Bad Career Advice: “Do What You Love”

Penelope Trunk has a great post on her blog about why "Do what you love" is bad career advice:

The pressure we feel to find a perfect career is insane. And, given that people are trying to find it before they are thirty, in order to avoid both a quarterlife crisis and a biological-clock crisis, the pressure is enough to push people over the edge. Which is why one of the highest risk times for depression in life is in one’s early twenties when people realize how totally impossible it is to simply “do what you love.”

Here’s some practical advice: Do not what you love; do what you are.

Read the whole thing, especially if you’re wandering in search of the ideal job. Naturally, this being Penelope, her "tanking sex life" somehow finds its way into the post. (Here’s Penelope on why weekly sex with a consistent partner is fantastic for your happiness.)

Penelope’s great. When I visited her in Madison, Wisconsin this past spring, she barraged me (in good spirit) about not being more vulnerable on my blog. Over the next few weeks we had spirited email exchanges on the "non-professional" aspects of a person, whether age matters for emotional development, and other juicy topics. When I talked to her the other week on the phone, she was almost always one degree more honest or blunt than I expected — that’s Penelope for you! Needless to say, I’m a fan, and encourage you to check out her book Brazen Careerist as a stocking stuffer.


Original content coming up:

  • How my friends at Duke raised money on Facebook
  • The importance of intellectual "shock" experiences
  • What teachers everywhere can learn from one of my professors
  • Reflections on first semester of college
  • Push-ups, pull-ups, and crunches
  • Trusting first impressions
  • Illusion of knowledge is worse than knowledge itself
  • Should moderates be glorified?
  • "Things happen for a reason"
18 comments on “Bad Career Advice: “Do What You Love”
  • Hi Ben,

    ‘Do what you are’ is a great phrase. For me that means do something that uses your strengths. Penelope’s blogs talks about Myers-Briggs. I am more of a fan of Marcus Buckingham’s StrengthsFinder. It tells me my strengths (i.e. maximiser, relator…) rather than a 4-digit acronym.

    I interviewed Penelope for my new product, Great Successful people and I agree she can be blunt, to the point but that is what makes her special and unique. I am definitely a fan!


  • @…”do what you are.”

    That’s every bit as unproductive as saying, “Do what you love.”

    How many 19-year-olds really know who they are?

    Young adulthood is the time for figuring out who you are and what you love.

  • I think all American’s in their 20’s should read that– I spent most of my 20’s a complete stress case in search of my ‘dream job’ and at 29– I realized that there will never be one thing that satisfies and that you don’t have to get paid for everything you are good at (that’s so American…)

    I’ve just caught up on your blog– congrats on the book!! I gotta go pick up a copy.


  • Thank you, Ben! It’s about time that someone posted something like this.

    I’ve known many a man and woman who, doing what they loved, ended up in serious financial trouble. And I know one who went bankrupt.

    The trouble with doing what you love is that the money may not follow in sufficient quantities to keep you in the black. Doing what you love also means that you’re doing something that will never love you back.

  • Ben-

    I completely agree with Penelope’s and your thoughts on this.

    If you want, you can read mine here.

    Would love to hear your take on this as it relates to entrepreneurship.

    Many folks thing you have to love what you’re doing if you’re setting out on your own and facing the demands of a start-up.

  • How do we explain what we are and what we love…? What we are – is a question that had confounded even the best of philosophers. What we love – is transient and is a moving target.

    As we grow up, we develop a liking (not necessarily passion) for doing different things at different stages of our lives. Early on in our lives, we are easily obsessed by all that we see and get infatuated. You go to a good concert, you want to be a musician; watch a great game, you want to be a player and so on. During my teens, I wanted to be in the armed forces, then a soccer player, then a musician but I finally wound up in corporate law and finance. Now coming to think of it, I would’ve made a homesick soldier, a mediocre midfield, world’s lousiest musician but had a career for well over 14 years raising capital and as a corporate counsel. All of that I loved much in those boxed-up time segments but none of it would have been the real I in a holistic sense… I haven’t figured it out as yet.

