The Best Writing on Work I’ve Ever Read

Photo: Nuttakit, freedigitalphotos.net

Photo: Nuttakit, freedigitalphotos.net

A lot of people romanticize the idea of doing what you love.

“Just go out there and figure out what you love to do, then make a career out of it.”

Sounds great, right?

The truth is, that type of advice rings hollow without, at least, some context and, at best, a strategy.

As someone who likes to put a framework on just about everything I do, I was ecstatic to come across the essay “How to Do What You Love,” by Paul Graham. In it, Graham discusses the complicated nature of finding work you love and actually doing it and gives some advice for beginning to think about what that thing you love to do actually is. It’s a simple, pragmatic, non-romantic approach to doing meaningful work.

I came across the essay while reading a Design Sponge profile on Susan Gregg Koger, owner of the successful vintage clothing company, Modcloth. In the story, Koger notes that she checks in with this essay “about every six months or so” to make sure she’s on track.

After reading the essay, I felt the need to share it with everyone I hold dear. I’m not going to post a review or a summary here. But I can’t help but highlight some of my favorite takeaways in the hopes that they’ll entice you to read the whole thing for yourself and apply it as it relates to your work life. So here goes:

On dispelling the myth that doing what you love is either magical or easy or both:

“Doing what you love is complicated.”

On how we teach our children to view work:

“I’m not saying we should let little kids do whatever they want. They have to be made to work on certain things. But if we make kids work on dull stuff, it might be wise to tell them that tediousness is not the defining quality of work.”

On the fairytale notion of doing what you love:

“Do what you love doesn’t mean, do what you would like to do most this second. Even Einstein probably had moments when he wanted to have a cup of coffee, but he told himself he ought to finish what he was working on first.”

On the life of total leisure:

“Unproductive pleasures pall eventually. After a while you get tired of lying on the beach. If you want to stay happy, you have to do something.”

On the satisfaction that comes from meaningful work:

“To be happy I think you have to be doing something you not only enjoy, but admire.”

On the trappings of prestige:

“Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.”

On choosing a career:

“A comparatively safe and prosperous career with some automatic baseline prestige is dangerously tempting to someone young, who hasn’t thought much about what they really like.”

On knowing if what you do is what you love:

“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.”

On finding work you love:

“It’s hard to find work you love; it must be, if so few do. So don’t underestimate this task. And don’t feel bad if you haven’t succeeded yet. More often people who do great things have careers with the trajectory of a ping-pong ball. They go to school to study A, drop out and get a job doing B and then become famous for C after taking it up on the side.”

On keeping at it:

“Always produce. For example, if you have a day job you don’t take seriously because you plan to be a novelist, are you producing? Are you writing pages of fiction, however bad? As long as you’re producing you’ll know you’re not merely using the hazy vision of the grand novel you plan to write one day as an opiate.”

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