To do something well you have to like it. That idea is not exactly
novel. We've got it down to four words: "Do what you love." But
it's not enough just to tell people that. Doing what you love is
The very idea is foreign to what most of us learn as kids. When I
was a kid, it seemed as if work and fun were opposites by definition.
Life had two states: some of the time adults were making you do
things, and that was called work; the rest of the time you could
do what you wanted, and that was called playing. Occasionally the
things adults made you do were fun, just as, occasionally, playing
wasn't-- for example, if you fell and hurt yourself. But except
for these few anomalous cases, work was pretty much defined as
And it did not seem to be an accident. School, it was implied, was
tedious because it was preparation for grownup work.
The world then was divided into two groups, grownups and kids.
Grownups, like some kind of cursed race, had to work. Kids didn't,
but they did have to go to school, which was a dilute version of
work meant to prepare us for the real thing. Much as we disliked
school, the grownups all agreed that grownup work was worse, and
that we had it easy.
Teachers in particular all seemed to believe implicitly that work
was not fun. Which is not surprising: work wasn't fun for most
of them. Why did we have to memorize state capitals instead of
playing dodgeball? For the same reason they had to watch over a
bunch of kids instead of lying on a beach. You couldn't just do
what you wanted.
I'm not saying we should let little kids do whatever they want.
They may 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, and indeed that the reason
they have to work on dull stuff now is so they can work on more
interesting stuff later.
Once, when I was about 9 or 10, my father told me I could be whatever
I wanted when I grew up, so long as I enjoyed it. I remember that
precisely because it seemed so anomalous. It was like being told
to use dry water.
Whatever I thought he meant, I didn't think he meant work could
literally be fun-- fun like playing. In fact, I went through
several variants of work = pain over the next 15 years before I
realized that the right way to interpret statements about work being
fun was simply literally.
By high school I had a theory about what he'd meant, but a mistaken
one. By then everyone was talking about "aptitude." Some people
were cut out to be car mechanics, and some to be doctors and lawyers.
So enjoyable work was literally engaging: the shape of the work
engaged the gears in your particular brain. But it was still work,
in the sense of not being what you'd choose to do in your free time.
The whole concept of "free time" presumes that.
Occasionally adults would come to speak to us about their work, or
we would go to see them at work. It was always understood that
they enjoyed what they did. In retrospect I think one may have:
the private jet pilot. But I don't think the bank manager really
The main reason they all acted as if they enjoyed their work was
presumably the upper-middle class convention that you're supposed
to. It would not merely be bad for your career to say that you
despised your job, but a social faux-pas. That's a working-class
Why is it conventional to pretend to like what you do? The first
sentence of this essay explains that. If you have to like something
to do it well, then the most successful people will all like what
they do. That's where the upper-middle class tradition comes from.
Just as houses all over
America are full of
that are, without the owners even knowing
it, nth-degree imitations of chairs designed 250 years ago for
French kings, conventional attitudes about work are, without the
owners even knowing it, nth-degree imitations of the attitudes of
people who've done great things.
What a recipe for alienation. By the time they reach an age to
think about what they'd like to do, most kids have been thoroughly
misled about the idea of loving one's work. School has trained
them to regard work as an unpleasant duty. Having a job is said
to be even more onerous than schoolwork. And yet all the adults
claim to like what they do. You can't blame kids for thinking "I
am not like these people; I am not suited to this world."
Actually they've been told three lies: the stuff they've been taught
to regard as work in school is not real work; grownup work is not
(necessarily) worse than schoolwork; and many of the adults around
them are lying when they say they like what they do.
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
Fortunately toward the end of high school I began to detect some
new ideas emanating from college. I remember vividly when an older
friend who was majoring in English in college was asked what he was
going to "do with that." I don't remember his exact words, but his
reply was the standard line about liberal education:
that the purpose of college is not job training, but to learn.
This of course seems a cliche now (and not even true), but at the
time it was a revelation. Suddenly there was a huge and very
exciting crack in the glum doctrine of school = work = pain that
I'd always taken for granted.
In college the idea of work finally broke free from the idea of
making a living. Now the important question was not how to make
money, but what to work on. Ideally these coincided, but some
spectacular boundary cases (like Einstein in the patent office)
proved they weren't identical.
