Passion and Work

When it comes to the balance between passion and work I’ve always had mixed feelings. I’ve approached the matter several times before in informal conversations, but I’ve never built a strong opinion I firmly believe.

I’m 100% positive that when you are passioned about something, you naturally gravitate around it. You effortlessly tend to put hours and work into it because it’s not hard for you. You achieve a state of flow, in where you feel comfortable and productive, maybe without even noticing.

The problem comes when you mix this passion with obligation. Note that I don’t explicitly use the word “work” here, because I think the distinction is subtle, but fundamental. You might work on something for long hours, but you might not actually be forced to do so. In contrast, you’re more or less obligated to exchange some of your time for money in order to pay the rent.

In this precise intersection is where Paul Graham’s essay about How to Do What You Love (if you haven’t read it, please, stop reading this and jump right into it) comes into play. He goes much deeper than that, but at the beginning he intentionally draws a line between the concepts work and fun.

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.

There’s a narrative that goes like “just do what you love and eventually you’ll figure out how to make money out of it”. I think that’s a bit simplistic. It’s extremely difficult to directly translate passion into something you can monetize out of the box. There’s an amazing creative process associated with this tangential approach.

So the problem emerges when you try to seek this passion on a job. The translation might not be direct. Jason Fried from 37 Signals, whose words I truly admire, just points out that doing what you love is not “a prerequisite for starting a business or building a fulfilling career, let alone doing great work.” He leans more into an intrinsic motivation that drives you to work on something that moves or bothers you.

I’d say that, if you want to be successful and make a real contribution to the world, you have to be intrinsically motivated by the work you do, and you have to feel good about spending your days on it. Love might grow – and it’s a wonderful thing if it does—but you don’t need it up front. You can succeed just by wanting something to exist that doesn’t already.

That I think is a more grounded opinion about doing what you love. But again, we only feature the ones who love what they do relative to their success. Jason talks about how Travis Kalanick was frustrated because he couldn’t get a cab. But we are talking about him because he runs a multibillion dollar company. Maybe there was also someone who was also pissed with cabs in San Francisco and just became a cab driver, but we are not talking about him now…

I’m really confused by this. I mean, we are talking about Travis because this guy is in a mission to change the transportation industry, not because he love what he does. I know very few people that are truly in love with their job. It’s not common, nor sustainable. I feel like there are few jobs to “be loved”, there are, of course, but not that many.

I’m not even sure that we have always thought like this. For example, last week I’ve started to listen to a new podcast. It’s called Why We Work (I can’t recommend it yet, because I just listened to a couple of episodes) where the host interview some friends who have pursued unconventional lives paths.

The conversation was rambling about this pressure of finding your passion, and how to work on what you love. Something led the conversation into the standards of happiness between generations. I’m not sure this topic of “working in what you love” is a Millennial issue or was something people in the 20s also struggled with (I highly doubt it, though). Here’s his point, I’m not quoting, but he was going for something like this:

Maybe now we think more about this idea of happiness and doing what you love. But our parents might not have that, and that’s OK. Because maybe for them the standard of happiness would be to provide for the family or give a good education for his sons. They might not even think about do what they love because they had other priorities beyond this. They measured their happiness with another scale.

I’ve never thought of that. That made me think more deeply about it and help me draw two rough conclusions.

The first one is that maybe the debate is not well framed. We focus too much in “love” and maybe we should be talking about “happiness” instead. The debate is better served if you frame it in terms of overall happiness. This vision is less constrained by this infinite pursue of love in your job that almost never comes to be true.

And the second one is about abstraction. Some people might feel so far from loving what they do because they think of it as a straight path. The problem is that again, we might be over emphasizing the word “love”.

I’m sure there’s some people who might be in love with their job, but in a higher level of abstraction. Like if you love running and you work in the design department for a shoe company. Maybe you are not spending your days running around and you still have to deal with email and endless spreadsheets, but your overall contribution points to something that you are passionate about.