How to Do What You Love: Notes from a Paul Graham Essay

It’s rare that I read an essay on Paul Graham’s website and don’t feel inspired or enlightened. There is much, much wisdom in his writing. For those that don’t know, Paul Graham is the co-founder of Y Combinator, a venture capital firm which is basically the Harvard of start-ups. He also seems like a decent chap.

In this post I would like highlight a few key ideas from his essay “How to Do What You Love”. If you get a chance, I would read the full piece, but if you’re short of time, this is for you.

Graham explores the peculiar mixed messages kids in western society receive growing up, for example that school is tediousbecauseit is “preparation for growing up”…but at the same time you’re supposed to be able to “do anything”. He describes how as a kid, it is apparent that work adults do is not fun, though whenever an adult comes to school to give a talk they usually pretend otherwise:

The main reason they [adults] 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.

Graham goes on to explain why people pretend to like their work by pointing out that to do something well, you have to like it. Hence the most successful people genuinely like what they do. People try to imitate those who are successful, and this explains the wide-spread pretending. This was a very interesting point to me, as I have often wondered about the fake smiles you see in soulless corporate jungles.

Add this into the mix and you have a weird cocktail (“recipe for alienation” –love it) as kids have been taught that work is awful and onerous…but everyone pretends to love their work. It’s almost Orwellian.

Next Graham explores the search for work:

How much are you supposed to like what you do? Unless you know that, you don’t know when to stop searching. And if, like most people, you underestimate it, you’ll tend to stop searching too early. You’ll end up doing something chosen for you by your parents, or the desire to make money, or prestige—or sheer inertia.

It seems to me that the mixed messages received since childhood contribute to the tendency to underestimate how much you’re supposed to like what you do.

Graham makes the key point that any discussion of doing what you love must assume a reasonable timeframe, like a month or a year.If you ask someone what they would rather be doing right now the answer is almost certainly having sex, or lying on a beach, or having sex again.

As a lower bound, you have to like your work more than any unproductive pleasure. You have to like what you do enough that the concept of “spare time” seems mistaken. Which is not to say you have to spend all your time working. You can only work so much before you get tired and start to screw up. Then you want to do something else—even something mindless. But you don’t regard this time as the prize and the time you spend working as the pain you endure to earn it.

The idea of “spare time” seeming mistaken really resonates with me. Since I first found a business idea I could really throw myself into, I’ve always spent my spare time working on it. I prefer to.

Graham cautions against two forces: prestige and money. Chasing prestige – i.e. the opinion of the rest of the world, is folly. This is of course easier said than done, prestige has great allure. However, I think Graham is absolutely right when he says: “If you do anything well enough, you’ll 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.

When it comes to money, Graham issues the test: would you do what you do even if you weren’t paid for it? How many corporate lawyers can say “yes” to that? Such jobs (the kind parents like to talk loudly about their kids having) highlight the dangers of prestige combined with money. Parents will tend to counsel the path of money as they share risks more than rewards.

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.

And now, perhaps the most important quote of the essay:

Although doing great work takes less discipline than people think—because the way to do great work is to find something you like so much that you don’t have to force yourself to do it—finding work you love does usually require discipline.

This is so true. When I think of the number of friends I have who don’t love what they do, and yet don’t make much effort to change their circumstances, I find it staggering. Why don’t they? Because it requires immense discipline. It is difficult.

But let’s say you take the plunge, and take some risks. The question then becomes: When are you boldly carving a new path, and when are you dropping out and giving up? Graham mentions two tests for keeping yourself honest:

  1. Always do a good job at whatever you’re doing, even if you don’t like it – so you can’t use dissatisfaction as an excuse for giving up.
  2. Always produce – be it writing, software or furniture. This will help you in your search.

Another related line you often hear is that not everyone can do work they love—that someone has to do the unpleasant jobs. Really? How do you make them? In the US the only mechanism for forcing people to do unpleasant jobs is the draft, and that hasn’t been invoked for over 30 years. All we can do is encourage people to do unpleasant work, with money and prestige.

Of course, it’s unlikely you will be able to do what you love right away. Graham argues there are basically two routes: work until you get senior enough to dictate which projects you work on, or have two jobs: one you do for money, the other because you love it – eventually you get good enough at the one you love so you can quit the one you do for money. The good news is, that with companies like kickstarter, you can start doing the one you love much faster.

In summary:

  • Kids are brought up under false pretenses about the nature of work, these pretenses have their origins in inept attempts to mimic successful people (e.g. pretending to like your work).
  • Realize that “loving your work” means enjoying it over a long period of time, of course there is something immediately gratifying you would prefer to be doing in the short term.
  • As a guideline, you have to like your work more than unproductive pleasure. Otherwise you’ll have to force yourself to work on your projects, and then they and you will suck.
  • Prestige is a dangerous trap and time-sink. Combine the offer of money with a little prestige, and you have an even more dangerous trap – especially for the young who have a small frame of reference, and have to contend with pressure from parents/friends.
  • If you admit to yourself you are not happy with your work, you are already on the right path.
  • Finding work you love requires immense discipline, once you have found it, it is surprisingly easy.
  • During your search always do a good job, and always be producing – this will help with your search.
  • Once you find what you love, you will probably have to work towards it – either by doing other paid work, or by climbing the ladder (e.g. if you’re a senior architect you can dictate which projects you work on).
  • Whichever route you take, expect to struggle.

If you don’t love what you do, then admit it to yourself. Don’t sugar coat it with excuses like ‘yeah, but the money is good’ or ‘yeah, but I don’t know what else I could do’ – because that is not the point. If you don’t love what you do, then it is STUPID to not spend every moment that you can trying to find something that you do love. The search is difficult and long. The decision to begin the search is not.

No matter who you are, or what your situation is, there is always a way.