Love What You Do, Even If You Don’t ‘Do What You Love’

I was sitting at a coffee shop with my girlfriend last Sunday when she saw a sign hanging on the wall over my shoulder: “Love What You Do.”

“That’s interesting,” Hilary said. “You always see it the other way around, like, ‘Do What You Love.’”

As in, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

I am one of those people who theoretically does what they love. I get paid to write, and sometimes make films, and sometimes stand in front of a room of people and run my mouth. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t great, because after a decade and a half of job titles like dishwasher, busboy, waiter, bartender, custodian, assembly line worker, nonprofit development coordinator, reporter, editor, and retail sales associate, it feels great. But I would also be lying if I said my job wasn’t “work,” because it’s only great sometimes. A lot of it, like everyone else’s job, including yours, is bullshit I’d love to not have to do. Are you reading this at work? Just kidding. Of course you’re reading this at work.

In a talk I gave at a college last year, I said that anyone who says “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” is full of shit, because everyone hates at least some part of their job. If it was 100% fun, it would not be called “work,” or “your job”—it would be called “Sex” or “Eating A Whole Goddamn Pint Of Ben & Jerry’s By Yourself.” I told those college students, if you love 30 percent of what you do and can tolerate the other 70 percent, you have won. (I did not say the Sex/Ben & Jerry’s line in the speech, for the record.)

Do What You Love is good advice to help people find what they initially want to do, but not everyone is looking for The Ultimate Fulfillment in a job, and not everyone is going to get a job that looks good on Instagram. I’m not being negative here, but we’re not all going to grow up to be pro snowboarders, famous actors, or adventure photographers, or anyone else we think is “living the dream.” Ninety-nine percent of the working population has a “real job,” and no one should feel self-conscious about that.

The trick for most of the world is not necessarily Doing What You Love, but learning to Love What You Do, whatever that is. Obviously if you truly, deeply hate your job, you should quit your job, but if you’re not going to quit, your job is a near- to long-term reality that you’ll have to face 40 hours a week or more.

There are people who can make any job miserable. There’s a chance—and I’m not pointing fingers—that if every single day at your job, you think, “my job sucks,” maybe you suck. The real trick is to find some sense of happiness in your work, whether it’s mopping floors or managing a whole staff.

We’ve all met that bus driver or custodian or grocery store clerk who, after we walked away from them, made us think that they would be a great TV show host or stand-up comedian. And we wonder why they’re not doing just that, sharing their personality with more people. But maybe they’ve got it figured out in being who they are for whatever audience they get, interacting with hundreds of people on a personal level every year, and just being happy adding joy to a job where making people smile isn’t a requirement, but something extra they do in addition to driving the bus or ringing up groceries.

For a long time, when my mother would tell me to “have fun,” I would say, “I am fun, Mom.” Perhaps that’s a good idea to keep in mind: Be fun. Yes, we’re all at work. As previously stated, it is not all fun. But it doesn’t have to suck. You’re very likely going to work for at least 40 years of your life, which is a hell of a long time to be throwing a pity party for yourself if you’re that miserable person at the next cubicle.

There’s honor in following your dreams in order to do what you love, but there’s also honor in doing your job. Because maybe doing what you love is raising a family, rock climbing on weekends, learning woodworking skills after you leave your job every evening, or like my friend Ben, making enough money that you can donate an inordinate amount of it to nonprofit organizations. Plenty of artists, poets, writers, and filmmakers pull espresso shots to pay their rent. Brian Panowich, author of Bull Mountain, one of Amazon’s Top 20 Books of 2015, is a firefighter in East Georgia. Not was a firefighter, still is a firefighter.

A few years ago, my Uncle Dan said he thought not every kid who graduated from college was going to be able to work in finance, and that you could make $40,000 a year driving a backhoe, which is a pretty good living—so why weren’t we telling more kids to do that? Is it “doing what you love”? Well, I know a lot of little kids who would light up at the thought of getting to sit inside of a big yellow piece of construction equipment—and adults, too. I have more than once in the past six months wondered how great it would be to start my work day by climbing into the cockpit of one of the 100-foot tall cranes I see in downtown Denver, instead of flipping open a laptop. Is that guy living the dream? I don’t know, not very many people can tell you what it’s like to operate a gigantic crane and build a skyscraper. Seems pretty cool to me.

We’re all special, and we’re all not that special, too. We’re also not so far removed from the last recession to forget that if you have a job, you’re living the dream, too. Almost nobody’s getting out of bed in the morning going, “Yay, work!” But we should be saying, “Yay, life!” And work is part of that, whether you clock in to pilot an airplane, a shovel, or a spreadsheet.


More stories like this in my new book, Bears Don’t Care About Your Problems, out now.

44 replies on “Love What You Do, Even If You Don’t ‘Do What You Love’

  • JT

    Another great take on the life the majority of us live.

    Thanks for helping us all put a different perspective on the “norm”.

