Should we really do what we love?


“Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing than a long life spent in a miserable way.” The plummy voice of Alan Watts (the English author and speaker best remembered for bringing Eastern philosophy to the West) does haunt me. This line in the video ‘What if money was no object?’ sent me into a bit of a tizzy when I first watched it a year ago. It made me call into question what I really desired from life.

One can be easily moved by inspirational messages such as his, or that of Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement speech. Steve Jobs pleads that we do not settle in our working life: “Have the courage to follow your heart and your intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.” My other favourite “do what you love” speech is from Professor Larry Smith in his TED Talk, Why you will fail to have a great career. His accusatory, glaring eyes fixating on the audience, his face expressing a mix of darkness and humour and his fervent demands instil such fear in me that he leaves me with no choice but to find my passion: “Passion is your greatest love. Passion is the thing that will help you create the highest expression of your talent.”

During my own periods of uncertainty in figuring out my passions, I referred to the book that is considered the pinnacle of job hunting guides since the 70s, What Color is Your Parachute? by Richard N. Bolles. This book talks about the importance of passions, finding our mission in life and doing what we love. Most career advice posits this idea. I’ve followed and have given this advice too.

I have begun to wonder whether this is really the right advice to follow. What if our passions are harmful or at least not very useful to society? One may love cultivating illegal drugs, for example, or directing pornographic films. Or, one could find oneself loving a “bullshit job” (a term coined by Professor David Graeber, which is a job that wouldn’t be missed if it were made redundant – have a go at guessing which type of job this could be). Jeremy Bentham, the founder of the greatest happiness principle, would probably argue that these jobs would not bring the greatest good to the greatest number.

Aristotle holds that living the good life involves active participation in community and citizenship. He probably wouldn’t encourage pursuing those jobs either. There are also other questions at stake: what if we are not actually that good at what we are passionate about? Could one realistically make a living out of a passion? Or the scariest question of them all: what if we don’t have any passions? According to the British career guidance charity 80,000 Hours, “Most people aren’t passionate about anything, at least anything that can get you a job”. The charity looks extensively at research in psychology to support their findings. Far better, it says, to seek a job that makes a difference to the lives of others, because making other people happy makes us happy.

Besides, what we are passionate about can change, and, often, we are not very good at figuring out what makes us happy. This is because we tend to overestimate the positive or negative impact of future scenarios, and we let past associations or events predict our future. For example, my childhood dream was to perform in musicals. I even had slight regrets about not making a proper go at musical theatre in my adolescence. Finally, when I got the chance to perform in a musical last year, I realised a) I didn’t enjoy it as much as I expected to and b) I wasn’t as talented as I imagined.

Does this mean forgoing the dream and sticking to the day job? Not always. 80,000 Hours agrees that being happy in a job does make you more productive. However, more satisfaction (and in turn happiness) comes from doing work that makes a difference. What appears to provide overall job satisfaction is mentally challenging work. Based on the Job Characteristics Model, the five components that make one’s job challenging and fulfilling are: independence, variety, sense of completion, feedback and contribution. Perhaps the best advice is not to solely focus on what we love doing, but also to consider what provides meaning to our lives. In Man’s Search for Meaning, the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl writes: “Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself.”

Gemma Rose writes at Follow her on Twitter @livingroomphilo, and Facebook. com/LivingRoomPhilosophy