Why We Don’t Really Want “Work We Love” | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

Why We Don’t Really Want “Work We Love”


(I’m still tweaking the Work Consciously site a bit, so I thought I’d tide you all over with my latest musing.)

Earlier this month, as you probably heard, only 51% of the Americans surveyed in a Conference Board study reported that they find their jobs interesting — the lowest number in 22 years.  On the surface, this may seem like a problem.  But my sense, from working with clients and just talking to people I know, is that many of us actually don’t want to do profoundly interesting work.  And I think that’s perfectly okay.

Some Like It Smooth

For many people, in my experience, work offers an escape from the emotional messiness of the rest of their lives.  When they’re in the office, they don’t have to handle conflicts with family and loved ones, ponder what they’re really contributing to the world, or do anything else that requires them to feel deeply.  And when they go home, they can leave it all behind them for the evening and relax — because they aren’t very invested in the projects they’re working on, they don’t find themselves obsessing over those projects after hours.

People who find their work really meaningful and interesting, on the other hand, don’t seem to experience working this way.  When we care deeply about what we’re doing, the stakes are higher — our accomplishments are more exciting, but our failures also carry a sharper sting.

Look at artists who are seriously devoted to their craft, for example — they suffer to produce their work in a way that the typical employee does not.  When the painters and sculptors I know tell me about how they experience their work, I can easily see how the term “tortured artist” came to be.

This is one reason why, I think, we’ve seen a lot of recent writing questioning whether the common personal development idea of “finding the work you love” is really all it’s cracked up to be.  (See Lisis B.’s post, for instance.)

If you change careers or start your own business to do something that feels meaningful, you not only set yourself up for financial uncertainty — you also board an emotional rollercoaster that the average 9-to-5 job simply doesn’t entail.  It’s certainly not going to feel like “work you love” all the time — in fact, there will probably be moments when you loathe it more deeply than any “regular job” you’ve ever done.  (I’m speaking from personal experience.)

Some Prefer Extreme Sports

Obviously, pursuing “the work we love” has its drawbacks.  And, like anything else, it has its perks.  For one thing, the emotional rollercoaster we ride when we do work that we care deeply about can be a blessing as well as a curse.

There’s something appealing about having a life full of peaks and valleys, rather than one that’s merely a stroll across flat ground.  I suspect this is why people do “extreme sports” like mountain climbing and skydiving — the fear we feel when we do such things, although it’s unpleasant, has a certain aliveness about it that I think we all crave.

So this is my take on the issue of whether to seek out the “work you love”:  it’s a choice each person needs to make for themselves, with both eyes open.  People who prefer a smoother emotional experience, and are in a job where they feel comfortable, may be better off staying where they are.

But if, like some people, you want a richer emotional life in what you do — bigger ups and downs, and a stronger sense of aliveness — doing something that feels deeply meaningful might be for you.

15 thoughts on
Why We Don’t Really Want “Work We Love”

  1. Duff

    Comfort, security, and safety tend to be demonized within personal development. Most gurus imply that more passion is always better, and that the only thing stopping you from being more alive and passionate and having the life you want is a desire for comfort or security.

    I hope we can all learn from things like James Ray’s deadly sweat lodge–and especially that yes, safety, security, and comfort can be wonderful and important things.

    Similarly, entrepreneurship is raised up to romantic heights within the online personal development blogosphere, as if it’s all roses and chocolate. Many of us have found that working for yourself can be working for the most slavedriving neurotic boss of them all!

    In the end balance isn’t bogus as James Arthur Ray says–it’s in fact the key to the good life, and worked out in the trenches of trying things and finding out what works best for you.

    Thanks for the wise thoughts,

  2. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Duff — that’s true, there does seem to be an overemphasis in personal development on “pushing the comfort zone” as the key to happiness. It may be a source of happiness or peace for some people (I’m kind of an adventure-seeker myself) but that doesn’t mean it’s the end-all for everyone. At the very least, I think it’s useful to acknowledge and accept the part of ourselves that wants to be safe, rather than hating it and trying to push it away — even if we are cliff-diver types.

  3. Evan

    I think acceptance is the beginning of change.

    I want to make my income doing what I love so I can have a more even life – this is my preferred way of living (we’re quite different in this way Chris). I want to control my time and rhythms of work.

    The number one benefit I see in working for yourself is being free of office politics. All that unnecessary and petty bullying.

