How To Do What You Love, by Paul Graham

“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.”

Paul Graham

Paul Graham

How many adults can honestly claim that they do what they love and love what they do? Regardless of the answer, there are certain societal conventions, especially in the upper-middle class, that may compel people to pretend that are enjoying what they do. Funny, isn’t it? We not only dislike what we do but we also vehemently defend it.  This tendency is usually borne out of our upbringing, psychological conditioning and the pressures of our social environment. American programmer, writer and investor Paul Graham elaborated upon this very idea in his insightful and refreshing article How to do what you love.

According to Graham, it all begins when we are kids.

The most dangerous liars can be the kids’ own parents. If you take a boring job to give your family a high standard of living, as so many people do, you risk infecting your kids with the idea that work is boring. Maybe it would be better for kids in this one case if parents were not so unselfish. A parent who set an example of loving their work might help their kids more than an expensive house.

What Does It Mean “To Do What You Love”?

Often, we don’t really know whether we indeed love our work. In his essay, Graham elaborates upon some symptoms of behavior that can help an individual delve deeper into this issue, and reach a conclusive analysis of his/her current situation.

(…) you have to like your work more than any unproductive pleasure. You have to like what you do enough that the concept of “spare time” seems mistaken. Which is not to say you have to spend all your time working. You can only work so much before you get tired and start to screw up. Then you want to do something else—even something mindless. But you don’t regard this time as the prize and the time you spend working as the pain you endure to earn it.

To be happy I think you have to be doing something you not only enjoy, but admire. You have to be able to say, at the end, wow, that’s pretty cool.

Love For The Job Or A Lust For Prestige?

But perhaps Graham’s most interesting hint comes when he speaks about prestige. If your behavior is easily influenced, even if not completely determined, by others’ expectations, you may need to rethink your motives behind doing what you do.

What you should not do, I think, is worry about the opinion of anyone beyond your friends. You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world. When you can ask the opinions of people whose judgement you respect, what does it add to consider the opinions of people you don’t even know?

This is easy advice to give. It’s hard to follow, especially when you’re young. 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.

Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious. Plenty of things we now consider prestigious were anything but at first. Jazz comes to mind—though almost any established art form would do. So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself.

We would go further to say that you should be careful even when considering the opinion of your closest ones, your friends, your siblings, and even your parents. While their intentions may be pure and noble, their opinion may carry the weight of their own educational prejudices. Also, people who are closest to you can be very overprotective and risk-averse when it comes to any decisions regarding you.

How Do You Know Whether You Are Doing What You Love Or Not?

If you are still doubtful of the answer, ask yourself one simple question: “Would I do this for free?”

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.

By now, you might be thinking, “Even if I buy into this diagnostic, and actually identify with it, I still have a family to feed, a mortgage to pay and children to raise. Is there a way to practically tackle all of this?”

Graham does not underestimate the practical difficulties involved in “following your heart”, and he provides some guidelines on possible paths to follow.

It’s hard to find work you love (…) And don’t feel bad if you haven’t succeeded yet. In fact, if you admit to yourself that you’re discontented, you’re a step ahead of most people, who are still in denial.

One has to make a living, and it’s hard to get paid for doing work you love. There are two routes to that destination:

The organic route: as you become more eminent, gradually to increase the parts of your job that you like at the expense of those you don’t.

The two-job route: to work at things you don’t like to get money to work on things you do.

The organic route is more common. It happens naturally to anyone who does good work. (…) The disadvantage of this route is that it’s slow and uncertain.

The two-job route has several variants depending on how long you work for money at a time. At one extreme is the ‘day job’, where you work regular hours at one job to make money, and work on what you love in your spare time. At the other extreme you work at something till you make enough not to have to work for money again.

The two-job route is less common than the organic route, because it requires a deliberate choice.

Which route should you take? That depends on how sure you are of what you want to do, how good you are at taking orders, how much risk you can stand, and the odds that anyone will pay (in your lifetime) for what you want to do. If you’re sure of the general area you want to work in and it’s something people are likely to pay you for, then you should probably take the organic route. But if you don’t know what you want to work on, or don’t like to take orders, you may want to take the two-job route, if you can stand the risk.

Graham’s How to do what you love is a short but powerful essay on a substantial question that overwhelms many of us today. It is worth reflecting honestly on whether you are really working on what you love. Don’t you think?

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