same old Graham. (I would like to read a Paul Ford essay on this topic)
posted by aparrish at 7:14 PM on February 20, 2012

I liked it. At first I thought it would be completely out of touch with reality (because of the title), but it's actually pretty realistic and has sound down-to-earth advice. It actually made me a little bit hopeful. Thank you.
posted by Tarumba at 7:15 PM on February 20, 2012

Is there some reason why rich ex-programmers cannot see that, just as with many other problems of induction, solving "life" for a single, n=1, base case does not mean you possess the algorithm solving it for every other case? Particularly when your case involves having controlled your own means of production for so long that you actually forget that this puts you in quite a different situation from everyone who doesn't?
posted by RogerB at 7:20 PM on February 20, 2012 [32 favorites]

The test of whether people love what they do is whether they'd do it even if they weren't paid for it—even if they had to work at another job to make a living. How many corporate lawyers would do their current work if they had to do it for free, in their spare time, and take day jobs as waiters to support themselves?

This test is especially helpful in deciding between different kinds of academic work, because fields vary greatly in this respect. Most good mathematicians would work on math even if there were no jobs as math professors, whereas in the departments at the other end of the spectrum, the availability of teaching jobs is the driver: people would rather be English professors than work in ad agencies, and publishing papers is the way you compete for such jobs. Math would happen without math departments, but it is the existence of English majors, and therefore jobs teaching them, that calls into being all those thousands of dreary papers about gender and identity in the novels of Conrad. No one does that kind of thing for fun.

That's just stupid. And wrong.
posted by rtha at 7:23 PM on February 20, 2012 [26 favorites]

It is a good article. One problem: I find it strange that he thinks that reading is unproductive.

Except for some books in math and the hard sciences, there's no test of how well you've read a book, and that's why merely reading books doesn't quite feel like work. You have to do something with what you've read to feel productive.

I know when I've read something worth reading and when I've read dreck. Some books change the way you think or make you able to see some aspect of human experience in a new light. Some don't. It's not a matter of snobbery. There are books like that in every genre, or the genre would die.

Sculpting changes wood, reading changes me. Both are productive.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 7:28 PM on February 20, 2012 [10 favorites]

I'm really sick of the privilege that comes with this kind of essay. Many people CAN'T do what they love and it doesn't help to be told that this is morally as well as practically wrong. It's totally okay to have a job that gets you by and supports you in doing the things you love. I say this as someone who IS doing what she loves (teaching second grade) and I would do it even if I won the lottery and didn't have to (although I would lobby for a fuckton of educational policy changes as well) but I recognize that not everyone gets to live life like that and I am really, REALLY fucking lucky that I have such an awesome and amazing job. It would be great if we could all do what we love but I think we have to recognize that there are some jobs that, while they may be rewarding in the sense that you can always be proud of hard work, are just jobs that need to be done and may not be inherently fulfilling and it's still okay to do those.

This also really pisses me off: "Teachers in particular all seemed to believe implicitly that work was not fun."

WRONG! I work really hard to make sure my kids know how much fun learning is and how rewarding work can be. It's Monday! We get to learn new vocabulary words! This gives us new ways to talk about the world! I love subtraction regrouping because it's like a fun puzzle, we get to see how the numbers fit together to give us the answer. We have a test! This means we get to show how much we've learned and feel proud of our accomplishments! We get to READ! We get to learn things and help our brains grow and change how we see the world. This is what work does for us! It's super awesome!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 7:35 PM on February 20, 2012 [32 favorites]

rtha: I teach math at the college level, and that paragraph has annoyed me for years. Both because maybe I wouldn't do math if it wasn't my job, and because I know plenty of people in other academic disciplines who do what they do because they love it. My English-grad-student friends don't want to be teaching freshman comp any more than I want to be teaching statistics for people who want to get into the business school.
posted by madcaptenor at 7:40 PM on February 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

Anyone who says "do what you love" is humblebragging. Essays like these (and, say, Steve Job's famous "inspiring" commencement speech) imply that the speaker/writer is smart and cool and awesome and as a result found work s/he loves, know, losers, who work as janitors and telemarketers because they're not as smart or cool or awesome. Did you know some people take boring jobs just so they can eat and raise families? They might as well be dead.
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:40 PM on February 20, 2012 [43 favorites]

I agree with rtha...if it is possible to like writing novels, it is possible to like writing criticism...

Also, I don't think this article solves the problem that "not everyone can do what they love." I, personally, don't love learning about the natural sciences, and I would not love becoming a doctor. That sort of work would be tedious to me. Because I don't know how other people feel, I don't know if anyone does enjoy that kind of work. (I don't want to assume that nobody does, because that might be the equivalent of saying that nobody likes to write literary criticism.) But, if it is the case that nobody does like that kind of work, I'm glad some people do work they don't like, because I'm glad we have doctors.