School was not job training. It was work training.
And the new definition of work was now to make some original
contribution to the world, and in the process not to starve. But
after the habit of so many years my idea of work still included a
large component of pain. Work still seemed to require discipline,
because only hard problems yielded grand results, and hard problems
couldn't literally be fun. Surely one had to force oneself to
work on them.
If you think something's supposed to hurt, you're less likely to
notice if you're doing it wrong. That about sums up my experience
of graduate school.
How much are you supposed to like what you do? Unless you know
that, you don't know when to stop searching. And if, like most
people, you underestimate it, you'll tend to stop searching too
early. You'll end up doing something chosen for you by your parents,
or the desire to make money, or prestige-- or sheer inertia.
I have a good deal of experience working at things I liked to varying
degrees, so I'll take a shot at answering this question.
Here's an upper bound: 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 told himself
he ought to finish what he was working on first.
It used to perplex me when I read about people who liked what they
did so much that there was nothing they'd rather do. There didn't
seem to be any sort of work I liked that much. If I had a choice
of (a) spending the next hour working on something or (b) be
teleported to Rome and spend the next hour wandering about, was
there any sort of work I'd prefer? Honestly, no. And in
fact I could think of a lot of things I'd rather spend the next
hour doing than any kind of work. Ergo I must be a loser.
But the fact is, almost anyone would rather, at any given moment,
float about in the Carribbean, or have sex, or eat some delicious
food, than work on hard problems. The rule about doing what you
love assumes a certain length of time. It doesn't mean, do what
will make you happiest this second, but what will make you happiest
over some longer period, like a week or a month.
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
As a lower bound, 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
I put the lower bound there for practical reasons. If your work
is not your favorite thing to do, you'll have terrible problems
with procrastination. You'll have to force yourself to work.
And when you downshift into that mode, the results
are distinctly inferior, like an OS paging, or a country whose
currency is so debased that people revert to barter.
To be happy I think you have to be doing something you admire. You
have to be able to say, at the end, wow, that's pretty cool. This
doesn't mean you have to make something. If you learn how to hang
glide, or to speak a foreign language fluently, that will be enough
to make you say, for a while at least, wow, that's pretty cool.
What there has to be is a test. There is automatically when you
make anything-- the test of how it comes out-- but there's also a
definite test in learning to hang glide or learning a language.
You could make hang gliding or learning languages your life's work
if you liked either enough.
One thing that falls just short of the standard, I think, is reading
books. Except for some books in math and the hard sciences, there
is no test of how well you've read a book, and that's why merely
reading books doesn't quite feel like work. You have to do something
with what you've read to feel productive.
I think the best test is to try to do things that would make your
friends say wow. I learned this test about ten years ago from Gino
Lee, and I haven't found a better one. But it does assume that
you've collected the right friends. It probably wouldn't start to
work properly till about age 22, because most people haven't had a
big enough sample to pick friends from before then.
Why do you need friends at all? Because you can't trust your own
judgement. At least I can't, and I'm pretty strong-willed. When
I make something new, I can't tell if it's any good; I'm too close
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
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.
That's what leads people to try to write novels, for example. They
like reading novels. They notice that people who write them win
Nobel prizes. What could be more wonderful, they think, than to
be a novelist? But liking the idea of being a novelist is not
enough; you have to like the actual work of novel-writing if you're
going to be good at it; you have to like making up elaborate lies.
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.
Prestige is so effective at distracting the ambitious that society
has evolved many ways to use it for this purpose. If you want to
make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do
it is to bait the hook with prestige. That's the recipe for getting
people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be
department heads, and so on. This pattern is so common that it
might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it
didn't suck, they wouldn't have had to make it prestigious.
Similarly, if you admire two kinds of work equally, but one is more
prestigious, you should probably choose the other. Your opinions
about what's admirable are always going to be slightly influenced
by prestige, so if the two seem equal to you, you probably have
more genuine admiration for the less prestigious one.
