A reader writes:
A lot of people talk about doing what they’re passionate about, loving their jobs, doing what they love and getting paid for it … and it kind of confuses me sometimes. How do you figure out what you love to do? Now, I like certain things but I have absolutely zero interest in starting a business of any kind. I don’t consider myself un-ambitious, but I don’t strive to be the next Donald Trump or Martha Stewart. I want a 9-5 job at a reasonably functional company that pays a good wage, so I can indulge in what I like after-hours (socializing, cooking, eating, shopping). Some people see this as not having ambition. Do you get people asking you how to stop feeling guilty over that lack of ambition? Over not wanting to start a business? I just think not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur and that doesn’t make them any less ambitious or a “loser.”
For some reason, I thought being passionate about your work meant something that you can do for hours and hours and never get sick of — until I had a conversation with someone who does love what they do, who told me that that’s not true at all … you can still be frustrated, have bad days, and want to go home, and still love your job/profession … and the majority of people can’t do the same thing for hours and hours–it’s not possible. And it’s true — even at my “best” job, there were still some aspects that I disliked and were frustrating, but I remember that I never NOT wanted to be there, which is so different from my past jobs where I was ready to go home before I even left the house!
The people who get to do what they love for a job are the lucky ones; they’re not the majority.
Lots of other people are pretty content with what they do, but not passionate about it. This is probably the majority.
And then a third group of people really don’t like what they do. They range from not-especially-happy to outright miserable.
Your goal is to avoid being in the third group. (Although, frankly, that’s not realistic in all cases. In some cases, work is simply work, and you do it because it funds important things, like housing and food.)
I know that “do what you love” is popular advice in a certain socioeconomic slice of our population. But it’s unrealistic advice that’s often unhelpful.
Not all passions match up with the realities of the job market. If you’re passionate about poetry or painting, you’re going to find very limited job opportunities for those things. Other people’s passions are their friends or their family, or home-making, or dogs, and again, there’s not much of a job market built around those things. But those are lovely passions to have. And in those cases, it makes sense to find work that you can do reasonably happily, while pursuing your passions when you’re not at work. And that’s completely okay.
(And note that often what makes people happy at work isn’t that they’re passionate about what they’re doing, but rather that they have a sense of accomplishment or impact, or they enjoy the autonomy they’re given, or they feel respected or useful, or whatever.)
Now, some people are passionate about their work, of course, and that’s an amazing, wonderful, lucky thing. If you can find a way to turn what you love doing into something that makes you a living, go for it. (Although be aware that sometimes that backfires, turning something you loved into an obligation.)
It’s also important to note that most people who earn a living doing what they love didn’t start out on that path. It emerged over time. And some of them never would have predicted that their work would be their dream job, but somehow that’s what it turned into. For many of us in that group, if we’d started out pursuing a passion, it would have led us down a much different road — but here we are today, thrilled with what we’re doing, yet a little surprised by the road that took us here.
So I wouldn’t stress terribly over this. You want to make sure you’re doing something that you’re good at, something that brings you a reasonable amount of satisfaction, and something that can earn you a living. But it’s okay for the things that you really feel passionate about to be things you do outside of work, if that’s how it turns out.
And last, entrepreneurship is really a totally separate question from all this. Starting a business takes a very specific type of person, and not everyone is cut out for it. (And it annoys the crap out of me when people suggest it as a cure-all for anyone who can’t find a job or who’s unhappy in their current one.) There’s absolutely nothing unambitious about not wanting to start your own business — it’s pretty normal, in fact.