And why you shouldn’t “do what you love”.
I. A Common Misconception
In his 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech, Steve Jobs delivered this dime of timeless wisdom:
You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.
Notice that if you swap the first and last words of the phrase “love what you do”, it would say “do what you love.” This is subtly different from the initial line, but it holds a separate meaning altogether. Yet, it appears that a vast amount of people take his “love what you do” and interpret it this way instead. Let me clear this up.
To “do what you love” is to follow your passions. It’s an activity that is loved before the act of pursuing it to its highest degree. If you are a salesman but love painting, you’d for instance drop your sales role to pursue painting as a career instead.
On the other hand, “love what you do” implies learned love after the fact of the doing. Growing into your work and developing passion as an afterthought of commitment. For instance, if you’re a programmer, maybe you weren’t exactly passionate about it at first but have later cultivated a love for the craft and the work that you do. You discovered purpose and meaning in a profession that you priorly didn’t know existed.
The latter is what Steve Jobs meant from this phrase and should not be confused with the former. It is instead a more practical and safe approach to take towards your career — albeit a more meaningful and purposeful approach if done right. Yet, the common advice that people give to others is to do what you’re passionate about. In this sense, many people misinterpret what Steve Jobs’ said as meaning the same thing. That inherent, “do what you love.” Which, in essence, is terrible advice.
II. Why You Shouldn’t “Do What You Love”
As this article from Fast Company brings to light, Steve Jobs by no means held a passion for technology prior to Apple. Electronics was more of a business scheme that he became interested in when it presented an opportunity for him to make some extra cash. Rather, he was more into spirituality and took to training zen meditation seriously at Los Altos Zen Center following a retreat he had out to India.
It wasn’t until Apple started finding its footing did Jobs later come to love his work. He learned to become passionate about what he did. If he maintained what he was initially passionate about, Jobs would merely be nothing more than a mastery level yogi or monk.
The issue with pursuing what you’re passionate about is that it makes a hobby that you once loved and transforms it into work. When an activity is simply seen as work and nothing more, then it loses its magic.
What’s important are the feedback loops that are created from what you output. As James Clear wrote on the impact of feedback loops on behavior:
Feedback loops are always running in the background of our lives, but they influence our bodies and minds in profound ways. When each process works as intended, our bodies function properly and we remain balanced. When something in the system breaks, we steadily slip away from equilibrium. In extreme cases, things spiral out of control.
When those feedback loops aren’t reinforcing positive behavior and cause you to slip away from equilibrium, it’s very difficult to stay motivated and maintain the love for what you do. If you aren’t seeing value generated from the fruits of your passions, then you risk negativity creeping back into your life. What you were once passionate about, simply slips into the mundane routine of what you were trying to escape — the lack of drive to do great and fulfilling work.
According to Harvard Business Review, the majority of people crave meaningful work — 9 out of 10 people saying that they’ll work for less pay in order to do work that satisfies that notion. Unfortunately, this isn’t found in passion, but rather purpose. In one of his recent articles, Alan Trapulionis reinforces this study by reporting on the claim that high performant individuals crave purpose, not passion. The passionate person does things for the sake of doing them — out of personal enjoyment and because it feels good. The purposeful person takes action because they have a strong reason to do it — a driving force that keeps them going regardless of how they feel about the activity. The purposeful person maintains their focus because they have a goal and vision they feel the need to work towards.
Passion is simply motivational fuel that eventually will run empty and fade.
Purpose gives you a reason and means to persevere and find fulfillment in this life.
Both combined, well, that’s a match made in heaven. To foster that combination though, do as Steve Jobs did. Develop your passion through your driving purpose. To properly attain that purposeful type of passion, you must first focus on one thing.
III. The One Thing to Focus on to “Love What You Do”
Take me for example. I’m a software developer and although I enjoy the practice of programming, I’m not by any means in love with it. On top of that, a lot of the work I do involves coinciding with and providing value to religious organizations. It’s ironic because I’m a secular thinking agnostic whose beliefs rely heavily on scientific theory and principles. My personal values are by no means aligned with the values and beliefs of all my clients. You’re probably reading this and think that I’m crazy. That to participate in such a contradiction may be torturous to me. Quite the contrary.
I love what I do. Not because of programming, but because I find it purposeful to wake up every morning and provide value to someone. In tech, the religious space is heavily underrepresented and I get to offer that niche space a token of my wisdom to make their goals easier to achieve. I get the opportunity to exercise my mind and create solutions that promote the impact these nonprofits and companies have on their audience.
Simply put, I focus on the value that I provide. Knowing that you’re changing a little bit of someone’s life, no matter how small that impact is, is a win in my book. Once you make value your primary focus, you not only get to fall asleep smiling, but you also uncover a way to make the work you already do become tethered to your higher purpose.
To quote a phrase MJ Demarco said in his book Unscripted: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Entrepreneurship:
Don’t “do what you love,” because even if you are lucky to make a living doing it, you won’t love it for very long. You should love the value you create. The process is hard, but it’s justified by your love of the value that is created through it.
By focusing on value, the work no longer just becomes work, but it becomes meaningful work. It’s when we find work that’s meaningful that we are able to discover a purpose that we can fulfill — providing value to the lives we touch in the smallest, most fruitful ways imaginable. The value that you generate is exactly what is needed to kickstart that positive feedback loop that you’ve been yearning for.
Therefore, one would imagine Steve Jobs not falling in love with the creation of technology, but rather falling in love with the concrete fact that he knew what he was doing was changing the world in an extraordinary way.
As a great Albert Einstein once said:
Try not to become a man of success, but a man of value. Look around at how people want to get more out of life than they put in. A man of value will give more than he receives. Be creative, but make sure that what you create is not a curse for mankind.
IV. Make Life Meaningful By Finding Ways to Love What You Already Do
Steve Jobs was right in saying that because work takes up a large portion of our lives, that we should learn to love what we do. When you love what you do, your work becomes meaningful. Because work takes up a large portion of our lives, your life, in turn, becomes one that harbors more meaning.
You can learn to love what you do in any job that you have. You can develop passion in your work from anywhere, any position, and any time in your life. All it takes is a flip in your perspective and looking at the value that you are currently generating for yourself and other people right now no matter how tiny it is.
If you’re a barista, see your job making coffee as if you’re pouring happiness into people's lives.
If you’re a valet, see it as if you’re making people’s lives easier by saving them the stress of having to find a parking spot and walking a long way to their destination.
If you’re a salesman, see it as if you’re selling value into customers' lives by presenting them a product that you genuinely think will improve the way they live.
When you give yourself the opportunity to look at the work you do in a slightly different light, you can illuminate the joy you have in a large portion of your life. If you can’t find any meaning in the work you currently do, either try to develop it or keep treading on your journey, my friend. For if you keep your eyes peeled for work that provides value and meaning, you’ll eventually find it.