Do work you love, or love the work you do?


The self-help and personal development world is full of experts advising you to “Live a Life of Purpose” and “Only Do Work You Love”.

Perhaps Confucius started it two millennia ago with his famous quotation.

While the first is clearly an ideal that is potentially attainable for most people whether employed in a job or working for themselves, the second is just as obviously not possible for everyone. Society demands that jobs that few people do by choice and fewer still could claim to love, must be filled.

It is obvious that we need prison warders, garbage workers, sewerage works attendants, morticians, lawyers and many more. I am not criticising people who do those essential jobs, just commenting that most of us would not do that work by choice.

For all the billions of dollars spent on personal development courses, programmes, seminars, workshops, webinars, cds, dvds coaching and other types of self-help, only one in ten or fewer take the action needed to make a difference to their lives. Very few, a miniscule fraction, do what it takes to lead extraordinary, successful lives.

Why? Many reasons, but those are for another post.

Why then do the “gurus” keep exhorting us to live a life of purpose and only do work we love?

Because it is far easier to sell the hope that we can do those things than the reality of accepting that most of us will not achieve both and that the secret to living a life of purpose is to love the work we do, not only do the work we love.

It has long been a concern of mine that much of this type of self-help advice is flawed and some, dishonest, but it has seemed that mine has been a lone voice in the wilderness.

I am not denying the ideal or suggesting it is impossible to purposefully only do work we love. It is certainly possible, there are enough shining examples in many fields, but most people do not have the perseverance, commitment or determination to do what is necessary.

Consider that many people could be considered to live a life of purpose because of what they do in one area of their life, perhaps for no or little financial gain, but support themselves by working at something that, while tolerable, even enjoyable, is not work they love.

My proposition is that to live a life of purpose, we have to learn to like the work we do before we can have the luxury of only doing the work we love. If we can never get to the stage of liking the work we do and seeing merit in doing it, we are unlikely to live a life of purpose. We will not develop the right attitude to work, loved or otherwise.

The other side of this coin is that when we can accept and like the work we do, we can be free to find other things to give purpose to our lives.

It’s all about attitude and brings to mind the old story about the medieval stone masons working on a cathedral. The visiting bishop asks each what he is doing. From the apprentice, he gets the reply “chiseling this stone”. From the journeyman, “carving decorations for a column”, from the master craftsman “creating the most beautiful cathedral in the world”.

For more on this topic here is a good article in Jacobin which I found through a link in James Shelley’s Caesura letters . Both articles explore the subject in some detail and raise additional points for consideration. Particularly the premise that suggesting we only do work we love is elitist and demeans the value of work as most people understand it.

What are your thoughts?

Peter Wright

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  4 comments for “Do work you love, or love the work you do?

  1. Roberta
    March 27, 2014 at 4:55 pm

    Well said. You took a difficult subject and looked at all sides logically and with sensitivity.

    “My proposition is that to live a life of purpose, we have to learn to
    like the work we do before we can have the luxury of only doing the work
    we love.” ~ This is the take away from this post for me.

    When I lost a job ay age 50 I had to start at the beginning and build a new career. I did a lot of grunt jobs. It was my attitude though. It was hard and some times I despaired. But I got up the next day with a smile and said I will rise again. And I did.

    This was part lick and part determination and never giving in or up even when I felt like it.

    Don’t know if that helps or answers your question. But a lot of life is just attitude and grit. If we found a way to impart that spunk and spark to others it may help people get a job they love.

    • April 1, 2014 at 10:46 am

      You are correct Roberta, a lot of life certainly is attitude and grit, unfortunately a sense of entitlement and a demand for instant gratification seems to have dampened the spark.

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