The new American Dream: Doing what you love

I recently stumbled across Paul Graham‘s 2006 piece, “How to do what you love” and find myself smitten. The ability to do what one loves for a living might accurately be described as the new American Dream, and Graham has some excellent recommendations for those of us in pursuit of our love. I keep a printed copy of his article above my desk and reread highlighted sections from time to time to remind myself of the bigger picture. Below are just of few of my favorite quotes, including some of Graham’s best–on prestige as the enemy of passion.

Why is it conventional to pretend to like what you do?…If you have to like something to do it well, then the most successful people will all like what they do…conventional attitudes about work are, without the owners even knowing it, nth-degree imitations of the attitudes of people who’ve done great things. What a recipe for alienation.

The rule about doing what you love assumes a certain length of time. It doesn’t mean, do what will make you happiest this second, but what will make you happiest over some longer period, like a week or a month. Unproductive pleasures pall eventually. After a while you get tired of lying on the beach. If you want to stay happy, you have to do something.

You shouldn’t worry about prestige…This is easy advice to give. It’s hard to follow, especially when you’re young. Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like…Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious…So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself.

Your opinions about what’s admirable are always going to be slightly influenced by prestige, so if two [kinds of work] seem equal to you, you probably have more genuine admiration for the less prestigious one.

Most people are doomed in childhood by accepting the axiom that work = pain. Those who escape this are nearly all lured onto the rocks by prestige or money…It’s hard to find work you love; it must be, if so few do. So don’t underestimate this task. And don’t feel bad if you haven’t succeeded yet. In fact, if you admit to yourself that you’re discontented, you’re a step ahead of most people, who are still in denial.

You have to make a conscious effort to keep your ideas about what you want from being contaminated by what seems possible. It’s painful to keep them apart, because it’s painful to observe the gap between them. So most people pre-emptively lower their expectations.

In the design of lives, as in the design of most other things, you get better results if you use flexible media…It’s also wise, early on, to seek jobs that let you do many different things, so you can learn faster what various kinds of work are like.

Whichever route you take, expect a struggle. Finding work you love is very difficult. Most people fail. Even if you succeed, it’s rare to be free to work on what you want till your thirties or forties. But if you have the destination in sight you’ll be more likely to arrive at it.

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