Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Myth of the Job You Love

When I was in 7th grade one of my teachers told us that the key to a happy career was to find a job doing something that you love to do. He read an article to us about a highly paid lawyer that discovered that he hated legal work. So he quit, went back to school, and eventually ended up as a professor of music. He was paid far less, but he loved his job.

Similar scenarios were repeated from time to time throughout my school years as a regular parade of people regaled us with tales of job-loving workers. The promoters of these narratives weren't always teachers. Sometimes they were paid consultants or people from various agencies. I even got some of this same counsel at church.

I was a newspaper carrier during most of the years this was going on. I didn't hate my job. But I sure didn't love it. Then I spent a summer planting pineapples in Hawaii. Yeah, it sounds exotic. But it was hard and boring manual agricultural labor. Nice climate; lousy job. I spent a couple of months working at a McDonald's restaurant before leaving to find something that I disliked less and that had better hours.

Setting up and cleaning up for a small company that did wedding receptions was OK, as was doing janitorial work for an architectural firm. I worked for a floral shop putting together pine bough wreaths for the Christmas season in a cold shed. I occasionally delivered flowers for the shop, which was kind of fun.

Finally I spent a summer working as a counselor at a Scout camp. The days were long and were regularly punctuated by hard work and trying circumstances. But I loved it. While I had found a job that I loved, it was seasonal work and it paid only enough to cover the cost of required uniforms. I could love the job, but I couldn't make any money at it.

After that summer I worked checking and bagging groceries at a local market. That was tolerable but not much in the way of lovable.

Then one day it dawned on me that all of the advice about finding a job I loved was little more than feel-good claptrap. How many people did I know that actually loved their jobs? I realized that few if any of the people that had told me to find a job I loved had followed that advice themselves. There's the rare person who loves their job, but for most people their job is ... just a job.

Over the years I have worked at lots of jobs. I have generally been happy to get the work and I have always been happy to get paid. Some jobs have suited me better than others. Few of them have been intolerable. Most of my jobs have been more or less fine, but I can't really say that I have ever had an actual paying job that I just loved.

Actually, I think that advising youngsters to go on a quest for the perfect "meaningful" job can be harmful. In real life, you don't get paid to do what you love to do. You get paid for doing something that somebody else needs to have done. Doing what you love to do is called recreation, and you generally pay to do it rather than getting paid for doing it. Jobs are called work because they involve a healthy dose of drudgery.

Telling kids to get a job doing something they love could lead to a lifetime of job disappointment and a feeling that they are entitled to something that is unlikely to happen. It could keep them from getting productive work while they are young, as they sit around waiting for a 'good' job to come along instead of following the tried and true pattern of starting out doing menial work and working up. Dude, it's hard to get paid much for playing video games and posting social media updates.

In reality, you do not need a job you love or a job that is meaningful, whatever that means. You need a job that you can tolerate and that provides sufficient compensation for your needs. You should find fulfillment in your work from time to time, but you should also expect to find a whole lot of drudgery. You can do what you love to do when you're on your own time.

It may actually be helpful to warn kids about finding work doing something that they love to do. They may discover that turning a beloved activity into a job kills enjoyment and turns the undertaking into drudgery. Or they may find themselves becoming so engrossed in their job that they neglect more important aspects of life.

Rather than teaching kids to look for some kind of ideal employment, teach them to find fulfillment in being a productive member of society and in building life enriching relationships. If they happen to find a job doing something they love to do along the way, they will be among the lucky few that win life's lottery. But they should know that they don't need a job like that to be happy and to have a satisfying career.

1 comment:

agellius said...

Excellent. It's theoretically possible for any one of us to find a job he loves, but it's mathematically impossible for most people to fall into that category.

Recently I saw a commercial. I forget what the product was, but it was all about doing what you love. But "what you love" was represented as either the arts or sports. As if the world would be a better place if only everyone would make his living either drawing or singing and dancing for a living, or else playing games.

Where do they think the thousands of people paying $100+ for tickets to watch people play games or sing and dance, are going to get the money? Is every one of them also an athlete or a singer/dancer? We can't all make a living performing artistically for each other. Someone's got to do some actual work.