"Want To Do" vs "Have To Do"

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In life, there is stuff we want to do and stuff we have to do. There’s a quote that goes something like…

Do what you love, and you’ll never work another day in your life.
Confucius, maybe?

Many people have this notion that they have to find a career doing what they’re passionate about.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great if that ends up working out. But there are a few issues with making a career in your field of passion your only goal (or worse, making that goal the bar for you to feel happy and fulfilled).

Why it’s bad advice

While it’s true that working at a job you love is much easier than working at a job you hate, that quote makes for some pretty lousy career (and life) advice. Here’s why.

What you’re passionate about may not be a good career option

Making a career of something you love requires overlap in three categories:

  1. Your love of doing a thing.
  2. Your ability to do that thing.
  3. Society’s willingness to pay money to people who can do that thing.

If all three of those overlap for you, congratulations! You’re in rare company. If you’re in the majority of people, and those areas don’t all align for you, don’t worry—there’s a solution.

Your passions change

Basing life choices strictly off of how you’re feeling at the moment is a bad idea. Emotions are a good thing, no doubt, but humans are fickle, and how we feel can even change day-to-day.

If you quit your job today because you feel passionate about surfing, how can you guarantee that you’ll feel the same way in 6 months? I’ll answer that for you: You can’t.

And if you’ve just changed your whole life based on the current state of your emotions, you’re going to have a rough time down the road if they change again.

Jobs make certain things a “have to do”

When you work a job, you are subject to someone else’s whim (if you don’t have a boss, it’s your client). This means that you will have mandates that are outside of your own whims and fancies.

I don’t know about you, but when things become mandatory rather than something I do of my own free will, they tend to become a lot less fun. You’re getting have to do mixed in with your want to do.

By definition, a job makes certain things a have to do.

More importantly, progressing in a career means a shift in the things that are required of you. How do you know that your career progression will only bring you things you love?

You limit yourself

If you only ever do things that you currently love, you’ll never try new things. This is a terrible way to approach a career (and your life), and I promise you, it’s also the least fun way.

I can’t count the number of times in life that I wasn’t really looking forward to something (movies, an activity, a trip), but after trying that thing, I came to enjoy it.

In fact, this happened just last week for me.

My wife and I had planned what would be my inaugural ski trip, and I wasn’t super-thrilled about it at the outset. Sure, time off of work is great. And we were headed to Breckenridge, Colorado, a state I’ve been to several times before and have loved it.

But I couldn’t shake this sort of internal resistance to the idea of skiing. Maybe it was my fear about trying something new (and a little scary) for the first time, maybe it was simply that I didn’t have any prior experiences upon which to draw fun memories. Whatever the case, all I could think about were the negative aspects, like the logistical hassles of ski rentals and lift tickets.

Fast forward one week to the end of the trip, and we’re driving down the highway back to the airport. I find myself already missing the slopes, and the fun I had out there. My mind is churning as it tries to come up with some way to capture the adventure and the boundary-pushing satisfaction and fulfillment that the trip provided.

And therein lies the lesson: When you stay in your comfort zone, only trying things you are certain that you currently like, you stifle your ability to grow and to find satisfaction and fulfillment.

The solution: Learn to love things that you currently don’t

Though I started out professional life as a software developer, I’ve shifted over the years slightly within the I.T. field. I’ve done everything from writing backend systems for mobile apps, to racking servers and replacing hardware, to DevOps and CI/CD automation, to solutions architecture.

At each step along the way, I wasn’t sure at the outset if this was the right move for my career, and I wasn’t even sure I’d have fun doing it. But I jumped in and made the change anyway, and in almost every single case, I’ve grown to actively love and even proactively seek similar experiences. This is true in my personal life, as well (the aforementioned ski trip being one example of many).

If you haven’t picked up on it yet, the moral of the story is powerful:

You can’t always do what you love, but you can always learn to love what you do.

This is a simple concept, but it is certainly not easy to implement. It means we stop trying desperately to control every aspect of our life so that we only experience things we want to. It means that we accept that there things we won’t always want to do.

Don’t let your emotions dictate everything. Don’t let your fears hold you back. Do the hard thing anyway. You may find that you love it, after all.