Aphorism Watch: Do What You Love, Love What You Do

Just recently I’ve run across a number of essays debunking the aphorism, “Do what you love, love what you do.” (Here’s Leah Libresco’s take on it.) The gist of these essays seems to be that large corporations are encouraging their employees to look on the work they do as the most fulfilling part of their lives. If they are really doing what they love, they’ll work long hours and won’t require much of a personal life outside of work.

I agree with Leah that this is nuts. There is life and there is work, and I do the latter to support the former. I’ve always been careful to keep the two things separate: I don’t put in overtime unless I absolutely have to, and when I go home, I’m home with my family.

But aphorisms are double-edged swords, as I’ve noted before; and though corporations may be abusing this one I don’t think it’s wrong on the face of it. In fact, I’ve built a career on doing what I love.

I’m a software engineer. I first learned to program in 1977 when my dad built a Heathkit H11 computer. (I was 14.) It had a dumb terminal and a paper tape reader and punch and a maximum of 28 kilobytes of usable memory. (The Wikipedia article says 32KB, but it’s mistaken. You could put 32KB of memory in the box, but then the computer wouldn’t work, because the addresses above 28KB were mapped to the I/O ports.) Later we got a massive dual 8″ floppy drive unit and better terminals, and a printer or so. I programmed it in BASIC, and later in UCSD Pascal; my big achievement was a neat implementation of Conway’s Game of Life.

I wasn’t in this alone; my best buddy was also interested in computers, and we spent many hours working on programs together.

Oddly, I never considered making a career of programming. I enjoyed it immensely, but I didn’t have any particularly high opinion of my skills. My buddy seemed much more capable, and I figured he was a natural at it; he’d go and do computer science, but me, I thought I’d better do something else. I ended up studying math and economics in college, and went on to get a Masters in a field called “Operations Research”, which is basically about the application of mathematical modeling to operational problems. Does anyone else remember going to the bank and having to decide what line to stand in? Using queuing theory, you can prove that having a single line gives you the shortest average waiting time, and that’s the way everyone does it now. (Not that it matters, because who actually goes into the bank these days?) That’s operations research.

Of course, I was still writing programs all through this period, because I enjoyed it.

Eventually I graduated, and got a job doing (supposedly) operations research. But it was funny. No matter what I was supposed to be doing, I turned it into a programming project. Eventually I got a project simply doing a typical operations research study…and I hated it. After working for several years, I realized that what I really wanted to do was to develop software. I talked to my boss and ended up making a lateral shift to work on a large simulation project (a task that used both my modeling skills and my love of programming) and the rest is history. I’ve been doing software ever since, and I still enjoy it very much. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.

I’ve also done quite a lot of programming on my own time, for fun. But as I say, there’s work and there’s play, and I keep the two separate. Tellingly, my most lasting personal projects were done when I was being moved into more of a project management role at work. I was programming less there, and consequently programming more at home.

So I do indeed love what I do, and do what I love. I’ve been happy at it, and I find the aphorism to be very good advice indeed.

But the second objection to the aphorism is that it’s elitist, and that it devalues work; supposedly, the aphorism says that work you don’t love isn’t really worth doing. Frankly, I think this is hogwash: the aphorism needn’t be understood that way.

It is true that not everyone has the opportunity to support themselves and their families doing work that they love to do. I have been remarkably blessed to have a skill that I enjoy using that people are willing to pay me to use. I thank God for that; and I think anyone who has such a skill is well advised to capitalize on it. That’s what the aphorism means to me.

And if you can’t, that’s unfortunate. But the point of work is to support life, to support the things that make life worth living—to support your family and your neighbor and the things that give life meaning. There’s a dignity and a satisfaction in that, too. But wouldn’t you rather enjoy it if you could?

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