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Discovering what you love does not come automatically or easily

I liked these thoughts from Timothy Sandefur and it is worth quoting them at length:

The problem, it seems to me, is that while there is much to be said for pursuing in work what you love in life, a lot of people seem to assume that their “passions” will just come to them like a bolt from the blue. At some point, they seem to imagine, you just wake up knowing what you love, and then you’re able to plan a career around that.

But it does not work that way. Instead, you discover only after doing things that there’s something you love to do. The point of a broad exposure to different ideas, pursuits, and cultural influences during your education is to enable you to discover what it is you love doing—which, of course, will come only after doing many things that you don’t love. You don’t just somehow know that you want to be an architect because building is your passion, or decide that researching the history of coal mining in upper Silesia or the genetic diseases of fruitflies is what you love to do. Instead, you read a book about architecture or European history or medicine, and that leads you to another book or to a lecture or to a documentary film, and then you take an intro class at your community college, and get a summer internship at the Silesia Cultural Foundation…or whatever the story. You go from one discovery to the next, exploring your way forward. You must discover your passion—it isn’t handed to you. And you only discover it by trying things and being patient and allowing that discovery to bubble up from underneath. That involves a lot of work and a lot of trial and error and a lot of dead ends, sometimes. But that is true of all things in life. Often you do not realize that you have a passion for a particular thing until after you’ve been doing it for a long while. To say you don’t know what job to pursue because you don’t know what your passion is is like saying “I know I should marry a person I love, but what if I don’t have a person I love?” or “I know I should eat food that is palatable to me, but what if I don’t know of a food that’s palatable to me?” You have to go out and find these things; work to discover what you love to work at. Yes, that’s sort of a bootstrap paradox. But it’s still the only way it can be done. The idea—pushed by inspirational posters and Hollywood—that you just know what you want from life and go out and get it, is misguided and ultimately self-defeating.

I should add that one of the reasons for my being rather crap in updating posts on Samizdata lately is that I have become so incredibly busy with my day job that time has been short. But I love what I do – most of the time anyway – so this is part of the deal that I have to arrive at. I am in Malta at the moment and recently met the guys who run a hedge fund business focused on Bitcoin. They seem a very smart lot, and I’ll pass on my thoughts a bit later.



11 comments to Discovering what you love does not come automatically or easily

  • Paul Marks

    Discovering what you love is not that difficult.

    Organising one’s life so it is possible to live that way (live by doing what one loves to do)is the hard bit.

    For most people it is not doable.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Discovering what you really don’t like doing can also be a gradual process. I don’t mean that you gradually get sick of doing something from having been obliged to do it so often, and I don’t refer to tasks so obviously painful that you’d have to be perverse to enjoy them. I am referring to certain parts of jobs, hobbies or just living life that contribute to you achieving a good objective, and might be enjoyable to some or most of the human race. It it has sometimes come as a slow revelation to me that “the reason I am so bad at doing X, or always seem to start the process late, is that I dislike doing X.”

    Nine times out of ten that’s just tough. But sometimes one can organise your life to avoid doing X.

  • mose jefferson

    My Grampa had a rule: “Don’t let your passion be your job.” It has served me well. Had I forsaken practical sources of income merely because they didn’t involve guns, hotrods, or old books about cowboys, sailors, and rocketmen, I would surely have found myself facing the disgrace of the dole, many times over.

    Besides, there is a different kind of peace and wisdom to be found in the necessary but undesired toils.

  • Julie near Chicago

    I knew when I was seven what I wanted desperately to do in life. It was a genuine calling. And I found another at 15. Unfortunately, to be successful at X requires not only talent and training for X but also many less obvious talents or capabilities to support the main talent. I have never lost the feeling that I was born to do one or both of those things, although with time and experience I’ve come to accept the reality, and I miss them less.

    Lots of factors enter into whether you can do what you most love. “Many are called, but few are chosen.”

    Still, I very much enjoyed the programming and, later, troubleshooting that I ended up doing. (Not necessarily the work conditions, of course. *g*)

    It’s just not true that nobody knows, even from toddlerhood (e.g., concert pianist Alicia de Larrocha), what they want to do, what they love doing, and that it’s necessary to try lots of things (or people!) to find out what (or whom) you love.

    Like nearly all blanket rules, sometime that’s true and sometimes not.

  • Snorri Godhi

    This post fits in very well with my philosophy of Universal Darwinism.
    As Sandefur says “that is true of all things in life”: when i was young and foolish, i didn’t know what kind of woman i’d like to have sex with, or what kind of woman i’d like to wake up next to. (I hope this is acceptable for a family blog.)
    Not to mention music: it has taken a lot of listening to clarify my musical tastes.
    It has also taken a lot of foot voting before i decided what kind of country i want to live in.
    Of course i might be exceptionally lacking in intuition.

  • RAB

    Alas most people have to do what they have to and can do, rather than what they want, to put bread on the table, keep a roof over their heads and provide for their families.

    Wanting to do something and being able to it for a living are often two different things. I have always wanted to be a musician. I love music with a passion. I play guitar and harmonica. Some kind friends say I am quite good, but compared to my heroes, I know that I am rubbish really. So being a self critical realist, initially I followed a different path.

    I’m reasonably bright and academic so I studied Law. But that didn’t pan out either. After my Degree I couldn’t get Articles, so I joined the Lord Chancellor’s Office. It was 12 years of Dickensian misery. I felt like Bob Cratchett, but on much better money.

    In the meantime fate took a hand, not guided by me at all. A friend, who knew I loved music so much asked me to write for a local Underground paper. I had never even considered writing as a career before, it was something that just came naturally to me, expressing myself. Well it took off from there, writing for all the British Music Papers, Nationals and Internationals.

    Now I feel I have been so very lucky to see all of my musical heroes, review them, interview them and have some, who’s records you may very well have in your collection, as friends. But it’s still slightly second hand. I wanted to be on those stages rockin out, not in the wings or backstage making notes. But hey that’s life isn’t it?

  • Julie near Chicago


  • I like your Grampa, Mose.

    There’s also always a danger of the necessity to do something – the something being a passion that is also done for a living – neutering the passion itself, and leaving one with the bare necessity of going on and doing it regardless.

  • I went to see diminutive global sailor Ellen McArthur recently. She talks very eloquently about how sailing around the world was all she ever wanted to do from the age of 4, and how she then found an even more pressing vocation after that in sustainability.

    It occurred to me that she probably just got a bit bored. I loved sailing too first time I did it, but two weeks of sailing a dinghy off northern Brittany was quite enough. If I’d followed my passions at the age of 4 I’d now be a clown. If I’d followed my passions even at the age of 20 I’d be a boat builder, or a vigneron (whatever that is in English). All of those might have been fun, but would I really still care as passionately about mucking about by the river adjusting boat rigging, or trimming vines and picking grapes? I suspect not.

    I do a lot of the hiring at work because I don’t trust others to do it. They’ll hire the kind of dweebs who always wanted to be management consultants, and why would we want them?

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    What I want to do is inherit great wealth! I am sure I would be suited to the rigours of a playboy lifestyle. Where do I apply?

  • lucklucky

    There are worse:

    And if you’re mediocre at best of what you like to do, and very good at something you hate to do and don’t care much?