Do What You Love

Sometimes platitudes work; sometimes they’re not worth the paper they’re written on (or the breath they’re spoken with).

Case in point: “Do what you love”. This is a phase whose gravity is the greatest when directed at recently graduated high school seniors or starry-eyed college students.  Expecting kids to decide on their vocation with nothing but the equivalent of a handful of pamphlets to help them make up their minds, the advice to “do what you love” seems less like something fit for embroidery and more like an epiphany. Why wouldn’t you dedicate your life to something that you love doing? Why would you subject yourself to spend your life — your only life — doing anything but what makes you happy?

There’s two problems with this. The first is that we can’t all be sleep-study, ice cream testing Netflix QA subjects. Humanity has been spending the past several hundred years working towards a goal of making life increasingly easier for itself, but there’s still a whole lot of shit-work (relatively) that needs to be done. Things like making sure the trains run on time (literally), or that sewage is routed and dealt with, or that kids get their shots, or that cars are made available for sale, or that bread is baked, floors are cleaned, shelves are stocked, airplanes reach their destinations, nations are defended, A/C  units are in working order, and a billion other jobs that get done but which we never realize are actual jobs. Did you ever stop to think that somewhere, someone is making ball-bearings? Or the plastic bristles that make a broom more than just something you could use to play shuffleboard? People do those things, but consider this: Who the hell grows up wanting to be the man or woman who makes broom bristles?

The second problem is that when you do what you love to do, you fly dangerously close to the sun. When you get that close to the sun you may feel all nice and warm, but you also run the risk of burnout. Doing what you love is really only a small percentage of the greeting card. It comes with an implied asterisk that is so implied that no one ever really considers it to be there at all.

What you do is important. Where and how you do it is even more important still. For example, when I was doing desktop support for a national health insurance company, I spent a lot of my free time building web sites. I built blogs before the word “blog” was a thing. I worked with API systems before there was REST and JSON and fancy stuff like that. I fought (and lost, sadly) legal internet battles over domain names. I loved it. It was awesome. I loved it so much that when I had the chance to do what I loved, I took it without hesitation.

I think that was probably the biggest mistake of my life. I now loathe web development. It’s a cancer in my life. There is absolutely nothing enjoyable about it, but the kicker is that I know exactly why, and it’s not because web development has changed in any negative way. It’s the association based on where and how I do it that’s totally ruined any and all enjoyment for me. I’m not a business-minded person; I’m a technical person, which means that I’m smart enough to know that going into business for myself is guaranteed to end in unmitigated disaster. That means I need to work for someone else. Web development isn’t all done with Nerf guns and open-concept office space; I’m sure that the majority of the sites you see on the Internet (and the under-the-water part of the iceberg representing all the sites you will never see) are built under corporate auspices, and we know how corporations are almost universally poison to the kind of processes that people usually think about when they think of “web development”. The reality is that, like anything else, doing design and development for a corporation involves hands on a keyboard. That’s it. Dictates come from a committee that knows little to nothing about what you do, and doesn’t care. Designs are dictated by the marketing department, with a fuck-all towards actual usability. Got a great idea on how to make the site as awesome as all the hipster design and development wonks in San Francisco are espousing? Tough shit. Boring forms and corporate colors are the limits of your creativity.

That’s to be expected, though, right? Corporate culture is so anti-excitement that the best you can hope for is to be able to say that you’re employed by this time next year. But a lot of the process of learning comes from doing and experimenting and in feeding off the energy of like-minded individuals. Tech people love learning new shit, but unless you’re lucky enough to win the “where you live” lottery and get a job for the 0.000001% of those hip companies you hear about at disproportionate rate, your continuing education is limited to what you can swing on your out-of-work time. This is why “doing what you love” is such pathetic advice. We can’t all do what we love, and often times when we find out how we can, we have to accept that doing it means doing it in a soul-crushing environment that drives us to hate what we love not because what we love or love about it has changed, but because having to do it day in day out in a suffocating environment extracts all of the joy from it.

So find something else to love? That’s about as overly simplistic as “do what you love”. There’s a Rubicon everyone crosses in their professional career which makes it next to impossible make such a massive change. The will may be there, but it’s not just changing a job like you do in high-school; it’s changing a career that you spent years and maybe even decades immersed in. Not only would you probably need to go out for re-education, which takes dedication of time and money, but you’re fighting ageism, and would need to resign yourself to the fact that switching careers late in the game means starting over at an entry level position as the low man/woman on the totem pole. Pay is cut, benefits are slashed — and yet you’ve still got a family to support, bills to pay, and a life to lead that might not be able to weather such a drastic change.

So, suffer for eight hours a day, five days a week so you can continue to spend the weekends in the manner to which you’ve become accustomed, or jump ship and risk throwing away your actual life in the pursuit of something that could very well just end up being exactly what you were trying to get away from in the first place? Some people would say that the choice is not a choice at all: do what makes you happy. A closer inspection shows that, like the advice of “do what you love”, there is no guarantee that you will ever be happy with what you do. There’s too many external factors that you have no control over. If you’re lucky enough to do what you love in an environment that fosters your love of that thing, congratulations! You’ve come as close to winning the lottery as you can get without having bought a ticket. But the bulk of the world isn’t — can’t — be that lucky. We’re stuck doing the jobs that are needed to keep the world moving towards ever greater convenience for humanity, and where the best we can offer when asked how our jobs are going is that we’re really looking forward to retirement.