Ming the Mechanic:
How to do what you love

The NewsLog of Flemming Funch
 How to do what you love2006-01-30 23:51
by Flemming Funch

Paul Graham, who often says wise words, has an essay on How to do what you love. Here's a sample:
How much are you supposed to like what you do? Unless you know that, you don't know when to stop searching. And if, like most people, you underestimate it, you'll tend to stop searching too early. You'll end up doing something chosen for you by your parents, or the desire to make money, or prestige-- or sheer inertia.

Here's an upper bound: Do what you love doesn't mean, do what you would like to do most this second. Even Einstein probably had moments when he wanted to have a cup of coffee, but told himself he ought to finish what he was working on first.

It used to perplex me when I read about people who liked what they did so much that there was nothing they'd rather do. There didn't seem to be any sort of work I liked that much. If I had a choice of (a) spending the next hour working on something or (b) be teleported to Rome and spend the next hour wandering about, was there any sort of work I'd prefer? Honestly, no.

But the fact is, almost anyone would rather, at any given moment, float about in the Carribbean, or have sex, or eat some delicious food, than work on hard problems. The rule about doing what you love assumes a certain length of time. It doesn't mean, do what will make you happiest this second, but what will make you happiest over some longer period, like a week or a month.

Unproductive pleasures pall eventually. After a while you get tired of lying on the beach. If you want to stay happy, you have to do something.

As a lower bound, you have to like your work more than any unproductive pleasure. You have to like what you do enough that the concept of "spare time" seems mistaken. Which is not to say you have to spend all your time working. You can only work so much before you get tired and start to screw up. Then you want to do something else-- even something mindless. But you don't regard this time as the prize and the time you spend working as the pain you endure to earn it.

I put the lower bound there for practical reasons. If your work is not your favorite thing to do, you'll have terrible problems with procrastination. You'll have to force yourself to work, and when you resort to that the results are distinctly inferior.

To be happy I think you have to be doing something you not only enjoy, but admire. You have to be able to say, at the end, wow, that's pretty cool. This doesn't mean you have to make something. If you learn how to hang glide, or to speak a foreign language fluently, that will be enough to make you say, for a while at least, wow, that's pretty cool. What there has to be is a test.

So one thing that falls just short of the standard, I think, is reading books. Except for some books in math and the hard sciences, there's no test of how well you've read a book, and that's why merely reading books doesn't quite feel like work. You have to do something with what you've read to feel productive.

I think the best test is one Gino Lee taught me: to try to do things that would make your friends say wow. But it probably wouldn't start to work properly till about age 22, because most people haven't had a big enough sample to pick friends from before then.
Very basic stuff, really, but sometimes somebody needs to spell it out. And, I must admit, I haven't really grasped it yet. The secret to doing what you love. I'm still not sure, but there are good hints there. Like, one principle he mentions is "always produce". I.e. no matter what you're doing, and what you'd rather be doing, be productive. Do the job in front of you. And if it isn't what you really want to do, find some way of producing results in the direction of where you want to go. If you want to be a writer, you should be writing, even if it is badly and only 1/2 hour per day.

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31 Jan 2006 @ 07:19 by dewf @ : self-trust and natural time
it's been awhile since i spammed your blog, ming... one of these days i'll get my own and do a trackback like god intended :)

i used to read a lot of this sort of thing, looking for an answer to my laziness. the "best" i ever did on this front was a little tome called _overcoming procrastination_ (republished version of _the now habit_, i think)

finally i even tossed that one. i was using a little timer and doing about 15 minutes of work at a time. i'll agree, it works marvelously. but it was still a matter of forcing those 15 minutes. now, it wasn't always some clash-of-the-titans war between myself and the clock, but ultimately i wasn't deeply satisfied that i needed to "trick" myself into doing something productive. there was something i still wasn't addressing.

