Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The “Do What You Love” Mirage

I am inspired by having read an article called “Do what you love mirage” by Denis Basaric. It begins...
“Do what you love” is advice I hear exclusively from financially secure people. And it rings hollow to me. When you need money to survive, you do any work that is available, love does not play into that choice. Desperation does.
Please read it before you go on.

Welcome back.

This article puts a very important cycle within my life into words. I believe, as Denis says, that a lot of times, we get the cause-effect relationship mixed up when we think about loving what we do.

I love what I do. Well, a lot of it. But Denis is right: I didn’t choose what I do out of love. I chose what I love out of doing. Some examples:
  • I love mathematics. But I most assuredly did not always love it. I learned to love it through working hard at it.
  • It’s the same thing with writing. I love it, but I didn’t always. At first, writing was unrewarding drudgery, which is how most people I meet seem to feel about it.
  • I love public speaking, but I sure didn’t love it when my speech class made me sick to my stomach three mornings a week for a whole semester my freshman year.
  • I love being an Oracle performance specialist, but I sure didn’t love being airlifted into crisis after crisis throughout the early 1990s.
I could go on. The point is, my life would be unrecognizably different if not for several really painful situations that I decided to endure with the resolve to get really good at what I hated. Until I loved it.

In retrospect, I seem to have been very lucky in many important situations. Of course, I have. But you make your own luck. Although I believe deeply in the idea of, “The harder I work, the luckier I get,” that is not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the power that you have to define for yourself whether something that happened was lucky for you or not. Your situations do not define your life. You create your life based on how you regard your situations.

I could have rebelled against Jimmy Harkey and hated math for the rest of my life. Lots of kids did. I could have rebelled against Lewis Parkhill and never become a writer. I could have refused Craig Newberger’s advice to take his second speech course and never become comfortable in front of an audience. I could have left Oracle in 1991 and found a job where they had more mature products....

One of the most important questions that I ever asked my wife before our engagement was this:
If you were forced to wash cars for 12 hours a day, just to make a living, could you enjoy it?
This is a “soulmate” kind of question for me. My wife’s attitude about it is, for our children and me, possibly the most valuable gift in our lives.

Loving what you do can be difficult. I think Denis hits the nail on the head by suggesting that,
By doing good work, you just might find out that what you are doing, is what you are supposed to do. And if you don’t, quality work will get you to where you want to be.
I hope you will find love in what you do today. Do it well, and it’ll definitely improve your odds.


oraclenerd said...

At first, it was baseball...but it didn't pay the bills. Then it was being a secretary which paid the bills until I started a family. That led me to Oracle (via Microsoft Access) and I'm happy to say I love what I do.

Sure, there are parts of it I do not like; traveling (too much), office politics, etc...but I find that I love what I do, I love solving problems or figuring out how things (Oracle) work.

I think you (and Denis) make a very good point though, someone, in the comments on the referenced post said it best:

"do what you do, with love"

Surachart Opun said...

“Do what you love”
That's just a word. Absolute not! Because It's importance to do or learn anything.

I love to learn something new. I love to solve the new problem.I love to be oracle dba.

when we do something whatever we love... we'll enjoy and happy.

Joel Garry said...

Good, quality work is always unmistakable. It fans out like waves. We instinctively recognize it. We feel better because of it and we like to share that feeling with others. That’s how word of good products, services and people spreads.

This is the real illusion. Craftsmanship leads to desperation in nearly all of today's software world.

Be glad if you are an exception to that.

word: bawser

Anonymous said...


Very interesting post and blog.

I think proponents of the "do what you love" mantra also assume... if you love doing something, you would be...(or should be..!) so good at it that your career/work should be based on it and nothing else.

But , to me the satisfaction and happiness of a job well done comes from how good you are at it(the "I kiss ass" feeling ..so to speak). Thousands of people would love playing basketball or playing music, very few have the ability (and love) to persue it as a career.

While one shouldn't work on a job one hates going to in the morning,
expecting to love your job right from day one..without having the uncaany ability to do it exceedingly well (genius) or without willing to put enough work into it...doesn't take you anywhere.

If it is ok with you, can we know your wife's response to your soulmate question.

My wife’s attitude about it is, for our children and me, possibly the most valuable gift in our lives.

sounds very fascinating.


Cary Millsap said...


It took me a few readings before the light came on for me. I think you meant "kick" not "kiss," right?!

In response to your inquiry about the question I asked my wife (girlfriend at the time), I didn't mean to leave it as a mystery. If she hadn't responded in the same spirit as what I've written about here, then she never would have agreed to marry me :-).