    In a broad sense though, the two could be contiguous. Perhaps Ms.Trunk tries to convey the message – “it’s ok if your job isn’t your calling. Don’t waste time waiting for your dream job; do anything that gets you by”.

    Sound advise, that.

  • can’t wait to see what you have in store for your “pushups, pullups, and crunches” post. based on what I see of you without a shirt on, i can’t imagine that you’re doing any of those three excersises.

  • I agree with the comment that says that “do what you love” and “do what you are” are the same.

    I agree with both. The way I’ve always read “do what you love” is I guess a weak version: to me, that means if you have a job opportunity that is lower-paying but that you’re really good at it and really like it, you might be better off sticking wiht that rather than something higher paying that’s not a good fit, because eventually you’ll make something out of that other job that pays well.

    Meanwhile, thanks for linking to Penelope’s blog. I’ve already learned something important: Pilates is good for your sex life.

  • I love almost everything you write, and relish reading your blog more than just about all others, but I was suprised by your take on Penelope Trunk.

    I was excited to get her book, but then rapidly disappointed — it was largely full of trite simplicities. It didn’t actually offer any insight, but mere catchphrases. I think I read it in an afternoon and can’t recall ever having been so underwhelmed.

    And following your link I came across her posts on her married life… and had to again wonder why you are so intrigued. Is it just because she blogs? To me she seems to be a one trick pony, where that one trick is self promotion (even at the expense of her own dignity).

    Wow, I almost sound bitter! It’s just I didn’t find this post particularly profound, and I guess I just thought you’re usually a bit deeper.

    Keep up the good work though!

  • Guess the infamous “do what you love” advice Steve Jobs gave out during his Stanford commencement speech is a bad career strategy. I mean, my God, look at how miserably he’s failed taking his own advice.

  • Interesting post.

    Penelope mentions that she loves sex more than writing — but why not try combining the two?

    It’s no secret that women write about sex far better than men. Be it erotica or non-fiction sex guides, I’d be interested in knowing if Penelope ever considered doing a project like that.

    She’s got a head-start by being a woman, at least in terms of credibility. I don’t know about anyone else here, but when I look for any books about sex, I usually look for a female author.

    Why trust a man’s advice when you can get some (no pun intended) directly from the source?

    OK, enough ranting. While I agree that one should be prudent about their career choices, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t have a little fun at the same time.

  • Ben,

    I appreciate where you’re coming from, but it’s hard to agree completely. “GreatManagement” is right in saying that ‘do what you love’ isn’t that much different from ‘do what you are’.

    Donald Trump keeps saying that the key to success is to do what you love. It’s hard to argue with him. Do what you love/are and you’ll be happy for the rest of your life. The key to avoiding the depression Penelope mentions is to keep things in perspective.

    I read a great quote (maybe on your blog) that says our twenties are an apprenticeship… we just don’t know for what until later. Moral of the story: do what you love, stick it out despite the fear/confusion/lack of results and remember that this is leading you somewhere.

    Just keep it in perspective. Things aren’t as bad as they seem.

    Raza Imam

  • I like the following quote –

    “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs.
    Ask what makes you come alive
    Because what the world needs
    is people who have come alive.”

    Howard Thurman (1900-1981)
    theologian and civil rights leader

  • Thanks for the post. Vision is so important in many regards, but I think it is just plain important for people’s life. Who are you, what do you do for work, what is my goals? All can be accomplished better by vision. I’m sure you’re worth more than 20%!!!

  • Doing what you love and doing what you are are good things. They, however, can be a hindrance for you to be successful financially. If you are doing something you love or what you are, let’s say you love making clay pots and it is natural in you, you would produce the best clay pots ever (as countless hours of doing what you love comes in to play) and would charge appropriately for it. But when nobody can afford to buy it you would lower the price or may be give it for free for the clay pot to have a new home because you cant just keep it in a stockroom along with other countless masterpieces. 🙂

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