Do What You Love — Maybe Not

Steve Jobs, in his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford, argued that we should do the work we love. Here is an excerpt expressing his main idea:

You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle…

In the past few days, I have encountered four separate articles concerning the question of whether one should (only) do the work they love. Each piece had Jobs’ claims in mind.

In “A Life Beyond Do What You Love,” philosophy professor Gordon Marino argues that doing what we don’t want to do—doing our duty—is more noble and ethical than just doing what we love. He doesn’t take kindly to the physician who quit his practice to skateboard all day. In, “In the Name of Love,”  the historian Miya Tokumitsu says that the “do what you love” ethos is elitist and degrades work not done from personal passion. It neglects that work may develop our talents, be part of our duty, or be necessary for our survival. The socio-economic elite advances the ‘do what you love ‘view, forgetting their lives depend on others doing supposedly less meaningful work. In, “Never Settle is a Brag,”  the economist and futurist Robin Hanson critiques Jobs’ advice that we shouldn’t settle for unfulfilling work. If everyone followed Jobs’ counsel a lot of needed work would go undone. Note too that the advice works best for the talented, so by advising others to not settle for anything less than work they love, you signal your status. You are bragging. Finally, in “Is Do What You Love Elitist?” philosophical blogger Mark Linsenmayer recognizes the flaws in Jobs’ prescriptions but finds in them an obvious truth too—the good life requires that we not be wage slaves in a market economic system. Thus we should change the system so that work can be more satisfying.  

I agree with Marino that doing our duty, even if it doesn’t make us happy, is admirable. And I agree with Tokumitsu and Hanson that elitists, who often do the most interesting work, fail to value more mundane work. But I think that Linsenmayer makes the most important point. We need a new economic system—one where we can develop our talents and actualize our potential. Most of us are too good for the work we do, not because we are better than others, but because the work available in our current system is not good enough for any of us—it is often not satisfying. (I have written about this previously.) As Marx wrote almost two hundred years ago, most of us are alienated from the work we do, and thus ultimately alienated from nature, ourselves, and other people.

Still, we do not live in an ideal world. So what practical counsel do we give people, in our current time and place, regarding work? Unfortunately, my advice is dull and unremarkable, like so much of the available work. For now, the best recommendation is something like: do the least objectionable/most satisfying work available given your options. That we can’t say more reveals the gap between the real and the ideal, which is itself symptomatic of a flawed society. Perhaps then working to change the world so that people can engage in satisfying work is the most meaningful work of all.

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13 thoughts on “Do What You Love — Maybe Not

  1. I know a few people who love what they do and each one is self employed or work for themselves. Most of us have no choice but do anything we can to survive, take soldiers for example, during the world wars or the Russian invasion of Ukraine thousands of men and woman are forced to take up arms. And the most definitely do not love what they do.So Steve Jobs as nice a guy as he was was basically living the dream we all dream of!

  2. I like music. Earned a little money from it for a few years. Learned to play several instruments, passably well. But, whether I loved it was not an issue. I worked a real job for thirty years, made a living and retired with a decent income. Now, I tackle philosophy.
    I don’t quite love that either. But, I am better at it than I was with music.

  3. thanks for the comments and I agree with most of what you said except almost no one who knew Jobs liked him.

  4. “You are an Actor in a drama not of your own making; Act well the given part,
    because to choose it belongs to Another; now the carpenter does not come to you and say here me discourse on Carpentry, he gives you a contract and builds a house; likewise do you in life, eat like a man, drink like a man , be a good citizen, love wife and children

    Epictetus Discourses

  5. All the arguments have truth in it, it seems to me. I am very good at doing what I love since I am a musician, and very bad indeed at doing more mundane work. I find very hard being orderly, have stuff thrown around the house, etc. Definitely not something I am proud of. Ironically, many of the historical figures I admire, be they either musicians or philosophers, seemed to have been also very bad at doing mundane work too. People like Socrates or Miyamoto Musashi are known to have been careless of their appeareance and even personal hygiene. Most of them could not have changed a lightbulb (or to be more accurate, they would not have cared).

    ”…doing our duty, even if it doesn’t make us happy, is admirable.”.

    I agree: getting slightly drunk might make me happier, but that’s frankly shameful. On the other hand, I now hate doing some vigorous exercise (I prefer to do a few minutes of that instead of more prolonged, easier exercise, as it saves me time) but it is very beneficial for me to do it.