something i find telling is that, in almost all of these things, there is an emphasis on productivity vs. what-you-really-feel-like-doing-which-is-quaint-but-inherently-suspect. "be reasonable," they say.

being the extreme type, i take it much further.

why do you have to do anything at all? why justify this existence? why, oh why, are we SO obsessed with productivity? have i wasted this life if i don't finish a single project? or ever finish even reading a book again?

everyone's gonna find their own answers. for some, the whole issue of "doing what you want" isn't even an issue. for some (like me), it's THE issue of this lifetime. there is no One Way which is going to be satisfactory. eventually i just started listening to my own inner inclinations, my own inner sense of timing, and i'm loving every second of it. i realized that it is a fundamental impossibility to waste my life, no matter what i do or do not do. my value to society, and most definitely my self worth, do not hang upon any external standards of output. *sometimes* i do forget this, no doubt. but that happens less and less and less and less... which is extremely encouraging!

human beings are as different from individual to individual as are animal species. people talk a good game about diversity, but sometimes it's like almost no one really believes it; if it's not a skin color or a sexual preference, you're gonna have a hard time finding appreciation for your strangeness in many cases, especially if it goes counter to deeply-ingrained cultural expectations. when i'm feeling a little vulnerable in my oddity, i'll search around on craigslist to find some really exotic people. and then i don't feel so alone.

"with [us], time is an empty container waiting to be filled; furthermore, the container moves along as if on a conveyor belt. if time is wasted, the container on the belt slips by only partially filled and the fact that it is not full is noted. we are evaluated by how those containers look. if they are all full, that is a strong plus. if they are full with good deeds and creative productions, then we can feel we have lived a 'full and productive life'! judged by this standard, some people are seen as more productive than others and require bigger containers while the rest of us sit back in awe of how much they accomplish in their lifetime. to have done little or nothing means no containers are filled. sitting around passing the time of day with others, incidentally, is in the 'nothing' category. yet, there are people who judge by other standards, lead very productive lives simply by being encouraging, helpful, and supportive of others. these good souls-- and they are good souls-- are sometimes made to feel that they haven't 'made much of life' because other people's containers are full, but where are theirs?"


31 Jan 2006 @ 12:19 by ming : Natural time
Always good to read your comments, dewf.

The issue of "doing something" unfortunately often carries more bagage than what might be good. What one is doing is usually judged against some external measure. Is it productive (towards a certain end)? Do other people like it (because it fits their expectations somehow)? Is it effective (in improving the given circumstances)? There's a lot of "shoulds" there, which is what makes it complicated.

Our lives are so tied up with lots of external machinery, often very abstract, that it is hard to just be in the moment, doing what I feel like, or doing nothing if that's what I feel like. I'd like to have the peace of mind of a native islander who can pick fruit off the trees whenever he's hungry, and sleep under a palm tree when he's sleepy. But for me there are many "wrong" things I can do. Specifically the ones that omit acquiring money for rent, food, electricity, taxes, etc.

So, can I trust that if I just focus on my own inner timing, I'd still pay the rent and stay out of jail? I'm not really sure. In other words, I don't trust it. Maybe I would relax and trust it if I previously had set aside all my expenses for the next few years. But I consider that cheating to some extent. Yes, one might spend half one's life doing whatever it takes to be rich, and then one can spend the later half pretending that work is philosophically unnecessary and that one just needs to follow one's own inner beat.

Better to find an integrated way one can follow from day one, I think. And, yes, maybe the answer is still to really slow down and notice your own beat. I suspect it is. Just don't trust it yet.  

Other stories in
2007-01-02 01:46: What are you optimistic about?
2006-07-06 12:50: Open source is about self-interest?
2002-10-05 16:58: Capaciousness
2002-09-24 18:29: It Takes a Child to Raise a Village
2002-09-12 15:08: The Broken American
2002-06-15 04:24: Seeing and Tuning Social Networks
2001-08-15 02:57: Web-logging

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