  • Eric Ibey

    Hi Brendan,

    Great post. It reminds me of Cal Newport’s book, ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You’ where he says that “following your passion” is bad advice. Instead, work to gain valuable skills at what you do and the love for your job will follow.

    I too work in an office (and yes, I’m reading this post at work!) and I’m getting tired of hearing people say things like, “Is it Friday yet?” Like you said, if you’re going to spend 40 years working it’s in your best interest to find some enjoyment at your job, or your life will be a depressing ‘pity party’ as you so aptly named it.

    Thanks again,

  • Patrick

    As someone who just got RIFed from a high end job I didn’t like all that much anyway, your words hit home. Looking forward to the change.

  • Keriann

    My father-in-law’s career advice: “There’s a reason they have to pay you to do it…” A little dour? Sure. But also a nice reality check when I find myself getting too angsty over if I’m really doing “what I love.”

    [Also, I think the Sex/Ben & Jerry’s line would’ve killed – maybe next time?]

  • Gordon

    Love this line: “There are people who can make any job miserable. There’s a chance—and I’m not pointing fingers—that if every single day at your job, you think, “my job sucks,” maybe you suck. The real trick is to find some sense of happiness in your work, whether it’s mopping floors or managing a whole staff.”

    So so true! Keep up the great work, Brendan!

  • Madelyn

    I find myself sharing nearly every single one of your posts, week after week. Truly relatable, entertaining and thought provoking writing.

  • Greta

    Great post. I’ve spent the last year and a half totally redefining my work so that it integrates things that I love in a way that provides income. Definitely doesn’t mean it’s a cakewalk or that my work doesn’t feel like work, but I can whole heartedly say I love what I do, whether it’s work or not. I’m currently in southern Patagonia buying a couple of horses and spending the next 3 months riding 1800 km back to my home in Pucon, and I’m finding ways to weave my work into this grand life adventure as well. I totally agree that it’s not all about finding work that doesn’t feel like work, but instead finding joy in whatever it is you do. Your post reminded me of this quote-
    “A master’s awareness of spiritual laws directs him or her to manifest major life changes by working with their thoughts, not by working harder. Which isn’t to say they don’t sometimes work very long hours, because they do;they just don’t think of it as work. Which also isn’t to say they all have cool jobs that anyone would love, because they don’t; they just see every task before them, no matter where they work, as a gift to unwrap.” – Mike Dooley, Notes from the Universe

  • Alex

    Good insight.

    This is something I struggle with on a daily basis. There’s a lot of value in holding a steady job and doing the best you can with it, however, life is also way too short to spend your time on something that’s not fulfilling (except on nights and weekend). Not saying that no job will ever be without it’s downsides, cuz it won’t (even the Beatles got tired of being the Beatles) but when you’re working towards something you love and are passionate about, you’ll work that much longer and harder at it.

    As I write this, I’m in the midst of leaving a comfortable full-time job that I’ve been at for 8 years to pursue freelance & side projects full-time. It’s scary as fuck (did I mention that I have a kid on the way) but ultimately if I’m going to be a happy and content person (and father) it’s a choice I feel that I’m privileged enough to try for a little while. Who knows, I may crash and burn and be back at another semi-satisfactory job in 6 months.

    Mailchimp co-founder Ben Chestnut gave an excellent talk on creative mornings about this. There’s a link to the talk in a post I wrote a while back –

  • db

    This x 1000. I have a job I do not love. But I can love parts of it, I can love the financial means that it provides, and I can be the reason others like to do their jobs.

  • hootenannie

    Sheesh, yes. Thank you for validating what’s been percolating in my brain for awhile: that “living the dream” isn’t necessarily what we all need to be shooting for. Because while I could sell my house and live out of a vintage camper traveling the country peddling crafts (which I sometimes think about, because if “she” can do it, SO CAN I), I’m pretty sure I would start missing having a closet and a little savings account. And then what?

    You know I moved to MPLS six months to work for On Being… there’s a really great episode with Mike Rose that centers on the different kinds of intelligence necessary for different kinds of work. He touches on the (fairly new) trend of people looking for “meaningful work,” and he had this great line: “To be able to support a family or put food on the table, that’s meaningful.” You can listen here:

    Love your writing, as always.

  • Aaron

    Dude. Yes! Spot on! There is so much out there in the outdoorsy media celebrating the person who just up and quits their job to dirtbag around, which I totally eat up, but also makes me feel like kind of a sellout chump for not following suit. The practicalities always outweigh the dream for me, so I’m still doing the ol 9-5. This is a great reminder to find something joyful and of value in every day, whether it is the lunch ride, the after work micro-adventure, or even the data analysis that was a little better than the last one. Thanks.

  • Jay c

    Great piece Brendan. There’s also a flipside to this. I quit my job to travel (‘Live The Dream?’) but I can say from my humble experience, that many times on the trail, I’ve thought to myself ‘Why the f*#@ am I doing this?’ … Perhaps substituting one set of worries for another? But the difference is they’re ‘nice’ problems to have now, and I’m lucky to have the opportunity and the freedom to have them.