    But ‘doing what you love’ is also a popular delusion, I believe: no one is entirely free of constraints. If it were practicable to ‘do what one loves’, why don’t everyone do it? On the other hand, I believe it to be true that people who only lived doing menial tasks, did so because they didn’t have much else in their heads, let’s be honest. I have no idea how someone can manage to work 8 hours a day doing something that is mind numbing and mechanical.

    When I was younger, I tried to work in restaurants…..I was a complete disaster. Once I just left the salad in the sink and left to go back to practice my guitar. I was fired immediately, and rightly so. But I’ll never regret it. I think it is a good feeling to know that you have done what you loved. Probably this kind of person will not lead a ‘normal life’. But ‘normal’ seems to mean ‘conformist’ rather than good. I’ll never forget what I heard from an American entrepreneur many years ago: ‘Life is too short to do what you hate.’.

    Then again, this should not be an excuse to do away with basic discipline.

    ”….do the least objectionable/most satisfying work available given your options.”.

    This seems to be the most sound advice. Definitely, no one should do what they hate, for they will always carry out these tasks badly, and do a disservice to others, too, so everyone loses.

    The whole topic, it seems to me, is also intimately related to ‘success’, another can of worms: I no longer believe that this happens because of one’s skills, but because that person tried many things, so something might stick sooner or later; in other words, a ‘numbers game’. (this is not my idea, in fact I learned it from a course from The Great Courses, although I no longer remember which one.).

    Thank you!

  6. I actually like a lot of mundane work, especially cleaning gives me satisfaction. The Buddhists often assigned simply tasks to new monks, doing the dishes, working in the garden, etc. So maybe there is something to that. And I’ve known some good philosophers who like to fix things. Sort of a “zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance” kind of attitude. But I can’t fix anything and don’t care too. I was also the world’s worst waiter when I tried it briefly in my early 20s. I sometimes wish I had pursued something other than philosophy so my wife and children’s lives would have been easier monetarily but I just loved philosophy and new I wasn’t meant for so many other occupations. Just never cared about making money (and the results show that:)

  7. ” I was also the world’s worst waiter when I tried it briefly in my early 20s.”. Ha ha, same here! I was actually ashamed to tell you of my youthful and totally careless salad preparation method, but now that you too revealed your secret about your poor waiter skills, since we have this in common too I am now entirely proud of it, ha ha.

    I think you should never, even for a minute, regret having chosen to be a philosopher. Being a father and a husband is only too common, being a philosopher is not. Imagine if instead of the world population having 50 per cent of people as fathers and husbands (or whatever are the correct figures) half of the world’s population were all philosophers….

    Look at it from another point of view: you and your loved ones happen to live in America, a first world country and perhaps the greatest country of them all, instead of a bad or a lesser country. The glass half full/empty idea that is as old and common as it is true, I think.

    Wishing you a great week end,
    PS. and yes, I never cared much about money, either. It can’t be a coincidence that all the greatest minds didn’t care, either. (although I wish I shared with them both traits instead of only the money one, ha ha).

  8. as always thanks for your kind words. Surely the world would be better off with more intellectual virtue but of course moral virtue is needed too.

  9. Yeah, I am a fix it guy. Not an auto mechanic, but fairly easy stuff. Plumbing, wood working. Can do most of what it takes to maintain, or restore a bicycle. My father and his father were like that. Saved a lot of money that was needed for other things….making something from very little was an art form and considered an economic necessity. If we believe even part of what Dawkins wrote, extended phenotypes apply to human beings too. Sir Richard has gotten some pedestrian criticism lately. I don’t think he gives a rat’s behind about that. Contextual reality brings out the worst in some of us.

  10. There is a lot of Wisdom on display in the comments to-day.

    “You are an Actor in a drama not of your own making; ” This is truth, we essentially, inherit our potential palette of roles from our parents and all the other factors that shape our lives and expectations, this is neither good or bad it is simply reality.

    Every human is a Philosopher, in that everyone attempts to understand the world through the lens they create with their thoughts, I’m not saying everyone is equal in their abilities, but simply saying that philosophizing is a Human trait practiced by everyone, even those who have no idea what a Philosopher is, and therefore can have no pretensions that they are one.

    Thank you Dr. John for giving us the opportunity to ponder, and comment on, these things.

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