A Thoughtful Message for New Grads – “Don’t Do What You Love”

© 2013 Dow Jones & Company – Wall Street Journal, May 28, 2013.

A Brief Essay by Carl McCoy 

A Thoughtful Graduation – and Career Change – Message:This brief essay was so simple and instructive, and also so stirring, that I decided to post it here, for all to consider, enjoy and take advantage of. I salute Mr. McCoy for both his thoughts and writing craft, and also the Wall Street Journal for publishing this piece. I claim no rights to it, but seek only to pass along its wisdom.

“This month, commencement speakers across the country are exhorting graduates not to settle. They are urged instead to find their passion – to “do what you love.” But is this the best advice for college students entering a tough labor market?

For those grads who do get jobs, the work will often be low-paying, with little in the way of long-term prospects. Some will soon go on to better jobs, but many will stay in these “day jobs” for years, waiting for their big break, waiting to be discovered – or simply waiting to find out exactly what it is they truly love.

“Do what you love” is an important message, but it’s unwise to build a career on the notion that we should all be paid for our passions. The advice captures only part of the story. It tells us how excellent work might be accomplished – by loving it – but it doesn’t tell us why the work should be done. What is the point of all the effort? What is being worked toward?

The answer lies in working with a deeper sense of purpose or vocation. You don’t need to be a religious or spiritual person to tap into this higher purpose; it can be derived from a sense of community and a desire to pull together. Yet without such a higher purpose, where all this love and ambition can be directed, we don’t have a very meaningful guidepost for meaningful success. We simply have a call to discover what it is that we love, and then do it.

Sure, there are many people doing what they genuinely love. But how many of us love just one thing? It’s romantic to imagine that each person is destined for a particular career path, one capable of being discovered with sufficient soul searching. But most people have multi-faceted interests and abilities and could probably be successful and happy in several fields.

Then there are those things that will never pay very well. As someone who has tried living as a starving artist, I can attest that there’s nothing romantic or noble about being impoverished in pursuit of doing what you love. When you’re working two or three jobs, and you can’t pay your bills, it doesn’t matter how much you love any of them. You just get worn out.

Maybe there’s another way to encourage new college graduates to think about their careers. Maybe all those commencement speakers would send more young people into the world likelier to be happy in their jobs if the speakers talked about love as a consequence of meaningful work instead of as the motivation for it.

Does the doctor love going into the hospital to see a patient in the middle of the night? Does the firefighter love entering a burning building? Does the teacher love trying to control a classroom full of disrespectful children? Not likely. But the work is performed with a sense of purpose that “love” doesn’t capture. 

We don’t all have to become first responders or social workers. And we can’t all find jobs with such obvious benefits to society. When diplomas are handed out, though, it might be worthwhile for graduates – and the rest of us – if the popular “do what you love” message were balanced with a more timeless message to find work that, even in some small way, truly matters.” 

To you, Carl McCoy, I say, “Yes, yes.”  -  Al Sklover     

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