Do What You Love and You'll Probably Starve

We’ve been sold a bill of goods when we’re told to “Follow your passion, “ or “Do what you love and the money will follow.” Fact is, if you do what you love, you'll probably starve.

Yes, some people do what they love and the money follows. Others make less money but still are happy, but millions of people have followed their passion and still haven’t earned enough money to even pay back their student loans, let alone make a middle-class living doing what they’re passionate about.

The problem is that too many people crave the same few careers, for example, the arts and non-profit work. Because employers in these fields get dozens if not hundreds of applications for each job, you have to be a superstar or extremely well connected to get the job. In other cases, salaries tend to be low or non-existent. Do what you love and volunteer work will probably follow.

The irony is that the small percentage of people who do make a living in “do-what-you-love,” “follow-your-passion” careers, are, on average, no happier than people in less sexy jobs.

Here’s why. Not only do salaries in “cool” careers tend to be low, employers in those fields know they needn’t treat their employees with kid gloves because zillions of other capable people are panting for the opportunity to work 60 hours a week for $27,521 (with no benefits) for the good feeling of knowing they’re playing an infinitesimal role in saving the spotted owl or whatever, even though they may never get closer to a spotted owl than a pile of accounts receivable statements.

So there are plenty of unhappy people in so-called cool careers. That’s true even in unarguably cool careers. Think of how many stars have big-time problems with drugs or depression. Kurt Cobain, John Belushi, and Janis Joplin loved their cool career so much they killed themselves.

Other people’s passion is status. So, for example, they endure years of boring law school and accumulate boatloads of student debt for the privilege of slaving under a 2,200-billable-hour quota for the law firm of Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe, with a futon in their office so they can sneak in a few zzzs in the middle of the all-nighters they pull to boost the chances of another lawyer’s corporate client giving money to their corporate client.

Other status seekers prostitute themselves to climb the corporate ladder. They work 60+-hour workweeks and kiss up to their bosses, smilingly willing to uproot themselves and their families for a few years in Dubuque, Tuscaloosa, and/or any goddamn place the Company wants to dump them. They endure years of theoretical crap in an MBA program so they can put those three letters, M,B,A, on their resume. And for what? So they may finally get a title of director or vice president, and after their 12-hour cover-their-butt workday, collapse on their sofa, get blitzed, and stare at their oversized living room in their oversized neighborhood wondering, “Is that all there is?”

In contrast, if your job is mundane, for example, marketing manager for the Ace Soybean Processing Company, the employer knows there aren’t hundreds of competent people champing at the bit for your job. So, to keep you, the employer is more likely to offer decent working conditions, reasonable work hours, kind treatment, opportunities for learning, and pay you well. Those are the things that—much more than being in a “cool” career-- lead to career contentment.

You say you want status? Unless you’re a true superstar (brilliant, driven, great personality, or have great connections), give it up. Status is often the enemy of success. You’re more likely to find career contentment in a not-high-status career. In my mind, someone who’s an honorable assistant manager for the Ace Soybean Processing Co. is more worthy of respect than many lawyers, investment bankers, and business development VPs I know. If someone thinks less of you because you’re job isn’t high-status, they don’t deserve to be your friend.

Advice I’d Give My Child

If you’re at all entrepreneurial, I recommend starting your own business. Yes, I know, only 20 percent of new businesses are still in business after five years, but you can beat the odds. Just remember is this one rule: Do not innovate. Copy a successful simple business. Innovations are risky: Your whiz-bang new product might not work or be popular with the public. Or a competitor could beat you to market. Why be a guinea pig? Drive around to find a simple business at which customers are lined up out the door. For example, see a successful burrito shop or espresso cart? Open a similar one in a similar neighborhood. Your chances of success will be a helluva lot higher than 20%. Confine your urge to innovate to your hobbie.

Another approach to finding a good business is to pick a grungy one, for example, automatic transmission repair or mobile home park maintenance. Few top-notch people go into such businesses, so if you do a decent job, you’ll probably make good maybe great money. And you’ll feel better about your work, having people coming to you and thanking you, and owning your own operation rather than slaving away for some non-profit ever fearing your job will be downsized or shipped to India.

You say you don’t have the knowledge to run such a business? No problem. For example, I don’t know squat about transmissions, but if I wanted to open a transmission shop, I’d find the best transmission mechanic, pay him well and hire a consultant who is the owner a successful transmission shop far enough from my store that he wouldn’t fear my competition. The two of them would teach me how to set up my business. Then, I’d spend my time building relationships with car repair shop owners so I’d get their referral business.

If starting a business from scratch seems too scary, consider a franchise. According to Robert Bond, author of Bond’s Franchise Guide 2004, some of the best include Jani-King commercial cleaning, Merry Maids residential cleaning, and Aussie Pet Mobile, a grooming service. When you find a franchise that sounds appealing, be sure to speak with at least 10 of the franchise’s franchisees at random before signing on the dotted line.

If you’re not at all entrepreneurial and want to be well employed, go far from the madding crowd. Here are some areas where the job market is not hypercompetitive: Court reporting, car finance & insurance, accounting, insurance, sales of little known commercial products, health care, health care administration, fundraising, financial services, anything serving Latinos (entertainment, schools, hospitals, criminal justice system), anti-terrorism, and biotech regulatory affairs.

Remember, you’re more likely to find career contentment by going far from the madding crowd.

© 2007, Marty Nemko

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Marty Nemko holds a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and subsequently taught in Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education. He is the worklife columnist in the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle and is the producer and host of Work With Marty Nemko, heard Sundays at 11 on 91.7 FM in (NPR, San Francisco), and worldwide on . 400+ of his published writings are available free on that website and is a co-editor of Cool Careers for Dummies. and author of The All-in-One College Guide. E-Mail.

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