How to Do What You Love: Get Good, Get Known, Get Lucky
July 2012 (perspective of a postdoc)
To earn the privilege of doing what you love for a living, you must get good, get known, and get lucky. Very few people can achieve this ideal.
Many students and young professionals I know strive to make a living doing what they love. This idealistic goal is easier to achieve for some than for others. At one extreme, if what you love perfectly matches what people are willing to pay for, then you're in luck. However, I doubt most of us dream about serving coffee, filing paperwork, or doing accounting. Even many people in relatively well-paying jobs (e.g., engineering, management, law) are still not working on projects that they truly love.
Getting paid to do what you love is a luxury, not a fundamental right. The closest that most people get is working in a fair-paying job that they somewhat like. To become one of the few who can do what they love for a living, three rare conditions must be met:
1. Get Good
If you want any hope of doing what you love for a living, you must first get good at a somewhat-marketable skill. Actually, getting good is an understatement—you need to get frighteningly good, far better than your peers. Doing so takes some natural ability, a great deal of intrinsic motivation, favorable circumstances, and many years of unglamorous training. It's often not too hard to get an ordinary job that uses your skills; but the better you are compared to your peers, the greater your chances of being able to choose more interesting and fulfilling projects. Very few people have the supportive family and social environments required to develop such deep expertise, so they never get the chance to do what they truly love in their jobs.
2. Get Known
If influential people in your field recognize that you are good, they might be able to connect you with job opportunities that are not available to your peers. Thus, in addition to developing your core skill, you also need to figure out how to get known for it. Doing so requires initiative, creativity, resourcefulness, and above all, empathy with your target audience. One common path to getting known is to be affiliated with institutions such as well-respected universities, companies, publications, or professional guilds. Of course, simply attending a top-ranked university or working at a well-known company isn't nearly enough to get you known, since thousands upon thousands of other people also have those same credentials. But institutional credibility can improve your self confidence and social capital, which might help you attract the attention of influential people whose endorsements can further boost your reputation.
3. Get Lucky
Finally, you need to get lucky enough to find yourself in a position where someone—an employer, investor, philanthropist, or customer—is willing to pay you to spend your work days doing what you love. As the cliche goes, you have to be in the right place at the right time. The most you can do to improve your chances of getting lucky is to be in more relevant places at more times. In other words, you need to continually try to create and nurture opportunities in the hopes of someday getting your lucky break. Doing so requires dogged persistence and the ability to recover gracefully from repeated failures.
Getting There ...
It can take a long time for all three conditions to be met—at least ten to twenty years from the time you start developing your skill. And despite how good you become, there is a big possibility that you never get your lucky break. So perhaps the most practical and low-risk strategy—the one I've personally taken—is to orient yourself on a somewhat-relevant career trajectory and then gradually worm your way towards your eventual goal. Your journey will be easier if your loves are not overly-specific or if you are highly-adaptable, although stubbornness can sometimes be your secret weapon.
Your first few jobs (or, in my case, summer internships and academic research projects) will probably not match your true interests. As a junior employee, you are often at the mercy of your superiors' interests and must therefore pay your dues. You simply cannot afford to be picky in the beginning. But if you at least like what you do, that will get you closer—both mentally and financially—to eventually doing what you love. As you gain more experience, credibility, and connections, you can wiggle closer to doing what you love more of the time—maybe starting at 10% of your workdays and then growing to 25% and maybe to 50% or beyond. In reality, that number never gets close to 100%; even the rare few who get paid to do what they love still need to deal with some day-to-day drudgery in their jobs.
Most importantly, doing what you love for a living is not a stable equilibrium. If you want to start or to continue doing what you love, then you can never get too comfortable or complacent. The default equilibrium point is to be paid to do whatever your employer, customers, or funders want you to do. Unless you make a consistent effort to get good, get known, and get lucky, external forces will inevitably pull you back to that default.