Great essay by Paul Graham on what it means to work, finding what you love, and the factors that influence our decisions on these important issues.

I’ve highlighted some of my favorite parts below. The full essay can be read on Paul Graham’s site.

The danger is when money is combined with prestige, as in, say, corporate law, or medicine. A comparatively safe and prosperous career with some automatic baseline prestige is dangerously tempting to someone young, who hasn’t thought much about what they really like.

“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 a 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??

The most dangerous liars can be the kids’ own parents. If you take a boring job to give your family a high standard of living, as so many people do, you risk infecting your kids with the idea that work is boring. [2] Maybe it would be better for kids in this one case if parents were not so unselfish. A parent who set an example of loving their work might help their kids more than an expensive house. [3]

With such powerful forces leading us astray, it’s not surprising we find it so hard to discover what we like to work on. Most people are doomed in childhood by accepting the axiom that work = pain. Those who escape this are nearly all lured onto the rocks by prestige or money. How many even discover something they love to work on? A few hundred thousand, perhaps, out of billions.

Sometimes jumping from one sort of work to another is a sign of energy, and sometimes it’s a sign of laziness. Are you dropping out, or boldly carving a new path? You often can’t tell yourself. Plenty of people who will later do great things seem to be disappointments early on, when they’re trying to find their niche.

Of course, figuring out what you like to work on doesn’t mean you get to work on it. That’s a separate question. And if you’re ambitious you have to keep them separate: you have to make a conscious effort to keep your ideas about what you want from being contaminated by what seems possible. [6]

It’s painful to keep them apart, because it’s painful to observe the gap between them. So most people pre-emptively lower their expectations. For example, if you asked random people on the street if they’d like to be able to draw like Leonardo, you’d find most would say something like “Oh, I can’t draw.” This is more a statement of intention than fact; it means, I’m not going to try. Because the fact is, if you took a random person off the street and somehow got them to work as hard as they possibly could at drawing for the next twenty years, they’d get surprisingly far. But it would require a great moral effort; it would mean staring failure in the eye every day for years. And so to protect themselves people say “I can’t.”

Another related line you often hear is that not everyone can do work they love—that someone has to do the unpleasant jobs. Really? How do you make them? In the US the only mechanism for forcing people to do unpleasant jobs is the draft, and that hasn’t been invoked for over 30 years. All we can do is encourage people to do unpleasant work, with money and prestige.

The two-job route has several variants depending on how long you work for money at a time. At one extreme is the “day job,” where you work regular hours at one job to make money, and work on what you love in your spare time. At the other extreme you work at something till you make enough not to have to work for money again.

The two-job route is less common than the organic route, because it requires a deliberate choice. It’s also more dangerous. Life tends to get more expensive as you get older, so it’s easy to get sucked into working longer than you expected at the money job. Worse still, anything you work on changes you. If you work too long on tedious stuff, it will rot your brain. And the best paying jobs are most dangerous, because they require your full attention.

A friend of mine who is a quite successful doctor complains constantly about her job. When people applying to medical school ask her for advice, she wants to shake them and yell “Don’t do it!” (But she never does.) How did she get into this fix? In high school she already wanted to be a doctor. And she is so ambitious and determined that she overcame every obstacle along the way—including, unfortunately, not liking it.

Now she has a life chosen for her by a high-school kid.

When you’re young, you’re given the impression that you’ll get enough information to make each choice before you need to make it. But this is certainly not so with work. When you’re deciding what to do, you have to operate on ridiculously incomplete information. Even in college you get little idea what various types of work are like. At best you may have a couple internships, but not all jobs offer internships, and those that do don’t teach you much more about the work than being a batboy teaches you about playing baseball.
It’s also wise, early on, to seek jobs that let you do many different things, so you can learn faster what various kinds of work are like. Conversely, the extreme version of the two-job route is dangerous because it teaches you so little about what you like. If you work hard at being a bond trader for ten years, thinking that you’ll quit and write novels when you have enough money, what happens when you quit and then discover that you don’t actually like writing novels?

Most people would say, I’d take that problem. Give me a million dollars and I’ll figure out what to do. But it’s harder than it looks. Constraints give your life shape. Remove them and most people have no idea what to do: look at what happens to those who win lotteries or inherit money. Much as everyone thinks they want financial security, the happiest people are not those who have it, but those who like what they do. So a plan that promises freedom at the expense of knowing what to do with it may not be as good as it seems.

Whichever route you take, expect a struggle. Finding work you love is very difficult. Most people fail. Even if you succeed, it’s rare to be free to work on what you want till your thirties or forties. But if you have the destination in sight you’ll be more likely to arrive at it. If you know you can love work, you’re in the home stretch, and if you know what work you love, you’re practically there.