Should you love, like, or tolerate your work?

mm Russ Finkelstein

There’s a common platitude that emerges when people talk about work in America, which is that you should “find a job you love.”

I can’t stand that terminology or the expectations it propagates. Love is the stuff of pop songs and romance novels. It could be the stuff of your work, but whether that needs to be the focus is a choice and often comes with trade-offs.

Meatloaf wrote a song about doing anything for love, but not doing “that”. And the question of what you will sacrifice for a job is really about how emotionally invested you are in your career. What will you do for work? What do you choose not to sacrifice?

Data shows 70% of Americans are anxious or unhappy in their work, so if we’re striving for love, we’re falling far short. My point is, however, that you don’t need to love your job. It’s a choice you make. And you’re free to choose other priorities.

When I was chatting with an English friend about this piece, he said that people in his country tend to be “more realistic” about work. They might look to find a job they like, or, at the very least, one that doesn’t depress them. However, Americans don’t settle for mushy peas, rather we aspire to things outside their natural state, like blooming onions.

Perhaps everything in this country just comes with an exclamation mark attached. The truth is that people in America expect a lot from work including – all too often – most of their identity. But the most important thing to do is find a job that aligns with your priorities, and to be clear about what your priorities are.

Do you want a job you love? Or one you like? Or one you can tolerate?

There are many people who may not ever love their job and who might be very happy with that, because they’re not looking for love in their work. They might be looking for a steady paycheck with no drama or emotional connection so that they can focus on art projects at home, for example.

A friend of mine is a painter. If he could get paid to paint exactly what he wanted when he wanted to, he would love it. Any other work feels like a chore to pay the bills to allow for painting. Many people have a passion outside of work and therefore their job always feels like a necessary evil, something they tolerate. Something they perhaps even like on occasion. But they don’t have to love it. This is true for many creative people and expecting more of that relationship might be unfair.

My dad was a travelling salesman. I remember meeting his colleagues and, one time, meeting someone a couple of years older than I was, who was starting out in the business. I was still in college and I asked them, essentially, why on earth they would want to do what my dad did. They responded rather nicely, considering that I’d callously put down their entire area of work. They said: “you know, for some people who want to take care of their family and live a certain kind of life, this job actually allows for that.”

A lot of my life since then has been about recognizing that we’re all different. For example, I think about friends who have children, and their focus is often to have a job that helps them make the money they need to make, and that doesn’t require that they take work home with them literally or emotionally. It isn’t always an either or choice, but it does indeed sometimes come down to questions of risk and time to do what you think you would love to do and some people want the sure thing of taking care of their family.

Let’s consider people who truly love their jobs. They don’t skip to work every morning to a desk surrounded by puppies, gazing adoringly up at them. But I have another friend, for example, who has worked in the nonprofit sector for the last 20 years, who is so passionate about his ability to have an impact on an issue in an area that has meaning to him, and he is able to write persuasively about the issue, and present on it, and change people’s minds. He truly loves what he does, but does feel the pressure on the edges about money and time for his friends and family.

So, even people who love what they do have issues with their work. And there are still choices to be made, even then, about what they choose to sacrifice to do their jobs.

I was coaching recently at a conference for the Point Foundation. It’s a scholarship fund for LGBTQ college and graduate students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to go to school. Their students and alums are very impressive, super-smart overachievers. One of them asked me about whether it was okay to work on the weekend. My response was to tell him that you should always know that you are making a choice to do so. Sometimes, doing work that you love means working nights and weekends. I don’t judge what’s right for people, but it’s important that they put in the time to make decisions for themselves so they know the opportunity costs. For example, it is rare to be a founder who doesn’t work long hours in start-up phase, and it’s unlikely to work with children or art, and still get paid lots of money.

If you’re trying to figure out whether you tolerate work, whether you like it, or whether you love it, and what level of commitment you want to show to it, here are some important tips:

  1. Check in with yourself and with supportive friends who might comment on your priorities. Ask them if they think you’re unrealistic in your desire to not work weekends for a given project given other priorities. Does their advice make you reassess your prior conclusions?
  2. Remember the Meatloaf song about not “doing that”. Even if you do love your job, what won’t you do? What are the boundaries? It’s good to have a list. As always, being clear about what you need to make to achieve your other priorities is very important. If you want to travel the world in luxury at least eight weeks a year, what work provides you with the income, schedule and/or free access to flight or accommodations to make it happen?
  3. Allow yourself to see what you may be giving up by making too many sacrifices. For example, getting the four or five things that matter most to you may mean that you are allowing some lesser priorities to drift away. Such as your current boyfriend or girlfriend, or running your first marathon this fall. Are you comfortable with that? If this affects relationships, are they comfortable with that?
  4. Once you’ve figured out where you’re at on the tolerate-like-love spectrum, use the priorities you have determined to drive and vet your choices.
  5. Don’t be afraid to reassess your priorities over time. Many young idealists get jaded later in their careers. But it does happen the other way around, too, when people suddenly become so inspired by something that they’re doing, that they want to make personal sacrifices to make it come alive.

The important thing is to be thoughtful and intentional. I wish you good fortune in finding love,  like, or tolerance in your work ahead, as well as those other components that make a full life.

Russ Finkelstein is Managing Director of ClearlyNext, a guided online career program that helps people of all backgrounds and incomes figure out what to do next. Read more >