Also, the question is more complicated than "do what you love" because you might think a product you've created or something you've learned to do is awesome, but the process of creating it might not have been pleasurable...

Could we structure the world so that even the tasks this author identifies as tedious seem fun? After all, we like boyfriend has been slowly introducing me to the idea that fun can also be productive, that we can make more things into games. Maybe the problem isn't that we fail to find what we love, but we fail to love challenges...we fail to recognize that we can make them into games
posted by Lee Shore at 7:45 PM on February 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

That's just stupid. And wrong.

You have rather succinctly described basically all of Paul Graham's essays.

I'm glad people like Mrs. Pterodactyl and some others are going into more detail though.
posted by sparkletone at 7:47 PM on February 20, 2012 [7 favorites]

Basically, Paul Graham could imagine himself being a mathematician, but he couldn't imagine himself being a literary critic, and he extrapolates to everybody.

Of course every good mathematician knows that when you extrapolate, you make an ass out of you and me (possibly NSFW speech).
posted by madcaptenor at 7:50 PM on February 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

I never take for granted the choice we westerners have about career paths and the ability to change jobs, and do something completely different. Some contemplation on this one thing goes a long way in weighing up the utility of whether you like your job or not.
posted by a non e mouse at 7:51 PM on February 20, 2012

Wow man.

This dude is paddling the douchecanoe up trite creek with some furious stroking of his paddle.

Gonna throw out his back if he keeps on like that.
posted by kavasa at 7:58 PM on February 20, 2012 [12 favorites]

In other news, anybody in the world still gives a shit what Paul Graham has to say.
posted by edheil at 8:02 PM on February 20, 2012

Being an extremely skilled and creative computer programmer is a path to riches. Once you are rich, doing what you love seems the obvious choice, and so you look for other ways you could have ended up doing what you love. All of which are predicated on the idea of you loving to do something which is highly valued in our economy. So hopefully you love manipulating capital flows, programming, or being a corporate attorney.

In conclusion, hooray for late capitalism?
posted by pmb at 8:10 PM on February 20, 2012 [8 favorites]

Spoken like a privileged twat. Most people can't do what they love because they neither have the time (because they're working their asses off) or the money (they can't afford to not work a "day job.") If I did what I loved I'd be sleeping on a park bench.

And no, you don't have to love something in order to be good at it. Many people are good at what they do because it ensures them a paycheck, and that should be good enough.
posted by Anima Mundi at 8:14 PM on February 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

I tried doing what I love. Then I found out that drinking at 8 AM doesn't pay the bills, so I got a job instead. Seriously, that's what I would do except for paying bills. Some people would be doctors and lawyers and professors anyway but I would very happily be a waste of time, and I suspect many other people would too. So I think his premise falls apart when you consider anything larger than a tiny sample size.
posted by PCup at 8:38 PM on February 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

I prefer Ran Prieur's take on this:
Do not try to find a job doing what you love. This is my most radical advice. There are some people in the world who have jobs they love so much that they would do them for free. If you become one of these people, you will probably get there not through planning but through luck, by doing what you love for free until somehow the money starts coming in. But if you make an effort to combine your income and your love, you are likely to end up compromising both, making a poverty income by doing something you don’t quite love, or no longer love. For example, if you decide to become a chef because you love cooking, it will probably make you hate cooking, because cooking will become linked in your mind to all the bullshit around the job.

What I recommend instead is to separate your money from your love. Get the most low-stress source of income that you can find, and then do exactly what you love for free. It might eventually make you money or it might not. “Do what you love and the money will follow” is a lie. The real rule is: “If you’re doing what you love, you won’t care if you never make any money from it – but you still need money."
posted by velvet winter at 9:01 PM on February 20, 2012 [47 favorites]

This probably just emphasizes my own struggle to not be a lazy ass. I know I am losing for the most part. I think it was Michael Lewis on Charlie Rose who said, "My natural state is at rest." I found myself saying amen brother, but it also clued me into the idea that I am going to gravitate to rest when I do not enjoy the work. Lewis it seemed to me figured out that he was going to be better off as a highly interested (motivated) participant.

Graham certainly sounds privileged to be in this position, as Lewis is as well. So I get the linkage to grandiose douchebaggery but part of what he is saying is that he got there with this methodology. It may be revisionist and biased by his own leanings but there are some pearls there I think. Like pruning the stuff you don't like in your job and trying to be ever more productive in the parts that you do. I also just liked the general focus on producing as it reminded me of another good book on finding the productive way, "The War of Art" by Steven Pressfield.

