The test of whether people love what they do is whether they'd do it even if they weren't paid for it—even if they had to work at another job to make living.
Kern and Burn is our graduate thesis project at the Maryland Institute College of Art and we’re currently designing a gallery exhibition that opens in tandem with our 100th day. For the exhibition, we are taking a step back from the project to synthesize what we’ve learned. We are identifying trends, grouping conversations, and curating the big ideas. One undeniable principle is just how much our contributors love what they do.
On Day 84, when we asked Duane King about his work-life balance, he said, “Really I have no separation between the two. Life is work and work is life. I do what I love and I love what I do.” On Day 48, Jake Nickell told us, “I started Threadless because I wanted to make cool stuff with my friends.” On Day 79, Tad Carpenter told us, “I would never have my it any other way. Making is truly my passion. If I had free time, I would be doing the exact same thing as I do day in and day out.”
At the beginning of our project we spent a few hours with Cameron Koczon. He told us to read everything by Paul Graham. We listened. For those of you who don’t know Paul Graham, he is the legendary entrepreneur, writer, and investor behind Y-Combinator, an incubator that has mentored many of today’s leading tech startups. One of our favorite Paul Graham essays is titled, “How To Do What You Love.” Even though our contributors make it sound easy—figuring out what you love to do, and actually doing it are both difficult tasks. Graham’s essay explains why it is so difficult, the lies we’ve all been told, and provides a few practical methods to start doing what you love.
“Doing what you love is complicated,” Graham says. ” When I was a kid, it seemed as if work and fun were opposite by definition.” He goes on to describe how what we were told as children effects the way we approach our careers. “Teachers in particular all seemed to believe implicitly that work was not fun. Which is not surprising: work wasn’t fun for most of them. Why did we have to memorize state capitals instead of playing dodgeball? For the same reason they had to watch over a bunch of kids instead of lying on a beach. You couldn’t just do what you wanted.”
For Graham, this is not an invitation to play dodgeball all day. He says, “The fact is, almost anyone would rather, at any given moment, float about the Caribbean, or have sex, or eat some delicious food, than work on hard problems. 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.”
He warns against prestige and says you should worry most about the opinion of your friends. “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.” This is hard advice to follow. Especially for young designers who understand the power of an award, watch others gain a following online, and compete for jobs. But, his advice is true. “The test,” Graham says, “of whether people love what they do is whether they’d do it even if they weren’t paid for it—even if they had to work at another job to make living. How many corporate lawyers would do their current work if they had to do it for free, in their spare time, and take day jobs as waiters to support themselves?”
“Another test you can use is: always produce,” Graham says. “Always produce is also a heuristic for finding the work you love. If you subject yourself to that constraint, it will automatically push you away from things you think you’re supposed to work on, toward things you actually like. ‘Always produce’ will discover your life’s work the way water, with the aid of gravity, finds the hole in your roof.”
Whether you are already doing what you love to do, or you’re still searching for it, we encourage you to continue making. We believe, with Graham, that to do something well you have to love it. The 100 Days has taught us so many things about how we work, what we actually enjoy doing, and how to work together to make it all happen. Our contributors are just like you, they are trying to figure out what they love, and they are working hard to do just that. They are learning as they go.
We recommend reading “How To Do What You Love.” When you’re done, read every other essay on his site.