The Do What You Love Myth

I don’t believe what I just saw – Jack Buck, following Kirk Gibson’s walk-off home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series

Baseball 1988 World Series Game 1: Los Angeles Dodgers Kirk Gibson #23 in action hitting game winning HR vs Oakland A's Dennis Eckersley. Los Angeles 10/15/88 Credit: Heinz Kluetmeier SetNumber: X37264 TK1 R25 F35
Kirk Gibson’s hobbled World Series heroics

At some point during high school, my future became a foregone conclusion.  I was the kid who’d rattle off all manner of sports statistics with ease.  There was a time where I could recite twenty years worth of champions, runner-ups, and MVPs in the NFL, MLB, and NBA.  Nerdy, I know.  And so, I made no secret of my intent to study broadcast journalism when I went to college.  On my senior trip to Atlanta, we visited CNN, and I along with another classmate played the role of anchors on a fake set.  There was a teleprompter, a red light flashed on, people pointed at us when it was our turn to speak.  We nailed it; I was on my way.

Only, when I took my first class in Communications that fall, and began writing for the sports section of the University newspaper, I discovered something I never expected – I hated it.  How could this be? I thought.  I was puzzled. Of course, I moved on and was better for it.  Not until later in life, though, did I have a better understanding of why this was.

We never imagine that getting our heart’s deepest desires might be the worst thing that can ever happen to us – Timothy Keller

There’s a popular adage that goes like this: Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.  You’ve likely heard it before; it’s a popular homage to those fabled souls who emerge from each night’s sleep with an “enthusiasm unknown to mankind.” (see Jim Harbaugh)  Unfortunately, there’s a problem with this ‘do what you love’ portrayal – It’s not true.  I’m not suggesting that people who subscribe to this belief are guilty of deception.  They aren’t.  It’s just when something is said enough times with enough conviction, well, it has a way of gaining acceptance.

No matter what one puts their hand to, if they truly are giving their all, it will feel like work.  And that’s not a bad thing.  In fact, it’s a very good thing.  We are wired to work, meant for purpose.  There’s a satisfaction that comes from working hard that can’t be achieved any other way.  But that isn’t why I take umbrage with the adage.  The narrative is misleading because part of the reason that we love to do something (be it a hobby, recreational activity, solitary interest, or something else) is due to the respite it provides from the rest of life.  Converting the thing you enjoy doing for leisure into the thing you do all the time creates a significant void.  What will fun and relaxation look like if what you do to unwind becomes what you do to make a living?  This potentially taxing burden represents but one unintended consequence.

What’s more, when seeking to make a living doing what you love, it often comes with a costly price tag.  Dropping everything to pursue a dream may seem a worthy aspiration, but Hollywood is replete with burgeoning actors who languish for years waiting tables.  There’s nothing wrong with taking a risk.  Sometimes risk leads to unimaginable success.  Other times it leads to failure, which is okay too.  Failure helps us improve and grow.  Reckless failure though, the kind that acts first and thinks second…or third, well, that’s just sophomoric.

Life Imitating Art or Art Imitating Life?


Artists are good examples of the ‘do what you love’ mindset, or so I’m told.  As beginners, they express themselves whenever and however inspiration strikes.  They churn out work that, over time, gets better and better.  And, for some, an audience discovers their art and is willing to compensate them for their work.  And then a trade-off begins.  Whether they paint on canvas (or a garage), play in a band, or design their own wardrobe, the artist loses some autonomy at the point of transaction.  When compromises are made, things can change very quickly.

The terrific author/artist, Austin Kleon, has some great thoughts on this topic.  In his books, Steal Like An Artist and Show Your Work!, he offers cautionary advice to those approaching the ‘do what you love’ path.  It’s the type of advice worthy of strong consideration.

To be clear, I am not saying do something you dread.  Nor am I an advocate for doing something you aren’t good at.  You SHOULD do something you’re good at and something you enjoy.  But, there is an important distinction between putting food on the table from a job that offers meaning and pursuing an unattainable illusion.  Do you know the difference?

Follow Tim on Twitter @Tim_G_Holland

Recommended Reading:

Steal Like An Artist and Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon – Two books written from the heart that share accumulated wisdom by way of original illustration and practical advice

Every Good Endeavor by Timothy Keller – The noted author shares important thoughts on the purpose and meaning of work

Fall In Love With Your Job, Get Ripped Off by Your Boss by Joanna Scutts – An interesting piece discussing Miya Tokumitsu’s forthcoming book Do What You Love: And Other Lies about Success & Happiness

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