When it comes to career advice, we’ve all heard, “Do what you love and you’ll never work another day in your life.” Or picked up Marsha Sinetar’s book proclaiming, “Do what you love, the money will follow.” Or thought of Lana Del Ray explaining that “doing what you love is freedom. Loving what you do is happiness.” Well, I’m not so sure.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this advice. In fact, they’re great sound bites that have convinced many people—myself included—to follow their passions, pursue their dreams, and shoot for the stars. After all, who doesn’t want to do a job they love? Sounds great, right? And for some people, I’m certain it is. This guidance has probably produced countless doctors, actors, lawyers, musicians, and more, and it’s likely driven great creations and innovations—from life-changing medical advancements to Oscar-winning films we know and love—in the face of critics saying “be realistic” instead of “dream big.”
The problem, however, is that this advice doesn’t really work for everyone, and we need to stop pretending that it does.
For me, “do what you love” meant barely making ends meet or destroying the passion I'd once had for the things I loved. A decade in marketing resulted in burnout and a host of mental health issues. Despite my passion for the industry, I never earned more than $50,000 per year—even with two director-level positions under my belt—and I was miserable. Finally, I decided to quit my job to pursue another passion and become a full-time writer, only to spend so much energy chasing paid assignments I didn’t have any left for my own work. In the two years I wrote books while I was still working in marketing? I completed six manuscripts. In the 5+ years since I quit my job? I’ve completed zero.
Unfortunately, many of my friends who are authors have had similar experiences. Those with full-time jobs they don’t hate are writing and publishing more books—and producing other types of creative content—while those of us who tried to make a living “following our passions” are burnt out and struggling to make ends meet.
Ditch “do what you love.”
“Do what you love” is short-sighted career advice that fails to take reality into account. It ignores the trials and tribulations of living in a capitalistic society that makes it easier for some people and impossible for others to do what they love.
After all, it’s easier to do what you love if your parents are covering your rent and other bills. It’s easier to do what you love if you aren’t drowning in $100k (or more) of student debt. It’s easier to do what you love if what you love—like writing code or practicing law—just so happens to fit capitalistic notions of value than if you love, say, painting or journalism. It’s also a lot easier to do what you love if you’re not part of a marginalized community, struggling with mental health, coping with a disability or chronic illness, lacking access to affordable childcare, or fighting to put food on the table.
It’s time to replace this outdated career advice with a new sound bite.
With economic mobility in the United States at a record low—meaning those born in 1980 only have a 45% chance of out-earning their parents at age 30 (compared to 93% of those born in 1940)—many people are finding advice like “do what you love” to be a luxury they can’t afford. Others describe it as a “capitalist trap” that erodes your sense of self and encourages companies to exploit your passion in exchange for more labor and a smaller paycheck. And, as rates of burnout and disillusionment with the American Dream continue to rise, suddenly the Great Resignation starts to make a lot more sense. Even before the pandemic, the average American employee worked 47 hours a week (with 18% working over 60 hours), despite the fact that the World Health Organization recently discovered that overwork is literally killing us.
This doesn’t even begin to cover the fact that some people may never find a professional calling and others keep themselves trapped in a career path they used to love because they’re afraid of losing the progress they’ve made. Plus, for those who are self-employed or pursuing a side gig, doing what you love is often a recipe for hating what you do. We’re told to monetize our hobbies, ignoring the fact that hobbies are meant to support joy, rest, and relaxation—not work—until our passions lose their shine, and we’re drudging through the things that used to make us happy.
It’s time to replace this outdated career advice with a new sound bite: Ditch, “Do what you love,” and replace it with, “Build the life you love.” For some people, that might mean following your passion as your profession. For others, it’s about finding a job you don’t hate and building your life around it.
Build the life you love.
Now, you might think, “But what if the life I love doesn’t involve work?” I definitely understand the desire for a life of leisure, but it’s not possible for most of us. To some degree, work is unavoidable. Not only is it necessary to pay the bills and exist in our society, but research also shows that not working isn’t super good for our brains. However, the same study suggests there’s a “cap” on how much work benefits our health. Too little? Your mental and physical health might suffer. Too much? Same thing.
We also know that there’s value in doing work you enjoy. Higher job satisfaction is linked to better physical and mental health. Happiness at work increases productivity, reduces stress levels, and may even boost your self-esteem. But there’s a lot of room between “doing what you love” and absolutely hating your job. Rather than taking a job that pays the most money—making you miserable in the process—or taking a job with no money simply because it’s in line with your passion, it’s about finding the middle ground.
It’s about asking yourself tough questions about the life you want, the choices you’ve made, and how you can move forward.
Because job satisfaction isn’t only gained by enjoying the work itself. It’s also about what your work provides for you. Maybe you value free time, the ability to work remotely, money to fund your Funko Pop collection, or simply the opportunity to provide your family with a comfortable lifestyle. The best job to create your best life might not be your “dream job”—it might just be something that creates space for work-life balance to exist.
If you’re someone who loves traveling the world, writing, and working flexible hours, for example, the conventional wisdom of “doing what you love” would say to launch a travel blog and grind until your passion pays your bills. In reality, it might be easier—and more fulfilling—to work part-time as a graphic designer getting a steady paycheck that funds your globetrotting while taking writing workshops in your free time. Is it doing work you love? Maybe not. But is it allowing what you love? Absolutely.
Obviously, implementing this solution is sometimes easier said than done. It’s about asking yourself tough questions about the life you want, the choices you’ve made, and how you can move forward. Collectively, it also involves confronting obstacles like racism, sexism, and ageism in the workplace—all of which prevent so many people from building lives they love.
Remember you’re more than what you do.
For me, building the life I love meant identifying what truly matters—a flexible work schedule, a walkable neighborhood, and time for creative pursuits—and realizing that it was easier to enjoy my life if I didn’t “do what I love” professionally. My partner and I sold our house, got rid of my car, and moved to a new neighborhood. We downsized our life significantly, doing the polar opposite of what society seemed to expect from us, and it dramatically improved our quality of life.
Professionally, I realized that being my own boss was absorbing too much brain space—and hurting my mental health—so I closed my creative agency, cut back on freelance clients, and found a part-time job. It provided work that was creative enough to leave me feeling satisfied along with a flexible schedule and a decent paycheck. And while I’m not always doing work I love, I find that it’s far more enjoyable than I expected.
It’s time we challenge the mythos that connects what you do with who you are and encourage people to chase dream lives rather than dream jobs.
Plus, the trade-off has been well worth it. I work fewer hours to earn roughly the same amount of money, and I’m way less stressed now that I don’t have to worry about finding clients or landing enough projects to pay my bills. My off-time actually feels like off-time again. I’m still not making tons of money, but I actually have the free time to enjoy the money I do make. Even better? My relationships have improved, my mental health has skyrocketed, and my creativity has slowly been rekindled along the way.
Ten years ago, I’d have called this “settling,” and I’m sure there are some people who’d still see it like that. However, it’s time we challenge the mythos that connects what you do with who you are—something that impacts everyone from high school students exploring future career options to mid-level executives rethinking their current career paths—and encourage people to chase dream lives rather than dream jobs. Because doing what you love should be about the life you live, not just the work you do.