The other big force leading people astray is money. Money by itself
is not that dangerous. When something pays well but is regarded
with contempt, like telemarketing, or prostitution, or personal
injury litigation, ambitious people aren't tempted by it. That
kind of work ends up being done by people who are "just trying to
make a living." (Tip: avoid any field whose practitioners say
this.) The danger is when money is combined with prestige, as in,
say, corporate law, or medicine.
The prospect of 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. And the
high initial cost makes it hard to change your mind later. I suspect
not all doctors and lawyers love what they do.
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. How many corporate lawyers would do
their current work if they had to do it for free, in their spare
time, and take day jobs as waiters to support themselves?
This test is especially helpful in deciding between different kinds
of academic work, because different fields vary greatly in this
respect. Most good mathematicians would work on math even if there
were no jobs as math professors, whereas in the departments at the
other end of the spectrum, the availability of teaching jobs is the
driver: people would rather be English professors than work in ad
agencies, and publishing papers is the way you compete for such
jobs. Math would happen without math departments, but it is the
existence of English majors, and therefore jobs teaching them, that
calls into being all those thousands of dreary papers about gender
and identity in the novels of Conrad. No one does
kind of thing for fun.
The advice of parents will tend to err on the side of money. It
seems safe to say there are more undergrads who want to be novelists
and whose parents want them to be doctors than who want to be doctors
and whose parents want them to be novelists. The kids think their
parents are "materialistic." Not necessarily. All parents tend to
be more conservative for their kids than they would for themselves,
simply because, as parents, they share risks more than rewards. If
your eight year old son decides to climb a tall tree, or your teenage
daughter decides to date the local bad boy, you won't get a share
in the excitement, but if your son falls, or your daughter gets
pregnant, you'll have to deal with the consequences.
Not all the conservatism of parental advice comes from this bias,
though. Some comes from being older and knowing what's what. If
you want to factor out just the bias that comes from the weird
risk/reward balance they have as parents, try asking the advice of
someone who's as experienced as your parents, but who doesn't feel
obliged to take care of you if you get hurt.
With such powerful forces leading us astray, it's not surprising
we find it so hard to discover what we like to work on. Most people
are doomed in childhood by accepting the axiom that work = pain.
Those who escape this are nearly all lured onto the rocks by prestige
or money. How many even discover something they love to work on?
A few hundred thousand, perhaps, out of billions.
That's an important thing to bear in mind. It's very 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. It's
not a sign there's something wrong with you if you have trouble
finding the work you love, any more than it is if you're out of
breath climbing a 30% grade.
In fact, if you admit to yourself that you're discontented, you're
a step ahead of most people, who are still in denial. If you're
surrounded by colleagues who claim to enjoy work that you find
contemptible, odds are they're lying to themselves. Not necessarily,
Although doing great work takes less discipline than people think--
because the way to do great work is to find something you like so
much that you don't have to force yourself to do it-- finding
work you love does usually require discipline. Some people are
lucky enough to know what they want to do when they're twelve, and
just glide along as if they were on railroad tracks. But this seems
the exception. 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.
Jumping from one sort of work to another is an odd thing. Sometimes
it's a sign of discipline, and sometimes it's a sign of laziness.
Are you dropping out, or boldy carving a new path? You often can't
tell yourself. Plenty of people who will later do great things
seem to their friends and family and even themselves to be
disappointments early on, when they're trying to find the work they
Is there some test you can use to keep yourself honest? One is to
try to do a good job at whatever you're doing, even if you don't
like it. Then at least you'll know you're not using dissatisfaction
as an excuse for being lazy. Perhaps more importantly, you'll get
into the habit of doing things well.
Another test you can use is: always produce. For example, if you
have a day job that 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. The view of it will be obstructed by the all
too palpably flawed one you're actually writing.
"Always produce" is more than just a test of earnestness though.
It's also a heuristic for finding the work you love. If you subject
yourself to that constraint, it will automatically push you away
from things you think you're supposed to work on, toward things you
actually like. "Always produce" will discover your life's work the
way water, with the aid of gravity, finds the hole in your roof.
Of course, figuring out what you like to work on doesn't mean you
get to work on it. That's a separate question. And if you're
ambitious you have to keep them separate: you have to make a conscious
effort to keep your ideas about what you want from being contaminated
by what seems possible.