Of course, I understand life is tough and there are structural barriers in society to everyone doing what they want but I think a few of you need to reread the essay if you think he said doing what you love means short term pleasure satisfaction. I think he was grown up about the fact that it is a struggle but while you are here you may as well have a go at improving the nature of what you do to align with your interests.
posted by dieselid at 9:19 PM on February 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you love your job so much that you'd do it for free, people will figure that out and pay you far too little as a result. (see, for example, many low level give in the creative industries.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:25 PM on February 20, 2012 [11 favorites]

I'm good at bowling because bowling is easy, but bowling is fucking stupid, so I don't like to do it. What do i win?
posted by cmoj at 9:53 PM on February 20, 2012

The test of whether people love what they do is whether they'd do it even if they weren't paid for it—even if they had to work at another job to make a living.

What always gets me about this sentiment is the apparent complete disregard and disinterest in the actual individual who does, in fact, find no option other than doing it for free. I honestly don't think the actuality of this - the significance of doing something you love without remuneration or recognition - even occurs to the Paul Grahams of this world.

In theory you'd think this would be a noble and presumably fulfilling state to attain but let me tell you, I don't see people lining up for tickets to the conference and hear all the motivational speeches from our crew. But it's nice that all the successes find their purely putative willingness to do it for free provides some sort of litmus proof for the sincerity of their vocation, I guess.
posted by nanojath at 9:59 PM on February 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

This advice will become much more useful when humans figure out that unemployment is a feature and not a bug and then we establish a welfare society so doing what you love won't lead to becoming homeless.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 10:19 PM on February 20, 2012 [5 favorites]

I just want to tinker in my shop half the day, and goof off on the internet for some other part of the day, and eat some good food.

Where the fuck is my trust fund?
posted by maxwelton at 10:40 PM on February 20, 2012 [5 favorites]

Do What You Love .... first world problems alert!
posted by GallonOfAlan at 11:21 PM on February 20, 2012

"An essay in which I offer a series of astute observations about people, but fail to answer the question posed in my title, which poses a hard problem the answer to which requires a much more analytical discourse in a significantly clearer and concise language."
posted by polymodus at 11:30 PM on February 20, 2012

To understand Paul Graham, it helps to know that the poor guy reads Hacker News every single day. Likely he reads Hacker News more than he reads any other individual source. And if you had to read Hacker News as much as Paul reads Hacker News, and if they had the same brown-nosing attitude towards you as they have towards Paul, then even when you try to write meaningful things you're going to end up writing somewhat silly pieces.

I mean, going to Hacker News right now you find that two of the top current pieces are called Do Things, Tell People, which tells you that all you need for success is to be highly productive and to share your output, and I am not a consumer. I am a citizen., which immediately drew responses like:
Look around you. You are not a citizen. You are an exception.
Beware of everything worth more than it's weight in gold.
Here you've got a community centered around finding recruits for Paul's YCombinator funding program, so you've got a mix of programmers and entrepreneurs – either group of which in large numbers can produce toxic results. And most of them are in this community to either make a name for themselves (that's where I went to when I was 18 and had a blog and a product to launch) or to convince Paul to give them money. It's a very smart community, the best people in it are very good, but it's just not a healthy place to dwell upon.

THAT SAID: Paul is pretty much writing these articles for ambitious college students and young adults. You've got a LOT of Harvard and MIT kids on HN, though of course people come from everywhere. He's writing this as inspiration for the kid who might have the ambition to do his own creative thing (read: YCombinator-funded entrepreneur) but is scared to move away from what mom and dad think is a respectable career choice.

He doesn't offer his writings as a "solution for society", unless by society you mean "affluent nerd sorts", and you know what? I think that's fine. He has an audience and most of us here are not it. I'm not in the audience any more myself, but when I was 18 and spent a year at TCNJ, where I was frequently miserable and depressed, Paul Graham's writing encouraged me to do my own thing and figure myself out, and I owe him one. When you get past that threshold most of his writing ceases to have value – essays like Why Nerds are Unpopular show that he's got a limited perspective on humanity – but he's a shrewd businessman, and YC has funded some wonderful things. Paul's essays are one of the big contributors to YC's success; they're why I applied for funding freshman year.
posted by Rory Marinich at 12:29 AM on February 21, 2012 [12 favorites]

Oh, Platitude Graham.

I guess he MUST be addressing a very narrow group of people (very special snowflakey upper middle class college students who are looking to create a tech start up?)