    Keep up the good work (no pun intended!) Brendan Great blog.

  • Harry

    Wherever I go, there I am. I lived the dream for 1.5 years in Taos and Santa Fe, went into debt, and spent the next 10 years working it off—while following my music making passion on the weekends. These days, I sometimes dream of quitting to ride my bike, but wisdom knows that keeping the passion on the side keeps the embers glowing. Rolling in the passion puts the fire out, and burns the crap out of me.

  • Alex

    Thanks, I needed this reminder. I generally love my job and get to work outside during summers, but still get jealous when I see all the instagrammers out there who seem to be on a permanent climbing/ ski road trip.

    • harry

      Amen, Alex — social media has really turned up the heat on the “life envy” thing. I try to remind myself everyday that the Web is not life. Life is messier… and richer.

  • Willie Bailey

    Thanks Brendan.
    I put Brian’s book on hold at the library and I’m going to share this with a few of my firefighting brothers at work. You always have a few who don’t realize how great their profession is, how lucky they are to have the position and the simple fact of just living another day. Great post. Yay life!

  • Tony

    Great post. I don’t think having sex or eating ice cream for 40 hours a week for 40 years is viable. Like most things that we dream of doing the dream is shattered the moment we start to realise it and in the end there is only contrast. We can only measure happiness with a reference point of misery, wealth with poverty, laughter with sadness etc. etc. If anybody thinks they are going to love their job 100% of the time they are deluded, it’s not possible because how would you know that it was making you happy if that is all you have ever known.

  • andrzej brandt

    you nailed it Brendon!
    in this crazy pursuit for the great dream job/life we really seem to be loosing the contact with the basics and the ordinary (which is not so ordinary 😉 ).

  • JT

    God bless the Trustafarian who’s got there own.
    For the rest of us – if you think work sucks, try broke and homeless.

  • Caroline

    Bravo Brendan!! This is by far the best thing I’ve read in a while!! As soon as we are not snowed in and back to school, hopefully tomorrow, I plan to share this with all of my high school students. I will probably also pass it on to a few teachers that would benefit greatly from these wonderfully wise words. Thank you so much for sharing your gift.

  • Jay c

    Ive already posted a comment, but I’d just like to say thanks to the other comments above.. Great stuff. Eg. having perspective allows us to appreciate the good times. I did a long distance walk in the French Pyrenees a while ago and recently dug out my journal of the trip for nostalgia’s sake, and was surprised at how many entries read ‘Crap weather yet again, been like this for over two weeks…’ etc. But it made the good days all the more rewarding. I remember a quote from a crime film where the crooks waded through sewers every night for weeks to continue drilling into the bank vault from beneath, and one of the gang complained about the ‘working’ conditions, and the Boss said… “You gotta go through the shit to get to the stars”.. A mantra I often recall whenever things seem like hard work.

  • Mrs H

    My husband and I have both worked at the same factory (converting sandpaper, woo!) on the nightshift, for over a decade. The vacation and pay have enabled us to GO EVERYWHERE! So we slug it out and work 24 days in a row (sometimes) so that when we take a week to go to Ouray or the North Shore or RMNP we can live it up and enjoy that free time we get with each other.
    Until one wins the Lottery, one has to have a job of some sort. Maybe you are “stuck” at a job for a few years, only to set you up to move to your dream location and maybe do an even crapier job but with a better view. (we’re working on that right now)
    Thank you for this week’s write up.

  • Tony V.


    I have been a lurker for years…this is one of my favorite posts of yours. Especially the idea of “I am fun!” If you bring joy and cheerfulness to all of your endeavors you will have a much better chance of loving what you do. That and doing the best you can at it, not taking yourself too seriously and enjoying the people you interact with can make most jobs a heckuva lot more lovable. Thank you for writing this, as an outdoor lover being in my office 5 days a week and calling clients and drumming up business seems glum at times but I can remember, I am fun! I have great people to be around and can choose to love what I do.

    Keep up the great work!

  • Dave Katz

    Very interesting post. I’ve heard something down the line somewhere that says “Real pros love the things other people hate doing” I think of this often as a low-no-budget filmmaker, photographer: shooting is fun, editing not as much. Anyhow, thanks for the insights. If its any help, I want you to know, I Love you work Brendan !

  • b.e. singer

    “I owe, I owe, so off to work I go…”
    If you are exercising your “highest talent” and honing your skills
    every day……gotta’ love it!!!

  • Chris K

    I can attest to the wisdom of this. I’ve gotten so carried away with resisting and hating what I perceive to be the consumerist work world, and so carried away with adventure envy and self-judgment, that I’ve worked myself into a state of diagnosed major depression. There are some really important lessons here….just not always easy to practice them. Thank you for this article, Brendan.

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