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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.  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."
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.  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
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