Steve Jobs gave an inspiring talk to the Stanford graduates of 2005, in which he urged his audience, and us, to love what we do. (Watch the full address.)
“The only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did.” If you haven’t yet found “your thing” Jobs says, “Keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.”
Responsible? Not at all.
The message of the now famous Stanford address is so generally accepted in our culture that we are comfortable simply accepting Jobs’ guidance as the truth. But let’s take a moment to examine the assumptions upon which this message is based.
If you don’t love your work, you will be miserable
Why do we work? If the only reason to work was to find inner peace, inspiration and fulfillment, I think there would be a lot of miserable people out there. 95% of the jobs that a healthy economy needs filled don’t lend themselves to inner peace or inspiration. The truth is that although inspiration and fulfillment are very worthy life aims, there are many avenues to seek those goals, and many concrete life objectives that are no less worthy of our efforts. An affluent society can sometimes slip into a perfectionist mode, like a spoiled child who won’t eat a cheese sandwich even though he is hungry, because he wanted a burger.
I’m not glorifying poverty, or unsatisfying careers; but I am saying that supporting oneself and one’s family, doing work that we are good at and doing it well, are important values, and ones that generally afford a degree of satisfaction and happiness. Not only that, they are the reasons that people accept jobs and go to work. If you are one of the lucky few whose jobs are so inspiring and exciting that you get to fulfill other life goals at the same time, I’m glad for you, and for Steve Jobs. But inspiration, fulfillment and love can enter our lives in many other guises as well: marriage, children, friends, art, sports, travel, books, spiritual practices…remember those other parts of life?
I actually do love my job; I’m a headhunter and a career consultant, and when I place people in new positions or counsel people who are seeking change in their professional lives, I place great value on finding a career path that is enjoyable, meaningful and fulfilling. At the same time, I honor the value of honest and productive work as a worthy goal that deserves more respect than it generally receives.
Your career is a “matter of the heart”
This type of statement creates the unrealistic expectation that everyone will “fall in love” with the right career, and if you are not head over heels, you should get out of the relationship fast. While one could argue that this is also an immature way to approach a romantic relationship, I think it is fair to say that it is a completely inappropriate way to look at a job.
In today’s economy, people change jobs, and career paths, rather frequently; this could be because they have been snared by the belief that they are not “in love” enough with their job, but it’s also because if you are working first and foremost to support yourself and your family, you have many “prosaic” considerations when accepting a job, including issues of salary, job security, work hours and location; and when those needs are not being filled, you may want to move on. Not very romantic, right?
If your professional life is not picture-perfect, you have “settled” for less than you deserve
This one takes the cake for immaturity. Life is a process; we are constantly growing, learning and changing through our experiences. And our jobs are part of that process. Sometimes they will be a perfect fit for our needs and personalities, and sometimes the fit will be too tight or too loose; when that happens, we take note of it and choose whether to try and change our current situation, take a completely new direction, or grin and bear it because of other values that we hold dear. To expect to “arrive” at your happy ending at the beginning of your path guarantees that you will miss out on the dynamics of change that make life so meaningful.
Steve Jobs tells us, “Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.” That’s good advice. We just need to remember that what we will become on this journey is much bigger, richer and more complex than our job history.