Because I read this essay going, "what kind of bizarro world do you live in?"
posted by The ____ of Justice at 2:19 AM on February 21, 2012

One problem: I find it strange that he thinks that reading is unproductive.

If you're at all familiar with his oeuvre, this shouldn't surprise you at all.
posted by mhoye at 4:49 AM on February 21, 2012

posted by mhoye at 4:51 AM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you love your job so much that you'd do it for free, people will figure that out and pay you far too little as a result. (see, for example, many low level give in the creative industries.)

Very true. It's annoying to see people offer low (or no) pay for artists because hey, you're not doing it for the money, right? You love to do this work! *sigh*

Anyway, here is the single best piece of advice I have ever seen regarding "doing what you love". In retrospect, wish I had heard this many years ago, before I fell out of love with what had been both my career and life's passion:
I heard years ago that one of the keys to a life well lived is to take your two deepest passions, make your second-favorite your job and make the other your hobby. If you make your deepest passion your job, you’ll get caught up in the bullshit that inevitably crops up and you won’t be able to see it in the same untainted light. If you reserve that for your second-favorite passion, you can always keep whatever it is that really excites you alive and fresh and energizing.
Sean Kleefeld said this in this post, but I got the quote from here.
posted by May Kasahara at 5:56 AM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Of course every good mathematician knows that when you extrapolate, you make an ass out of you and me yt (possibly NSFW speech).

madcaptenor, I take issue with your video's claims regarding the safety of interpolation!

On the actual topic of the post: one of these days we should have a serious discussion here on metafilter about alienated labor, why it's a feature of our current economic system, and what to do about that. I'd like that.
posted by eviemath at 6:58 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

In my defense, I was drunk, as a dozen or so Mefite witnesses will testify. I had also not prepared to give this lecture; if I had I would have had higher-quality paper than a napkin. You should not extrapolate from what I say drunk to what I would say sober or in a classroom setting.
posted by madcaptenor at 8:49 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

one of these days we should have a serious discussion here on metafilter about alienated labor, why it's a feature of our current economic system, and what to do about that. I'd like that.

These are fascinating questions, once you get past the typical facile conclusions (many of which we've seen previously on the blue) and start digging into the deeper systemic complexities.

I'm writing a book on this, in fact...very slowly, but surely. I have been doing research on these matters for over 15 years, and only in recent months have I actually felt prepared to produce the kind of book I've always wanted to read on these subjects.

I encourage you to put together a post. I'd love to see a discussion like this in MeFi. Not sure whether I'll have time to fully participate - after all, I'm trying to write a book ("do what I love") while also hunting for a job - but I can probably provide pointers to helpful reading material, at least.
posted by velvet winter at 11:46 AM on February 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

What if you don't know what you love?
posted by allseeingabstract at 5:43 PM on February 21, 2012

Find something that doesn't annoy the everliving fuck out of you that pays you enough to keep a roof over your head and food in your belly. Use the money you get and the energy you have (from working a job that doesn't annoy the everliving fuck out of you) to find things you do love.

Tons of people don't have A Grand Passion For This One Thing. They have a bunch of love or strong like for a bunch of different things, and those things will probably change somewhat over the years. That's cool too.
posted by rtha at 6:27 PM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I totally get the whole "don't ruin your hobby by turning it into your job." This is why any attempts at a craft business or something like that have turned sour for me very quickly. But on the other hand, it is frustrating to only be able to have a job where I can't really use any skills of mine except for typing, because nothing else makes a living wage. And feeling like I am wasting my life because I can't do anything I am actually especially good at for 8 hours a day for the next few decades.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:55 PM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I totally get the whole "don't ruin your hobby by turning it into your job."

Related advice: don't go to grad school. It will make your love for [subject you're studying] go away.
posted by madcaptenor at 9:31 PM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

don't go to grad school. It will make your love for [subject you're studying] go away.

Agreed, and I think this is often true at the undergrad/post-bac level as well. I have two Bachelor of Science degrees. It's only half in jest that I refer to them as "twice the B.S."

I don't mean to imply that my formal education was useless; it certainly wasn't. But I have learned a lot more, and retained a lot more, as an autodidact and voracious reader than I ever did as an academic. I love reading, research, and writing so much - I absorb information like a sponge and I enjoy every minute of it, as long as it's self-directed. I don't need formal structure to motivate me to learn; in fact it is a disincentive, because it dampens my passion for the subject matter.

The good news for burned-out academics is that it's possible that your love for your subject will return in full force after a good chunk of time away from academia. It happened that way for me, at least.
posted by velvet winter at 11:41 PM on February 21, 2012

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