Finding Your Life’s Work

Published on November 14, 2023

“You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.”

— Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement, June 12, 2005

Why start an article with a quote that most readers have certainly read many times over the years? The truth is that I cannot think of a better encapsulation of a mindset that has become prevalent in our society. The notion of finding work that you love, no matter the economic cost, is a convenient one for what I refer to as the “education-industrial complex” because it can justify skyrocketing tuition as an “investment” in the future rather than a very real liability that can hobble young people for decades. 

I do not doubt that Steve Jobs was sincere in his commencement address but we should be mindful of his audience. Stanford is one of the world’s elite universities and he was speaking to an audience of students who presumably aspired to do great things in their careers. If the goal is to do great things, you have to love what you do because such a career can be all-consuming. It is not possible to truly rise to the top of a field without a strong affinity for doing the hard work that is involved. If you are an ambitious person, you must find work that you love and you should never settle. 

Do you wake up on Saturday morning thinking about diving into the latest issue of the Value Line Investment Survey, going page by page through each report, taking notes, and diving into the 10-Ks of companies that interest you? If so, that’s great, but you are in a tiny minority. If you have that level of interest and the requisite analytical skills, you might have a chance of competing with investors like Warren Buffett, Todd Combs, Ted Weschler, and others who live and breathe stocks every day of their lives. 

Value Line is the modern equivalent of the Moody’s manuals that Warren Buffett went through from A to Z in his early years, no doubt with great enthusiasm. When I tried to do this with Value Line at the local library a quarter century ago, I dozed off somewhere in the public utility section. I had a decently paying job in the software industry involving long hours, and the last thing I truly wanted to do on a weekend was to dive into Value Line. I thought that the problem was the need to go to the library so I spent the money on a subscription but ended up with the same result.

The truth is that I never found my “life’s work” in the sense of finding an all-consuming career that I wanted to spend every waking moment pursuing. I entered the software industry in the 1990s because it was a hot field and seemed like a way to get rich quickly through stock options. The get rich quick part didn’t work out, but hard work in the industry over many years eventually led to financial independence through decent, yet unspectacular, cash compensation and very aggressive savings. 

My plan after retiring from software was to pursue investing as Warren Buffett did in his early years. So, forgetting my less than exciting experience as a “weekend investor” years earlier, I bought a Value Line subscription and attempted to emulate Mr. Buffett, going through reports from A to Z. Again, this was a failure in the sense that I was often bored with the process. I enjoy reading about business and going through 10-Ks, but not constantly and not at anywhere near the level of intensity required to compete with people who would rather do nothing else on a Saturday morning. 

Not everyone in the world is destined to make a mark on an industry, become famous, give Ted talks, and achieve billionaire status. The truth is that such things are actually quite unimportant when it comes to happiness, at least for most people.

But while money, status, and fame cannot reliably deliver happiness, lack of money can virtually guarantee misery. This is the unfortunate situation that millions of young people find themselves in who were lured into taking on large amounts of debt for a “college experience” that had little, if any, chance of producing the income necessary to service the debt and eventually pay it off.

The truth is that one should only take on debt for education if a cold blooded analysis of the economics justifies doing so. It can certainly make sense to take on a large amount of debt to earn a MBA or law degree from one of the top ten universities in the United States, assuming that a student is committed to aggressively using the degree and the connections it provides. But it makes no sense to take on massive debt to earn a degree in a field that has few, if any, prospects for earning a high salary.

I am convinced that the ultimate luxury that wealthy parents can provide for their children is the ability to do what they love without economic considerations. A wealthy family can pay for an education in any subject and financial security makes remuneration from the career itself unimportant. I can think of no greater gift and this would extend to gifts that fund “full ride” scholarships for truly exceptional young people in fields that offer limited economic prospects. 

I’ll conclude by returning to this sentence from the opening quote:

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

For ambitious people, this is true, but I do not think it holds for the vast majority. Throughout history, people have worked in fields that they do not necessarily love. In traditional societies, a man typically worked in the same trade that his father worked in. Satisfaction in life generally came from family, faith, and a sense of community rather than ambition to rise to the top of a profession or to get rich. Unfortunately, traditional sources of life satisfaction are increasingly marginalized in a society driven by the tyranny of mimetic desire fueled by manipulative social media algorithms.

As society has advanced, many find themselves pursuing the very highest levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Steve Jobs was referring to self-actualization in his speech, assuming that lower levels of the hierarchy, such as safety and belonging, were already covered. This was a good assumption for his audience but not necessarily for the public at large. 

Society should do a better job warning young people about the perils of going into debt. It is important to come up with a plan to earn a satisfactory living in professions and trades that are resilient to the vicissitudes of the modern economy. By avoiding the pain of financial duress, young people would find themselves further along on the path to happiness even if they don’t necessarily love their work.

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Finding Your Life’s Work