I am BARRY HESS > Blog

What Do You Love to Do?

It is all a bit pie-in-the-sky, but I found this article by Paul Graham to be interesting. We all certainly make the choice to pursue what we love or to do what we “have to do,” usually for monetary purposes, whether we realize it or not. There are other factors as well. Doing what one loves to do sometimes requires one to live in a limited number of geographic locations. Doing what one loves to do may require upheaval in the status quo of one’s family. In a spousal relationship, one person doing what he/she loves to do may severely impede the other person’s goals. And certainly, trying to do what one loves to do requires risk inherent in the decision to work at something when one is not entirely confident it is really what one would love to do. (I may have just invented a tongue-twister there.)

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 it. 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 resort to that the results are distinctly inferior.

Can you relate to the closing paragraph?

It seems as good an indicator as any that what you are doing is not really what you’d love to be doing. There are some things that I have dabbled in that fall nicely into this lower-bound model. My current work in configuring my home network is definitely interesting. Besides a few games of Madden football, it has become my “spare time” activity. It actually is eating into my non-“spare time,” as near as I can tell.

I imagine that working on an open source software development project could easily become my “spare time” activity. This would definitely point toward a passion in software engineering. It seems feasible in any case. Which leads me to…

This is easy advice to give. It's hard to follow, especially when you're young. 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.

The writing I have done has not quite met the same level of pleasure for me. I have enjoyed it, especially when done collaboratively. But my stick-to-it factor has been a little less than desirable. I am not forsaking the idea of writing by any means, but the tendencies I’ve experienced in that field have been, as Graham notes, that I’d like to like writing. I can’t comfortably say at this point that I actually do love the process of writing.

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?

I thought Graham’s entire discussion about prestige was interesting. Prestige can skew our thoughts on work and it is often (often!) used to coerce us into doing work we do not wish to do, joining committees we do not wish to join, and even picking career paths we really do not wish to follow. When I ask my friends and family about their opinions it definitely feels right. I get very honest answers and feedback about their perceptions of my happiness quotient. For some reason when I vent people actually listen to me!