It's okay for work to feel like work
You’ve no doubt seen the sentiment plastered on an Etsy mug or in the caption of some influencer posting from the beach on a Tuesday afternoon:
Choose a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.
Setting aside the ridiculousness of the idea we can all just “choose” what we we want our job to be, stuff like this seems to be making the case that the surest path to professional happiness is to gravitate toward work that doesn’t feel like work.
The sentiment is easy enough to understand. If you can make a living doing something you love doing anyway, bliss should naturally follow right?
Unfortunately there are at least two problems with this logic.
For one, getting paid to “do something you love doing anyway” is easier said than done. If the thing you love to do is sing in your band or play golf, the odds of making a good living doing exclusively that thing are infinitesimally small. (Even lower if the thing you love to do is watch Netflix with your cat).
Secondly, even if you do find a way to turn the thing you love into a job, odds are you will grow to loathe doing that thing.
I’ve always loved to write. As a child I filled notebooks with silly stories. In high school I loved writing for the school newspaper and my favorite college class, by far, was creative writing. I wrote all the time, for fun (and for free).
Upon graduating college I got a job writing for a newspaper and while I loved it at first, I eventually came to despise the act of writing every single day. The nightly deadline—a nice motivator in the beginning—became a creativity sapping guillotine hanging over my head as I stared at my computer.
I eventually left the newspaper and didn’t write anything for a very long time.
This phenomenon is not exclusive to entry-level newspaper jobs in small towns either. During a break in their schedule, professional athletes will talk about how grateful and excited they are for the much needed day off.
From playing sports. For millions of dollars.
Perhaps I’m misinterpreting the argument behind “find work that doesn’t feel like work”. Maybe it doesn’t mean “turn your pastime into a job.” Maybe the real crux of the idea is that you should try to find a way to get paid to do something you can do effortlessly.
This also feels misguided.
Play to your strengths sure, but things that are too easy quickly become boring.
Work is often difficult. It can push us and challenge us to the point where we aren’t even really sure if we have what it takes to get it done. Very often work (in the moment) doesn’t feel fun at all.
As Carol Dweck reminds us in Mindset, her landmark book about motivation and success:
Effort is one of the things that gives meaning to life. Effort means you care about something, that something is important to you and you are willing to work for it.
We humans are wired for effort.
Overcoming challenges gives us a sense of fulfillment and purpose. A long time ago this drive helped us stay alive, but now that we have conquered the planet and technology continues to make our lives easier by the day, the need isn’t so obvious.
Instead of embracing the effort necessary to do things we care about, we look for the path of least resistance and we grow envious of those that have seemingly found it (thanks again social media!).
Don’t fall for it.
If your work feels like work, it probably just means you care.
And caring is a much clearer path to professional happiness than anything else I’ve come across.
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