“Do what you love” is such a common bit of advice to young people trying to find their place in the world that one would expect it on a mug at your retired Aunt’s house. It’s become such a popular bit of advice that Silicon Valley contrarians and public personas pride themselves on offering the opposite advice (at least at first glance).
But it’s easy to tell somebody to “follow your passion!” and “do what you love!” when it’s just a platitude. If you’re a young person trying to build your future, it can be hard to wrap your head around all the options in front of you. Even if you know what you enjoy, you probably don’t know what you love, what you can do with what you enjoy, or how to put yourself in a position to do what you love. Even more, when somebody tells you “do what you love!” you can feel overwhelmed by all the options in front of you just for figuring out what you love.
You may enjoy fishing, but do you love it? How can you know? Compared to what? Maybe you love fishing compared to accounting, but maybe you would love graphic design compared to fishing. “Do what you love!” and “find your passion” only elicits “but how?” Unless you can try literally every job the world has to offer, you can never truly be sure that what you are doing is what you love.
We need some kind of way to sort out our options so we aren’t stuck our entire lives trying to find a path.
There are at least two approaches we can take.
The Positive Approach
The first approach involves trying everything and comparing experiences. This is what is described above. You try out different things and try to do more of what you like and less of what doesn’t stack up.
I call this “the positive approach” because it is defined by doing new things. It implies positive action, adding things to a list as time goes on.
Maybe you feel contented while fishing, but excitement while flying. Maybe you feel excitement while flying, but euphoria while leading successful negotiations.
So, Negotiations > Flying > Fishing > Everything else experienced so far.
Sound simple enough, right?
The problem with this approach is that there is so much not included in “everything else experienced so far.” You can only experience so much in life, and even if you devoted ten years of your life to “finding yourself” and trying a “little bit of everything,” there’s a near-infinite set of permutations that you could experience, leading you on a chase to find that one thing you love more than anything else your entire lifetime.
To use the example immediately above, you may love negotiations compared to everything else, but this evaluation is entirely relative to everything else. Maybe you’ve never experienced software development, or the rush when you launch a new product, or skiing the Alps, or cobbling shoes with Nepalese monks.
This is the approach many young people are encouraged to take as they come of age. They’re told college is a place to figure out what they love and try different things. They’re encouraged to get a well-paying job so they can take vacations and try new things or have the leisure to explore themselves in their free time.
And it’s no surprise when this advice is what’s offered when you look at the approach to fulfillment embodied in the Baby Boomers and the generations raising young people today. Many Boomers and their peers took jobs that they didn’t exactly love but didn’t exactly hate, put money aside into a retirement fund, and then deferred their experiences for doing things they’d love doing until retired. It’s only in retirement that they get to explore different options, though they’ve been trying their entire lives on the weekends, in college, and on vacations. With decades of searching under their belts, many are still left trying new things because the field “Everything else experienced thus far” is never all-inclusive in a world of scarcity of time and experience.
This is the story of the unfulfilled professional who works their entire life to get to do something they think they’d enjoy, only to find that it isn’t that meaningful in the end. This is the story of the hedge fund analyst who love basketball, gets the court-side seats, and only finds that it really wasn’t worth all the work and is left trying to top the last experience. This is the story of most retirees. This is the story of the dopamine junkie. This is the story of the hedonic treadmill.
There is a better approach to narrowing down your options to do what you enjoy.
The Negative Approach
If the positive approach is defined by trying new things and constantly comparing these experiences against each other to find out what you like more than other things, the negative approach is defined by eliminating things from your life.
Under the negative approach, we don’t work towards trying more of what we relatively love and try to find more to make that “relatively” more accurate. We instead remove those things we don’t like from our lives.
At first glance, this sounds like the same thing. If we do more of what we like, don’t we automatically do less of what we don’t like? If we do less of what we don’t like, don’t we automatically do more of what we like?
This may be the case, but the difference here is on where the mental focus lies.
If we are focused on finding what we love, we’re on a perpetual search, moving up the hedonic treadmill as we compare more and more exotic and exciting experiences.
If we are focused on removing what we don’t love, we’re focused more on appreciating the options available to us. We indirectly guide ourselves closer to the things we end up really, truly enjoying.
For example, I hate accounting and bureaucratic minutiae. I’ll do it when absolutely necessary, but would rather outsource it so that I can focus on things I enjoy more. If I were following the positive approach, I wouldn’t emphasize as heavily removing the things that have a negative effect on my life, while trying to add things that have a positive effect.
Doing things we hate tends to have a bigger effect on our general happiness than doing things we generally enjoy, so if you can focus on removing these things every day, not only will you indirectly move closer to that central circle, but you’ll also find that you have fewer ups and downs and settle on more happiness-stability.