    And Duff, it’s possible to not be neurotic – it might even be that self-development can help with this (but not the neurotic, perfectionist kind that is about pushing yourself).

  4. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Evan — that’s a great observation — that working for yourself can actually lead to a smoother emotional experience — if what bothers you about a “regular job” is the kind of interactions you often have to deal with in an office-type situation. I guess it depends on what you decide to do and how you’re wired — I suspect more “extroverted” people would find self-employment more intense because they’d actually dread being away from an office or team and the loneliness it would bring up for them.

  5. Michelle @ Find Your Balance

    I wish my 9-5 had been something I could do during the day, leave at night, and collect my big paycheck. But it was with me all the time, stressing me out even in my off hours. I felt out of control and constantly subjected to office politics. If I could have had a boring but neutral job that didn’t require me to work nights and weekends too…I’d probably have stayed. I think if that’s the case, it opens many possibilities in one’s personal life because you have stability and income. But for me…my old job ate up my time to the point that it was impossible to do much else.

  6. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Michelle — it sounds to me like you recognized that, if you’re going to be deeply invested in what you do, you might as well do something that feels rewarding. I had the same realization in what I used to do — I saw that, regardless of what I do, I’m going to do my best to produce something worthwhile — and if that’s how I am, why not devote all that energy to something I actually enjoy?

  7. Mark

    I love the perspective that you have on this topic. You are correct there are people who do not want to do what they love because they don’t want to be that invested and subject to the highs and lows or the work of “getting there”. Some do what they love and do so with out the extreme lows that can be experienced. The key is to be aware of the choices we are making, not to label them as bad or good choices.

  8. Stacey Shipman

    I appreciate this perspective, too. As someone who left the 9 to 5, steady paycheck world almost 4 years ago I can confirm the roller coaster ride that comes along with self-employment. Some days are better than others – financially, emotionally, etc – and other days I wish I “knew then what I know now”.

    My husband and I talk about this quite a bit. I spent many years miserable in the corporate world, failing to see a larger picture. We also ponder the question “Is doing work you love all it’s cracked up to be”. I have yet to find an answer.

  9. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Mark — I like that way of putting it — that it’s important to make this decision for ourselves consciously, instead of buying into what we may have heard from others about what it’s right or wrong to do.

  10. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Stacey — that’s been an interesting question for me too — whether doing the work I love really lives up to its reputation. My thinking these days is that it’s like a close relationship with another person — it has its annoyances, but the “smoothness” of being alone can be worse. Like anything else in life, I guess, it’s going to be a tradeoff.

  11. Megan "JoyGirl!" Bord

    Chris, what a great point you’ve made. I think I fall into that category now of wanting to do stuff I love, but not wanting it to own me in a negative way. I will admit: I like things easy. In my life, “less is more” is not just a phrase. It’s the way I exist. My living quarters are sparse. My schedule is open and flexible. I eat very simply. That all feels good to me, and allows me to be passionate about stuff without getting overwhelmed or feeling it could overcome me.

    I love how you pointed out that we all have to choose what’s right for us – amen! Authenticity at its best.

  12. Sara

    Chris — To me, this was an innovative way to think about work. It makes me think that it’s a good idea to be conscious of the reasons I’m doing the work I do and the impact it has on my life and my soul. If it’s draining me, then I have to reconsider my options.

    Also, you made me think about how we perceive our “day” jobs. I think we often expect them to be fulfilling and something we love. Instead, we may need to see them as helping us to have enough money to support ourselves or being what supports the thing we love to do.

    Seems to me, that if we can see the “day” job as having that supportive role, maybe we can happier in it, rather than thinking it should be providing us with more emotional sustenance.

    As usual, Chris, you made me really stop and think about this. Thanks:~)

  13. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Megan — It’s okay to admit that you like things easy on this blog. :) It sounds like you’ve found a way to do work that you’re deeply engaged in without agonizing over it — that sounds like a great balance to strike.

  14. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Sara — yes, I also get the sense that looking at the big picture of what we’re trying to accomplish with our work and what we want out of it can be a double-edged sword — if you dare to look at the big picture, you may feel inspired because you realize you’re working toward a goal that moves you, or you may realize you’re not sure why you’re doing this at all. The day job example you gave is a good illustration, I think — if we’re just using it as a piece of a larger puzzle we’re putting together in our lives, stepping back and taking notice of that once in a while can help us get motivated again.

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