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Paul Graham: Do what you love
How to avoid the obstacles between you and what you love to do.
"We've got it down to four words: Do what you love. But it's not enough just to tell people that." Writer Paul Graham spells out his advice on how to do what you love, including the dangers of money, prestige, and choosing what you want to be when you're just in high school.

How To Do What You Love (excerpt)

by Paul Graham

[In school,] work was pretty much defined as not-fun. 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....

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. It took me years to grasp that.


By high school, the prospect of an actual job was on the horizon. Adults would sometimes 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 did.

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....


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 you're young. [5] 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.

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 especially dangerous to the ambitious. 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. 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. 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.

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? ....

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.


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.

It's 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. 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, but probably....

Finding work you love does usually require discipline. Some people are lucky enough to know what they want to do when they're 12, 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....

Most people pre-emptively lower their expectations. 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." This is 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 a great moral effort; it would mean staring failure in the eye every day for years. And so to protect themselves people say "I can't."

Two Routes

There's 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 that destination:

    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 two-job route: to work at things you don't like to get money to work on things you do.

The organic route is more common. It happens naturally to anyone who does good work. 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. Even tenure is not real freedom.

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.

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. Worse still, anything you work on changes you. If you work too long on tedious stuff, it will rot your brain. And the best paying jobs are most dangerous, because they require your full attention.

The advantage of the two-job route is that it lets you jump over obstacles. The landscape of possible jobs isn't flat; there are walls of varying heights between different kinds of work. [7] 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.

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 the risk.

Don't decide too soon. 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.

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 it.

Now she has a life chosen for her by a high-school kid....

In the design of lives, as in the design of most other things, you get better results if you use flexible media. So unless you're fairly sure what you want to do, your best bet may be to choose a type of work that could turn into either an organic or two-job career. 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.

It's also wise, early on, to seek jobs that let you do many different things, so you can learn faster what various kinds of work are like. 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?....

Whichever route you take, expect a struggle. Finding work you love is very difficult. 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 there.

Updated: 2006-04-03 by Jon Ippolito

Updated: 2006-04-03 by John Bell
Posted 2006-04-03 13:14:40 by Jon Ippolito
Comments on this story... (toggle all)

And my response is... [John Bell, 2006-04-04 17:38:15]

Well, duh. Sorry, maybe it's because my background is of parents and teachers telling me to do what I want to do since (at least) 8th grade instead of Graham's apparently more restrictive childhood, but I don't really see much in this article that isn't self-evident...

Well, my response is... [James Scott, 2006-04-05 11:55:22]

...that this new password works.

Jon (for James).

Two-job route [James Scott, 2006-04-05 12:17:54]

The two-job route

Paul does not speak highly of this method, and I have to disagree with him. If you are a bond trader for ten years, then try to wing it at your dream job wouldn’t you know if you like it or not by then? He makes me feel that you can only be engrossed in one job or another I cannot broaden my horizon? I cannot have a part time job where I wash floors my ultimate employer? I cannot have a hobby I want to later try and profit from?

I will not graduate and be handed the job of my choice I will have to obtain two jobs to support myself. Just cause I scrub dishes on the weekends does not mean I could not appreciate fully in time and effort climbing the ladder at a different job.

Re: Two-job route [Jon Ippolito, 2006-04-06 14:25:48]

I agree that many life options may require you to get a crappy job to support the work you love. It's how I did things for many years--moving boxes, catering, bartending, whatever just to pay the rent while I explored an unusual creative path. I didn't have a full-time job until 7 years after graduating college.

Like Graham, I had a father who helped me accept this. He never graduated from high school--and his advice was, "Never take a job you wouldn't mind quitting" :)


who needs prestigious? [Timothy Holt, 2006-04-05 20:21:17]

I found this article to be some what interesting. i have always had the thought to do what i love as long as it makes me happy, this article seemed to just reinforce that idea ive had all along. I do particularly like the following quote,
"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."
I had never really looked at prestigious as sucking. I have always thought i would love to tell everyone i work for this big company, and i have all these contacts blah blah blah...but if i hate the job, it really means nothing to me, only to other people. I guess it all comes down to just doing what you love as long as your happy, even if that entials working two jobs to get by.