It's painful to keep them apart, because it's painful to observe
the gap between them. So most people don't; most people pre-emptively
lower their expectations for themselves. For example, if you asked
random people on the street if they'd like to be able to draw like
Leonardo, you'd find most would say something like "Oh, I can't
draw." When people say something like this, it's more a statement
of intention than fact; it means, I'm not going to try. Because
the fact is, if you took a random person off the street and somehow
got them to work as hard as they possibly could at drawing for the
next twenty years, they'd get surprisingly far. But it would require
an enormous moral effort; it would mean staring failure in the eye
every day for years. And so to protect themselves people say "I
Another related line you often hear is that not everyone can do
work they love-- that someone has to do the unpleasant jobs. Really?
How do you make them? In the US the only mechanism for forcing
people to do unpleasant jobs is the draft, and that hasn't been
invoked for over 30 years. All we can do is encourage people to
do unpleasant work, with money and prestige.
If there's something people still won't do, it seems as if society
just has to make do without. That's what happened with domestic
servants. For millennia that was the canonical example of a job
"someone had to do." And yet in the mid twentieth century servants
practically disappeared in rich countries, because the people who
used to take such jobs found better opportunities. And the rich
have just had to do without.
So while there may be some things someone has to do, there's a good
chance anyone saying that about any particular job is mistaken.
Most unpleasant jobs would either get automated or go undone if no
one were willing to do them.
There is another sense of "not everyone can do work they love"
that's all too true, however. One has to make a living, and it's
hard to get paid for doing work you love. There are two routes to
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 organic route is probably more common. It tends to happen
naturally to anyone who does good work. For example, a young
architect has to take whatever work he can get, but if he does well
he'll gradually be in a position to pick and choose among projects.
The disadvantage of this route is that it's slow and uncertain. As
long as you still depend on clients or employers, there's no guarantee
you won't have to return to working on things you dislike. Even
tenure is not real freedom.
the two-job route: to work at things you don't like to get money
to work on things you do.
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.
There are gradations between, where you work for several months or
years to make enough to do what you want for several months or
The two-job route is less common than the organic route, because
it requires a deliberate choice. It's also more dangerous. Life
tends to get more expensive as you get older, so it's easy to get
sucked into working longer than you expected at the money job.
even more dangerous problem is that anything you work on changes
you. You tend to become what you do. If you work on tedious stuff
for too long, it will rot your brain. And the best paying jobs are
most dangerous, because they tend to require your complete attention.
The kid who wants to write but decides to go to law school, thinking
that he'll be a lawyer and write in his spare time, runs a great
risk of finding ten years later that he has become a lawyer.
"Always produce" offers some protection against this, but it's
tiring constantly shifting gears between two different types of
Another danger of a formidable money job is that it might spoil
your appetite. If you're a musician and take a day job as a
dishwasher, you'll feel you have to make it as a musician. If
you have a day job as a lawyer, people will be more impressed with
you, and you may gradually start to feel satisfied with that.
The advantage of the two-job route is that it allows you to jump
over obstacles. The landscape of possible jobs is not flat; there
are walls of varying heights between different kinds of work.
The trick of maximizing the parts of your job that you like can get
you from architecture to product design, but not, probably, to
music. If you make money doing one thing and then work on another,
you have more freedom of choice-- though there are still jobs you
can't simply elect to have: you can't slide sideways into being a
doctor or a military officer.
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
Perhaps more important than the question of which route to take is
when to decide which route to take. You don't have to decide as
early as you might think. A lot of kids decide in high school that
they want to be doctors, for example. That's playing with fire.
At that age you're unlikely to know what it's really like to be a
doctor, or what the other options are. A friend of mine who is a
quite successful doctor complains constantly about her job. When
people applying to medical school ask her for advice, she wants to
shake them and yell "Don't do it!" (But she never does.) How did
she get into this fix? In high school she already wanted to be a
doctor. And she is so ambitious and determined that she overcame
every obstacle along the way-- including, unfortunately, not liking
Now she has a life chosen for her by a high-school kid.
Kids who know early what they want to do seem impressive, as if
they got the answer to some math question before the other kids.
