Love Why You Work.

03/30/2011

I’ve been hearing more and more frequently lately that in order to be happy, one must find their true calling in life, and then make a career out of it. If you love cycling, then you need a bike repair shop! If you love decorating your home, you need an interior design consulting job! If you have Bieber Fever, you should monetize that with a blog! It seems at every conference I go to, this comes up, especially in startup circles. I’ve lost count of how many people quote Confucius:

Do something you love and you will never work a day in your life.

It sounds great! But I’ve had a hard time buying it. Partly because, if I’m honest, I don’t have one passion. I’m not even sure I’d call my interests ‘passions’. I enjoy my job, but after 10 years it has lost some of it’s luster. I suspect anything else I did would probably suffer the same problem in a few years. I sometimes wish I could be happy doing one thing every day, but the reality is that I’m easily bored. The hobbies I enjoy would probably turn into grunt work pretty quickly if I was doing them full-time, because mastery leads to a lack of challenge.

I’ve hunted and pecked around lots of ideas over the years. In addition to my freelance design business, which has been my only constant, I’ve started a t-shirt ecommerce site, a web hosting company, built out an agency within a consulting company, flopped one software startup, am actually close to a beta in another software startup, partnered up with a group of inventors to patent and license new consumer products, and most recently applied to be a food vendor at the Texas State Fair.

In discussing this issue a few weeks ago with a friend, she remarked that maybe starting businesses was my passion. It would sure seem so! However, writing partnership agreements and creating LLCs and issuing stock and building pitches and presentations and raising money is the part I enjoy least. It’s merely a means to an end – the necessary hurdles to jump to get to where you want to be.

So far, none of my investments in all these other businesses have paid off big. A few feel close, and my goal is to be able to redirect my attention away from hourly billing of clients and toward selling widgets, but I’m not there yet. But even if I do get there, I fully expect I’ll be looking for the next thing a couple years later. If you asked me where I see myself in 5 or 10 years, first I’d call you on a bullshit question, and then I’d tell you I honestly don’t know. It’s impossible for me to plan that far ahead, because I’m not doing anything right now that I want to be doing 10 years from now. So far, I’ve simply jumped in and out of opportunities as they present themselves, and who knows what will present itself tomorrow.

I’ve been giving it a lot of thought lately though, and I think I’ve been looking at it the wrong way. In fact, I think most people are looking at it the wrong way. If we define our happiness by what we do, and insist everyone do what makes them happy, we’d have no janitors, no technical support reps, and no one behind the counter at the DMV. I think more important than what we do is why we do it.

The common thread behind all of my ventures is problem solving. Designing anything is a creative problem solving challenge. So is building software to fix a pain point people are willing to pay for. So is inventing new consumer goods that are better than what we had before. So is creating new fried concoctions that are unique and won’t make you feel sick.

If I had no education and the work I could find was as a janitor, I think I could still be happy doing that for a time so long as I had the freedom to innovate how it was done. What’s most efficient? What cleaning products work best? What bits of information are in people’s trash that I can use for blackmail? You know, problem solving! Of course, this only lasts for so long. Once the problems have been solved it’ll become mundane, but it’s okay to be in search of ever new challenges.

I think we have to find the why in what we do, and that’s the real key. If you love to bake brownies that’s great, but it’s probably not right as a career option. Why do you like baking brownies? Figure out what is rewarding to your brain, and then mold your skills and job to that reward. Tell your boss you’d like a happiness raise – not money, but a new way of working. If you can’t get it in your current job, maybe then look for another one that will fit you better.

So if you’re not happy doing what you do, it’s understandable that you would want to do something completely different. Heck, I sometimes have dreams about joining the coast guard and being a helicopter pilot, which is pretty much polar opposite to sitting behind a computer designing websites (and if the pay was in any way comparable I might actually do it). But if you don’t understand why something appeals to you, you could very well hate the new career in a few years too. Ideally, we can simply find ways to make whatever vocation we find ourselves in interesting and rewarding.

Note: I realize at this point that there’s an implied premise here that work is the key to happiness. That’s not a premise I would agree with, but I see it as a component of a fulfilling life. More on that in a future post.