Re: who needs prestigious? [Jon Ippolito, 2006-04-06 14:30:50]

I've studied or worked at some prestigious places, and I have to agree with Graham about the danger. Ivy League schools often have the worst facilities and equipment. New Yorkers working at prestigious businesses and nonprofits accept a low standard of living--cramped apartments and offices, cut-throat officemates--just to work at the "company headquarters."

do what you love [Sara McCormick, 2006-04-06 12:25:20]

I had to laugh a little while reading this article because a friend of mine who is a sophomore in high school just told me that she wants to go to school for pre-med, pre-law or dentistry...three very prestigious jobs. I know that my friend hasn't really thought much about what she likes, so she automatically is pulled towards careers with a lot of money and prestige.
I think it is pretty normal for most people to dream of making a lot of money and working for a big company because for some reason, this is supposed to mean that they are successful. I guess I would rather measure success by how happy I am.

a response [Aerin Raymond, 2006-04-10 12:42:51]

I agree with a lot of this article. However, I don't agree with the idea that you should care what your friends, no matter how close, think of your job. If you love it, and would do it (even if you weren't paid, like he suggests), then it shouldn't matter what anyone but you thinks. If it's important to you, it should be important to your friends.
I think after graduation I'll be taking the two-job route as well. I'll get enough money to move to a bigger city and afford to live there on my own, and then look for the job I love there. And, if I fail, at least I can say I worked hard to get there, and I really tried.

Doing what you love... [Lindsey McMorrow, 2006-11-04 22:39:41]

I can certainly attest to this article with my experience from this past summer. I had an unpaid internship and it was one of the greatest experiences I've had. I was doing graphic design for an art museum two days a week and I commuted over an hour each way to do this. I met some incredible people and had fun at work! Yes I had to have another job so I could afford the commute but it was great and I would have loved to continue it. The experience certainly taught me the importance of doing what you love.

Seems reasonable... [Steven Lindquist, 2006-11-06 09:20:04]

Heck, I've been doing this for seems like three years now, working a mind numbing job while keeping your sanity long enough to still enjoy something. This makes sense to me, do a job that you hate to fund the things you love. I think the trick would be how to make money off of what you love, complete the cycle in a way. I like his comment on not doing something you like only for the sake of impressing others, it should be something you like period. It's kind of sad the way he describes the difficulty on something that seems common sense to me (maybe it's my carefree nature). A lot of people are freaked out by NMD, wondering if they'll get a job doing something restricted only to that (I know I was), but now I see NMD as gathering skills which can be applied to many fields (a more pleasent way of thinking). Or maybe I just don't like the idea of sitting behind a computer screen the rest of my life and it's too late to change majors... Either way, everything's all right. =D

THE FEAR [Matthew Leavitt, 2006-11-06 09:50:43]

This is the biggest thing for me getting out. I really enjoy the activist / project-based mediums in new media, but what does that mean in terms of career opportunities. That is the reason for going to college, as to not have a 9-5 tie wearing corporate machine inside of me.

Under the jobs section it says about basically the shadow syndrome that kids get to do when they are in middle/high school, where they shadow someone at a bank or car dealership. Where is the artists, the risky jobs, not the secure, yay i want to talk into a mic to cars all day long jobs? the jobs where people get to get off their asses and do something? IM SORRY I FORGOT WE ARE SUPPOSED TO BREED THE CURRENT JOB MARKET, rather than doing something else. I dunno, I personally like the idea of freelance, but fear job security, it's a paradox really.