They have an answer, certainly, but odds are it's wrong. If you
read autobiographies (which I highly recommend) you find that a lot
of the most successful people didn't decide till quite late what
they wanted to do. And not because they were indecisive, or didn't
know themselves. It takes a long time to just to learn what different
kinds of work are like.
When you're young, you're given the impression that you'll get
enough information to make each choice before you need to make it.
But this is certainly not so with work. When you're deciding what
to work on, you have to operate on ridiculously incomplete information.
Even in college you get very little idea what various types of work
are like. At best you may have a couple internships, but not all
jobs offer internships, and those that do don't teach you much more
about the work than being a batboy teaches you about playing baseball.
In the design of careers, as in the design of most other things,
you get better results if you use flexible media. Unless you're
fairly sure what you want to do, your best bet may be to choose a
type of work that will allow you to delay deciding whether to take
the organic or two-job route. That was probably part of the reason
I chose computers. You can be a professor, or make a lot of money,
or morph it into any number of other kinds of work.
Another question to consider is which route will give you the best
chance to learn what you like. The only way to learn what a job
is really like is to do it. So a job that lets you work at many
different things is good not just because you can push it in many
different directions, but because you can learn faster which
direction you want to push it in. Conversely, the extreme version
of the two-job route is dangerous because it teaches you so little
about what you like. If you work hard at being a bond trader for
ten years, thinking that you'll quit and write novels when you have
enough money, what happens when you quit and then discover that you
don't actually like writing novels?
Most people would say, I'd take that problem. Give me a million
dollars and I'll figure out what to do. But it's harder than it
looks. Constraints give your life shape. Remove all constraints
and most people have no idea what to do: look at what happens to
those who win lotteries or inherit money. Much as everyone thinks
they want financial security, the happiest people are not those who
have it, but those who like what they do. So a plan that promises
freedom at the expense of knowing what to do with it may not be as
good as it seems.
Whichever route you take, if you want to end up working on something
you love, it will help if you don't have a taste for money or
prestige, since (a) that's how unpleasant jobs are rewarded, and
(b) you often have to sacrifice one or both when switching fields.
Expect a struggle. In high school they act as if choosing a career
were straightforward. Actually, finding work you love is very
difficult, and most people fail. Even if you succeed, it's rare
to be free to work on what you want till your thirties or forties.
But if you have the destination in sight you'll be more likely to
arrive at it. If you know you can love work, you're in the home
stretch, and if you know what work you love, you're practically
Currently we do the opposite: when we make kids do boring
work, like arithmetic drills, instead of admitting frankly that
it's boring, we try to disguise it with superficial decorations.
One father told me about a related phenomenon: he found himself
concealing from his family how much he liked his work. When he
wanted to go to work on a saturday, he found it easier to say that
it was because he "had to" for some reason, rather than admitting
he preferred to work than stay home with them.
Something similar happens with suburbs. Parents move to
suburbs to raise their kids in a safe environment, but suburbs are
so dull and artificial that by the time they're fifteen the kids
are convinced the whole world is boring.
A painting will often have serious errors that the artist
can't see because he's too used to looking at it. One of the most
striking is the right arm of Ingres's Comtesse d'Haussonville, which
emerges from her sternum. To overcome this problem, painters look
at paintings in a mirror, or upside down.
Donald Hall said young would-be poets were mistaken to be so
obsessed with being published. But you can imagine what it would
do for a 24 year old to get a poem published in The New Yorker.
Now to people he meets at parties he's a real poet. Actually he's
no better or worse than he was before, but to a clueless audience
like that, the approval of an official authority makes all the
difference. So it's a harder problem than Hall realizes. The
reason the young care so much about prestige is that the people
they want to impress are not very discerning.
This is isomorphic to the principle that you should prevent
your beliefs about how things are from being contaminated by how
you wish they were. Most people let them mix pretty promiscuously.
The continuing popularity of religion is the most visible index of
A more accurate metaphor would be to say that the graph of
jobs is not very well connected.
Thanks to Trevor Blackwell, Dan Friedman, Jessica Livingston,
Robert Morris, and Aaron Swartz for reading drafts of this.
Comment on this essay.