Why “do what you love” is bad career advice

Love doesn’t fill the piggybank.
Love doesn’t fill the piggybank.
Image: Reuters/Toru Hanai
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

I don’t like advice like “Do what you love and the money will follow.” Not because it isn’t true, but because it’s a monkey’s paw: it’s true under the right circumstances with the right people, and for everyone else, it’s just bad advice.

I used to make comics for a living (these comics, right here), and I gave out similar advice and professed similar goals: If I just tried hard enough, I’d make it doing what I love, making comics for a living. If anyone was less successful than I was, well, they must not have been trying hard enough.

To an extent it worked! I won awards, had hordes of fan girls, a weekly syndicated web comic I got paid for (very well by comic industry standards, too). I thought I was doing great doing what I love.

And then it all ended.

I needed surgery. And I didn’t have health insurance.

Almost overnight the series shutdown. My fans and friends ran a Herculean donation effort for me, but it wasn’t enough. I quit comics and went into web development, something I’d enjoyed doing to support my webcomics presence, but I wouldn’t say I loved it. Not then.

Life after surgery

After five years in web development I’m at the top of my game. People from around the world ask me to speak their conferences. I live in a great city where I’m starting my second company, Tin Magpie. Even if I fail or have a medical emergency, I can easily pick up good, paying work, and make more in one weekend than I did on my 60 hour comics work weeks.

I love what I do. And it loves me back.

Comic layout experience is very useful not only in designing user interfaces, but also in showing how you aced designing those interfaces.
Comic layout experience is very useful not only in designing user interfaces, but also in showing how you aced designing those interfaces.
Image: Image by Rachel Nabors

But my first love, comics, gives me an edge in this industry. If I’d just gone straight into web development because it seemed like a money-maker, I wouldn’t be half as excited about what I can do or as interesting to others in my field. I and my community are better for the years I spent making comics, even if it wasn’t a successful career choice.

But, if I’d kept “doing what I love” in the industry that didn’t love me back, I would have never realized that there are other, more profitable, things I love.

Miyazaki, the airplane pilot

In Starting Point: 1979~1996, Hayao Miyazaki writes that many young animators are huge fans of the art. They want to dive right into animation as soon as they graduate high school. You’d expect him to utter some platitudes about doing what you love, starting early, etc. But no. He insists that you should go to school and study and enjoy life for four years. Why?

Once involved in the business of creating animation, the truth of the matter is that you wind up working on project after project and rarely have time to read, study, or to come up with great ideas. And then the question invariably arises: “Why am I creating animation? What am I doing this for? Is it just to make a living?”

(I wish someone had told me that when I decided to make comics instead of going to college. It’s a lot more nuanced than “just do what you love and money will follow!”)

Miyazaki-san’s films are peppered with images of aviation, both historical and fantastical. In fact, one of his most controversial films, As the Wind Rises, is dedicated to aviation. This is because he allowed himself to have these outside interests and loves. One cannot help imagine the world if he’d decided to pursue aviation over animation, or had limited himself to releasing self-published comics instead of aiming high and running his own studio. Imagine all the quality films and stories we never would have shared: My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke.

But his knowledge of aviation, his fascination with things outside animation and himself, these have most certainly helped him become a living god of animation. If love were enough to make you great and successful, all animation enthusiasts would create masterpieces easily.

But love isn’t enough.

Bad advice is dangerous

Back when I made comics, I lived in a forest. I was poor. I had few options in life. I avoided the topic of college because I didn’t know what I wanted to “do with the rest of my life,” and I didn’t have the money to pay for it. It was much easier to tell myself I wanted to “do what I love, make comics for a living.” It even says that on the back of my first graphic novel.

The wrap around cover from 18 Revolutions, my first graphic novel. I was 19 when I self-published this book. Yes, that’s Comic Sans.
The wrap around cover from 18 Revolutions, my first graphic novel. I was 19 when I self-published this book. Yes, that’s Comic Sans.
Image: Image by Rachel Nabors

But comics was a terrible long term strategy. (In the days before Kickstarter and Patreon, I was too early to the party, the first to leave before things got started.) I couldn’t admit it to myself because in my mind it was the only and best option. And it did get me out of the forest and into a city. It did get me friends all over the world. I did change lives with my comics, and I still get emails saying as much to this day.

Some of those emails make me sad.

Sometimes I’ll hear from a young woman in a similar situation. She’s in a bad place in life, but she’s determined to make a living writing eBooks or blogging. And I want to say, “Be careful. There’s no one there to catch you.” But I don’t. I wouldn’t have heard such words myself in the same position.

Something I would’ve told myself

We hear “do what you love” so often from those few people who it did work for, for whom the stars aligned, and from them it sounds like good advice. They’re successful, aren’t they? If we follow their advice, we’ll be successful, too! And a crow will turn white as swan if only it lives in a pond and eats weeds.

What was wrong with being a crow in the first place?
What was wrong with being a crow in the first place?
Image: Image by Rachel Nabors

We rarely hear the advice of the person who did what they loved and stayed poor or was horribly injured for it. Professional gamblers, stuntmen, washed up cartoonists like myself: we don’t give speeches at corporate events. We aren’t paid to go to the World Domination Summit and make people feel bad. We don’t land book deals or speak on Good Morning America.

Advice is just something we would have told our younger selves. But we are all different with different life expectations and abilities. A globetrotting heir to a vast fortune will have a much easier time finding and doing what they love than a young mother in the rust belt with three jobs.

Also consider that many of us grow up loving things from childhood: playing games, making art, dancing. Rarely do you meet a teenager who “loves” plumbing or animal husbandry. But there are plenty of adults who do (at least care enough to keep society functioning). If we all did what we love without trying the things we don’t, imagine all the cross pollination that the human race would miss out on.

It’s easy to give little quips of advice that sound great in callout quotes or in 140 characters with a “preach it, sister!” thrown in for good measure. But reality is much more complex.

 My (revised) advice to you

Rather than give you new advice that may not serve you, I’d like to amend the advice I gave long ago. Rather than telling you to do what you love, I’d like to say this:

Don’t do something you hate for a living.

There is no glory in suffering. Because you can grow to hate something you love if it puts you in a bad position, this advice gives you permission to move on to greener pastures if what you love is making you cry at night. Whatever you love should love you back. And if it’s not working out, it’s ok to find something else to love.

I think we all have more than one calling in life in the same way that we could fall in love with more than one person. In fact, loving more than one person prior to marriage often makes you a better partner! Couldn’t the same be true of professions?