Two-job route [Derek Johnson, 2006-11-07 20:03:15]

This article brought up some very good points and made me realize a few things about myself. Apparently I am doing the "two-job route" at this point in my life. All year long I work various jobs (aside from school) to support the job that i love which is playing in a band. A huge part of the reason I work these jobs is to pay for musical equipment and gas. If I didn't work these other jobs I wouldn't be able to play in a band which would really make life less enjoyable. It is possible to make a living from playing in a band but it's very difficult. I enjoy many aspects of new media so I hope to be able to graduate and get a job I love to support I job I love even more... Playing in a band.

yes [Lee Batchelor, 2007-10-25 15:53:43]

Yes, This is correct. I find that work always equals pain, even if it is something initially enjoyable (this is a product of my own particular history, not necessarily an inescapable condition). For example, doing video projects and music projects and art projects etc. has become the bane of existence, whereas before those sorts of activities were invigorating and I did them on my own with better results. I think it is important to note here the importance of variety with work; everything can become tedious and boring.

There's lots more to say, but I just can't be bothered.

Yours to command,

Two-jobbing it. [Elizabeth Walker, 2007-10-25 21:53:34]

As a person currently going the two-job route, I can see why this guy looks down on it. But, I think there's a certain appeal to it as well. If you have a job that has nothing to do with what you like, when you go home for the day, your concern for that job ends. I work as a pharmacy technician, and it's very rare that I actually worry about pharmacy matters when I punch out for the day. Plus, it pays well. People going the organic route are probably far more likely to stress themselves into having ulcers and other health problems as they struggle to get ahead in their chosen field and that ideal situation of being able to pick and choose.

So my plan? Work my job to pay my bills, muster up my talents, and hit my chosen field with a bang. I'd rather do that then work some minor job in the graphic design field and always worrying about whether or not I can claw my way up.

Plus, you always have a fall back.

do you love it? [Elizabeth Arcaro, 2007-10-26 09:54:28]

I think that most of these things are true. I was always being told i could do what I wanted when I grew up. And being at the stage in my life I can see that full time job on the horizon. One of the things that caught my attention was when he said that the way to judge if you love your job is if you would do it for free, and having done an internship for free this summer in the field I would like to go into I can honestly say that I did love going to work and I didn't mind not getting paid for it.

Its all what you make it out to be, if its something you've wanted to do for a while and have put in all this time and effort and still want to do it then go ahead and do it, most likely your going to enjoy it and your job.

I'm not su [Joseph Raymond, 2007-10-26 10:56:17]

I'm not sue which approach I would like to take, but I have a feeling it will be the organic approach. I don't think I would be able to get anywhere working a "day job" and trying to do my "fun job" at night/in my spare time. I would end up giving up on the "fun job" and just deal with making money. The organic approach seems more appropriate. Get a job that is related to what you want to do, then gradually morph it into exactly what you want to do.

Do what you love [Alex Lessard, 2007-10-28 13:10:32]

I've always been told to be responsible and work hard. Seeing my dad do jobs that are hard for the benefit of our family even when he hated them was a staple of my life. Personally, call me a whiner, but I could never accept a job doing something I didn't enjoy. This same ideal goes into the things that I learn. I've had 6 majors in the university and until the past few years I didn't find something that could treat me to the incredible variance of information to keep me interested and motivated. The two job technique might not be ideal, but if you want anything you should work for it, and trying to modify a job you don't like seems safer but with a higher chance of being less successful.

Made me think a bit [Jason Walker, 2007-10-28 15:14:11]

I've always thought it was odd that all I was ever really told in early life was that you went to school so that you could get a good job. So that you could make money. But it seemed odd to me, and I never really knew what I wanted to do when I "grew up", and I still don't really have much of a clue. It's like my parents have actually said before, "What are you going to do when you get a real job?" even though I'd been working already for 4 years, while going to school at the same time. And I realize the fact is, I don't want a "real job", but I also need money right now to live. I'm pretty sure most college students feel pretty similar about this, especially if they are working and taking classes at the same time. After school when I get my "real job" it will most likely not be what I "like" doing, and will focus on what I can do to make money to live off of, while I do the things like outside of work, where the "fun" is. I see too many people focus on making money for the sake of having money, and get caught up in a never-ending cycle of that, and never regain the spark of something they enjoy.

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