‘The only way to do good work is to do what you love.’

‘Pursue your dreams and the rest will follow.’

‘Life’s too short for a job you don’t love.’

‘Follow your passion.’

Seen one too many of these ‘motivational’ career quotes? Us too. It’s time to push back against the notion that ‘doing what you love’ is the only way to be happy at work.

We’ve been conditioned by society to think that if we are not head-over-heels in love with our jobs, we are not as happy as we could be. But the truth is, this is not only unachievable, it’s mostly nonsense, and it’s detrimental to our peace of mind. We can’t all constantly be in pursuit of passion – some of the time, contentment is good enough. 

‘Do what you love’ vs ‘go where the money is’ 

The late Steve Jobs was no stranger to a motivational quote (remember, ‘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’). But the Apple founder did not, in fact, follow his own advice. According to Forbes, ‘If he followed his overriding passion, Jobs would have become a great Zen teacher. Instead, he meandered barefooted as a dilettante through early adulthood, lacked follow-through, and only serendipitously stumbled into technology, management and marketing.’ 

So, if you’re in a job that you’re less than thrilled about but it’s paying the bills, that’s okay. Not only is the advice to ‘follow your passion’ unnecessary, in our economic climate – both locally and internationally – it’s often unachievable. 

‘Pursue your dreams and the rest will follow’ vs ‘the rest may follow if you’re very lucky’ 

In her book, Do What You Love: And Other Lies About Love And Success (R270, Regan Arts), Miya Tokumitsu sets things straight. The précis: ‘[We’re told] find a career that you’re passionate about. Work hard and maintain a good attitude, be persistent, and all good things will come to you: wealth (or at least material comfort), job satisfaction,
a sense of self-worth, and the happiness that comes from achieving success in a profession that you find fulfilling. Except, “doing what you love” can
actually make your goals less achievable.’ 

Opting for an unpaid internship over working your way up the career ladder in a menial but important position (in your career journey) may not only make you resentful, it’ll also keep you from earning. In an interview with Time.com, Miya says, ‘There’s this sense that you have to take each and every work opportunity without really thinking about what good it’s doing you. I would like readers to be aware that when you are working, you are a worker – that’s not something shameful. Knowing it will help you protect your actual interests. And if you’re out of the ‘Do What You Love’ framework, a bad day or a horrible mundane task, even at a job that you really love, is going to be way less devastating. It’s easier to shrug off a bad day at work than to have it turn into, “Maybe I’m doing the wrong thing with my life. Is this what I’m meant to do?” [The] Do What You Love [mentality] can really lead to all sorts of unnecessary mental anguish.’ 

do what you love

Well, sure, but also do what pays the bills

‘Life’s too short for a job you don’t love’ vs ‘life has too many stages to do only those jobs that you love’ 

Constantly worrying that you’re not in a job that you absolutely love gives rise to feelings of perpetual disappointment. Women, especially, have various stages in their work lives and are, for many practical reasons, sometimes unable to make a choice solely based on how much they love the work. 

Maybe you’ve just had a baby, and flexible hours and maternity leave rank higher than the love you feel for the job at hand, or maybe you studied a creative but non-lucrative skill, but because of the chapter of life you’re currently in, you cannot pursue that passion. You should not be mentally agonising over the fact that you do not love every minute of your job. 

‘Do what you love and you won’t work a day in your life’? Not so fast…

Making a career out of your hobby may well be a sure way to kill your passion. For example, Alison Keyes, who loves fashion and styling, decided to quit her job in marketing to become a stylist. Two years on she’s back at an ad agency, citing that all the joy of fashion evaporated after her creativity was often stifled on shoots – and in general. She’s back to helping her friends dress for weddings and special occasions, and earning the money to support her fashion habit in her original job.

In Cal Newport’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You (R323, Little, Brown Book Group), he argues that following one’s passions can be a dead end; that it’s better to identify which skills you have that could be rare and valuable in the workplace, and then to hone those skills until you have career capital that you can spend in the way you choose. As Forbes sums it up: ‘Leave for another day many other good reasons to not do what you love – including the realities of providing for a family, getting healthcare, or saving for old age. Stressing and straining to discern some enchanted pathway of bliss is a futile exercise for most of us. In addition, the vast majority of people do not have one overriding passion.’ 

I, for one, can’t decide what I love more – my passion for cooking, working at a magazine or seeing the world as a travel writer. Cal says: ‘If you haven’t yet found that one overriding passion, you have permission to call off the search.’ 

And just because you’re good at – or enthusiastic about – a certain passion, this does not mean that it’s your only calling in life, or that it’s going to make you successful. You may be passionate about growing and nurturing bonsai and wish to pursue that, but if you don’t have the God-given talent – and a trust fund – to make a successful career out of this, then what? How will you earn a living? 

As author and life coach Penelope Trunk succinctly summed up on her personal blog: ‘I am a writer, but I love sex more than I love writing. And I am not getting paid for sex. But I don’t sit up at night thinking, should I do writing or sex? Because career decisions are not decisions about “what do I love most?” Career decisions are about what kind of life do I want to set up for myself?’ Right? Right!

The kicker: If you’re looking for a job that’s fulfilling, rather do work that’s meaningful

Benjamin Todd is the co-founder and executive director of 80,000 Hours, an Oxford-based charity dedicated to helping people find fulfilling careers that make a real difference. In his most-watched TED talk, he touches on how mainstream career advice tells us to ‘follow our passion’ – and just how incorrect that idea is. ‘Research shows that people who take this approach are ultimately no more likely to enjoy or excel at their jobs.

Instead, if you’re looking for a fulfilling career, here’s a new slogan to live by: “Do what’s valuable”. By this, I mean, focus on getting good at something that genuinely helps others and makes the world a better place. That’s the secret to a fulfilling career,’ he says. ‘So, what steps should you follow?

• ‘The first of these is to explore. Learn what you can about the world and test yourself out in different things. If you want to do what’s valuable, you have to discover that out there in the world. You can’t figure it out just by thinking about your own interests. 

• ‘Secondly, get some – go after some skills and try and get good at them; skills that are really in demand and can be used in many different areas. I might pick computer programming as an example for the next decade. This bit is where your passions do come in. Because what you’re passionate about now can give you clues about what you can get really good at in the future; so that’s worth thinking about, but that’s not the only thing that matters.

• ‘And then, when you get those skills, go and find the biggest, most pressing social problems you can and apply your skills to solving them. Don’t just pick a problem that is important, try and find one that’s been unfairly neglected by other people, because that’s where you’ll have the greatest impact.’

In three years, 80,000 Hours has grown from a student society to a thriving charity featured on the BBC, in the Washington Post, NPR and more, and whose online careers guide has been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people.

So at the end of the day, you need to weigh up what’s more important (and realistic) for you – constantly chasing the fantasy of the ‘perfect job’ and losing your mind in the process, or being content with what you’re doing right now, so that you can get to where you want to be one day.

Read more @work stories.