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On this episode of Upward Together, I had a conversation with my friend Thomas Kelly, a student at Santa Clara University studying computer science and accounting. We try to answer the question, "Should you do what you love for a living?" You can read my reflection below.
Should you do what you love for a living? My answer to this question has always been, and still is, “Yes”, but conversations with Thomas Kelly have made me think about this question a little bit harder.
In America, when we are asked, “Who are you?”, our default answer to that question is most likely what we do for a living. “I’m a student” or “I’m a doctor” or “I’m a consultant”.
When I studied abroad in Copenhagen, Danes typically answered that question with their hobbies and passions and who they choose to do them with. “I like to play basketball” or “I like to dance” or “I like going to concerts with my friends”. It's not until I ask what they do for a living that they answer the way Americans answer, "Who are you?"
It’s a stark contrast. In the United States, we have this culture of work and productivity; so much so, it becomes our biggest identifier. With almost no exaggeration, work is life.
In Copenhagen, they had a saying:
“We don’t live to work. We work to live.”
Their job only serves the rest of their life. I’m generalizing, of course, but the majority of the Danes I talked to looked at their job as merely a part of their life, and certainly not their entire identity. For many of them, they did not do what they loved for a living, nor had much interest to. They worked so that they could have the resources they needed to ultimately live a life that they loved.
Thomas said something similar.
“Work isn't your life. It's a facet of your life.”
Sure. I agree with that. Of course. But, to me, that isn’t convincing enough. I would still want to do what I love, whether or not work is my life or just a part of my life.
But Thomas brought up another interesting point.
“I’d be concerned that my job would suck the joy from that passion. If I put a monetary reward for performing some sort of task, does it become less about my passion and more about the fact that I need it to make ends meet?”
This is something I have thought about often. Will my relationship with my passion shift the moment it becomes obligatory? Will I have to compromise what I love to satisfy customers or an audience? Will I start to hate the very thing I loved?
Maybe. But I’m not too worried about that. I know, a very weak argument. But, as Thomas said, work is a facet of my life. While in this hypothetical scenario, I would be doing what I love for a living, it does not mean I can’t also do it for myself. For example, I love writing. If I was writing for a living, there is nothing stopping me from also writing with no ulterior motive. And, if my work made me too tired to write for fun, I have other hobbies.
There’s also the argument of the impossibility of doing what you love for a living, especially if it’s something related to the arts. It’s less stable and as a result could lead to unnecessary stress. While I am idealistic by nature, I also have some practicality to me. We still need to do what is necessary to make sure we can take care of ourselves. However, if given the option and opportunity, I would absolutely choose that path. I have always believed that if we have big dreams, we should lean into them and have the courage to do what it takes to accomplish those dreams, however long it takes.
Yet, despite my seemingly unwavering belief that we should take those leaps of faith and pursue what we love, I find myself complacent. I am taking the safe route and taking what is given to me, rather than going out and taking the life I want to live for myself, however unpredictable and scary it may be. So while my verbal answer is yes, my actions betray me. My difficulty with this question comes not from a logical standpoint, but from an emotional and social one.
Thomas touched on a study about U.S. employees being asked various questions about compensation in the workplace and what they would prefer. One example revolved around income, and participants had to choose between one of these two options:
A. Your current yearly income is $50,000; others earn $25,000.
B. Your current yearly income is $100,000; others earn $200,000.
The value of money is the same in both cases.
For an individual, the better answer is B. You earn twice as much compared to A. With $100,000 you can buy double the amount than you could with $50,000. Despite that, 50% of people chose A. This means that they would rather earn less overall, as long as they earned more than other people.
Which is marvelous to me. Humans are social creatures, meaning we place value on how we are perceived in society. How we compare to others, for a good number of people, is more important than just doing objectively better for ourselves.
At least in the society we live in, comparison and social status is a game so many of us play. I am very, very guilty of it. It’s also a game that no one can win. There will always be someone better than me. And of course, if I think that other people are better than me, it’s natural that I would think other people are worse than me. And rather than look at each other as equals, as we all are and should be, I instead create this culture of hierarchy, dissatisfaction with ourselves, and, at times, cruelty towards others.
I never intended to convince you one way or the other. You might find the other perspectives much more enticing than mine. As always, this reflection is to answer the question for myself. I would absolutely love to do what I love for a living. And while it might be impossible to live in that perfect world, I want to spend my life striving for that ideal. Because that is the life I want to live. So I challenge myself to get out of that complacency and be brave and do what I love, regardless of what other people think, or if I think people are better than me or not.
However, maybe I’m thinking about this question all wrong. Should I do what I love for a living? Well, what do I love? I love writing. I love music. I love math and science and research. But what if what I love is more general than that? What if what I love isn’t about my hobbies and passions, but about the person I want to be? Instead of math, or research, or music, what if it was being kind, or being good, or being a constant learner? In that case, couldn’t I accomplish that no matter what I was doing to make money? Even if I was in a role that I wasn’t interested in, I could still be good and kind to the people around me, as well as try to learn as much as I could. In that sense, I wouldn’t have to only strive for an ideal that is somewhere in the future. I could instead incorporate what I love into everything that I do, making this all about the process, rather than the end result. And when I’m defining what I love by the person I want to be, there will never truly be an end.
“It’s a lifelong journey to be loving and kind and good.”
That it is. Thomas, thank you for going upward together with me.