It wasn't just her answer to that question. It was many conversations we had about that question and many others. I'm sure that over time I'll blog about some of those, too.

Anonymous said...


It took me a few readings before the light came on for me. I think you meant "kick" not "kiss," right?!

Abslutely.. I cant believe how i messed that up..! :)

Thank you for the correction..I'd look forward to your future posts.


Robyn said...


I like it ... a lot. In my work life, I have followed my interests and that resulted in finding a career that I loved. I have not always loved the specific job role I was in, but I worked hard to master it so I could move on to the next challenge. To me, that was 'doing what I loved' but after reading the article, I realized that that 'love' is only part of the story.

When I chose my final major (after 4 others), I was a 23 year old newly single parent, and I chose it because it would get me the highest salary immediately out of college without requiring me to start over in a different curriculum. You could say I chose it out of love for my child, but love for the job came later.

cheers ... Robyn

Joel Garry said...

From a recent obituary of a famous author:

Mr. Singer moved to New York and in the early 1950s began writing for the TV shows “Westinghouse Playhouse,” “Kraft Television Theater” and “Studio One.” At the same time he worked as a salesman for his father-in-law’s printing business, a job he hated, and from which “The Parallax View” liberated him.

At least he didn't have to write "Death of a Salesman."

This "Do what you love" advice is usually from successful people being asked by young starving students (or developers), isn't it? I think Mr. Basaric pulled it out of that context, and also his giving the outliers example is just not really the mode of how people succeed. For every James Cameron aren't there a whole lot of waitpersons in LA who've "written a screenplay, but really want to direct?"

Even your dream job can sting you in the...

Karen said...

It seems that I am one of the fortunate few that had "love at first sight" with my career path. I've loved computers and particularly application development (and all that surrounds that area) since the first college course I had on the subject.

Like Robyn, I worked hard at whatever job I was in, did my best to master the skills required to do it very well, and then moved on to the next opportunity and challenge. However, it was about a decade ago in a classroom in Boston as I listened to you deliver the course that was then entitled the Hotsos Clinic where I really found my true love within the bigger field in which I'd been working. I'd been doing what I thought was performance "tuning" for several years, but what I heard and learned in that classroom was a huge turning point for me.

I've since been fortunate to do what I love and love what I do almost every day. I know not everyone is lucky enough to "know" they love something and be able to do it as their career. I'm one of the lucky few and am very, very grateful for that privilege.

And, I wanted to publicly thank you for the role you played in where I am today. Thanks!

jametong said...

Do what you love is so lucky..
At Least, do not have a job you hate.

Phoenix Bai said...

I never think of this problem from this perspective before! When you think about it, it is more true than the other way around in my life!

Great post!

Debra Lilley said...

Interestingly what I do came to a head recently at work. Management were forced to consider my role, within and outside the company and decide it's value. Why, because I said if I couldn't continue (big corporate restructure coming up), they I would leave, because I love what I do and that is most important for me. What do I love? Being able to share what I have learnt with other people and seeing them understand it, I may not be as eloquent a writer or speaker as you Cary, but I am passionate. And I also love the people I have met along the way, many who have commented on this post.

Will Power said...

Doing what you love should be the reason you make decisions to create, to go, to give, and just being overall.

I am music. I am not hollywood. I am not full of obsenities in my music, and while it seems like those things are what's prevelant. It doesn't stop me from doing what I love.

Dj Will Power

Unknown said...

Didn't Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young have song like this? It went something like:
...if you cant be in the job you love then love the one your in...
Hmmm maybe I'll make it my ringtone.

Rodger said...

Hey Cary,

You always read and write such great articles. A few ideas.

One, do we get the chance to do what we love and prove ourselves in it? Only so many become jet pilots. Or movie stars. It's interesting to hear the stories of how some got their chances, like Charlize Theron.

What many people love to do, there isn't necessarily a market for. When I was in university, I knew a guy that I shared the university darkroom with. He was a quiet type, who shot landscapes on expensive 4 x 5 inch film. He had great attention to detail. I'm not sure if he was trying to make a living with this or not. I couldn't see many people in my home town paying for black and white landscapes, as beautiful as they were. One day I heard that he had committed suicide. If he had been trying to make a living "doing what he loved", it only brought him terrible despair.

The other thing I think of, is Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Survival, safety, love/belonging, esteem, self actualization. You don't think of love much when you are poor. When your needs are met, then you do think about love and self actualization.

The ideal of course, is to get the chance, do what we love, get paid well for it, get positive feedback, and get real fulfillment doing it.


Andrew B said...

"Freedom is the recognition of necessity."

Friedrich Engels

... as we were taught behind the iron curtain :)