If You Haven’t Worked a Day in Your Life, You Probably Don’t Love Anything

Stephanie Murray
May 22, 2019 · 5 min read
Photo by Jan Tinneberg on Unsplash

“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

It’s unclear who originally said these words — they’ve been attributed to Confucius, Arthur Szathmary, Janet Lambert-Moore, Harvey Mackay, and others — but I think it’s safe to say this isn’t the first time you’ve read them.

I understand why the quote is so popular — there’s something hopeful about it. And if it was not so oft-quoted, if I did not think it influenced people’s decisions, I wouldn’t be writing this article. But it is, and does — and that’s a problem, because it’s very misleading.

Case in point: a study from Brookings found that 64% of Millennials would rather make $40,000 a year at a job they love than $100,000 at a job they found boring. To be clear, it isn’t the response that worries me. I would take a lower paying job that I loved over a high-paying boring job any day. But this job, the one you love, probably doesn’t exist. And if you make it your primary goal to find a job that you love, you will be unemployed for a very long time. Let me explain.

Loving your job is not the same as loving its end. Just because you are passionate about your children’s well-being doesn’t mean you love changing their diapers. And yet, most people would agree that a clean diaper is essential to a child’s well-being. No parent who loves his child allows him to stew in his own feces for too long. And any parent who says he loves wiping poop out of all the crevices of his squirmy, crying infant at four in the morning is a liar.

The truth is that all passions (or vocations, or loves, or whatever you’d like to call them) involve metaphorical diaper changing — actions that we don’t love in and of themselves but are willing to do for the sake of something we do love. In fact, many passions involve doing things we hate — things we wouldn’t do but for the sake of the thing we love. Some are less challenging than others, some involve less fecal matter than others, but they all require the doing of boring, mundane, frustrating, tedious tasks. All of them require sacrifice.

Cooking requires chopping, and measuring, and waiting for the stove to heat up, and standing around, and sweating in a hot kitchen. Great cooking requires research, persistence, trial and error, failure. A devoted chef will accept that failure as a stepping stone on his path to success, but he doesn’t love it in and of itself. If he did, he would be just as content to continue failing as he is to succeed.

Which brings me to my next point: Not only do all of the things we love require the doing of work we don’t love, the things we love often require more work than things we don’t.

When you are passionate about something, you hold yourself to a higher standard than if you simply like it. If you like writing then you will write, and as long as what you write generally communicates what you intend to say, you will be content. If you love writing, you will strive to perfect what you write, to say what you mean in the best possible way. In other words, striving for perfection requires more work than settling for mediocrity.

Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life? I doubt it. Find something that you truly love, and you will likely work for it relentlessly.

Now the obvious response to my claims is that I am incorrectly interpreting the aphorism — that whoever said it did not mean that a life spent in pursuit of one’s passion is a life without work. Instead, it was intended to mean that if you pursue your passion, you won’t ever feel like you’re working, even when you are.

I don’t buy that either.

Yes, being passionate about something may motivate you to complete the work it requires, but the work required remains. Yes, your love for something may make the work more rewarding, but the work required remains. And if you asked people who are actively pursuing their passions, I’d be willing to bet they’d say that the work often still feels like work. Maybe not all the time — but a lot of the time.

This is my main issue with the proverb: it is a misleading measure of one’s love for something. However interpreted, it suggests that if you’ve found your passion, you won’t feel like you’re working as you pursue it.

It follows from this that if you feel like you’re working, then you haven’t found your passion.

Can you think of anything more destructive to the achievement of one’s goals than to be convinced that it shouldn’t require work that feels like work? I thought that writing was my passion but, based on how work-like it feels, I guess I was wrong. I guess I should try something new — and then abandon it when it starts to feel too much like work, of course.

Imagine if we applied this reasoning to anything else. “Marry a person you love, and you won’t fight a day in your life. And even if you do fight, the fighting won’t feel like fighting.” I hate to break it to you, but if you fall in love and get married, you will fight with your spouse from time to time, and the fighting will make you feel exactly as crappy as fighting usually does. To stick it out and work through your marital troubles may be well worth your time, but the fighting still feels like fighting.

All passions require sacrifice. And that’s okay. Because your love for something isn’t measured by how easy it is for you to accomplish it, or how easy it feels to work for it.

Your passion is not that for which you do not have to work, or that for which the work doesn’t feel like work, but that for which you are willing to work — even when the work is grueling.

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