How to Do What You Love — And Make a Living [Opinion]

Summer is a time of transition and decision-making for students and new graduates in all fields and at all levels.

Some grads have landed coveted internships and full-time jobs and are focused on making their mark and evaluating their long-term prospects within their new industry. Other grads are managing the complexities and anxieties of an ongoing search, pursuing opportunities and refining their search parameters and priorities. Current students are considering concentrations, majors, and postgrad plans — and even those who have left formal education far behind may be using the longer, slower summer days to wonder: “What’s next?”

Two schools of thought dominate the public discourse surrounding major educational or life decisions — and those schools battle it out particularly fiercely during graduation season. For brevity’s sake, let’s call them Team “Do What You Love” and Team “Grow Up and Pay the Bills.” The late Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford graduation address exemplifies the first approach; Cambridge University ethicist William MacAskill came closer to the second in The Atlantic.

Why You Shouldn’t Forgo Either

My personal experience — and those of the many MBA and EMBA candidates, undergrads, and others I’ve served as a consultant with The MBA Exchange — highlights the strengths and limitations of each approach. On the side of Team “Grow Up,” economic considerations during and following school at any level are very real, including student debt burdens, and we ignore them only at great peril.

But is Team “Love”’s approach valuable only to those with independent wealth? I’m arguing not. Here’s why:

Working is hard no matter what you do.

Working is hard. Really hard. U.S. workers work more hours, achieve higher productivity, and benefit from fewer protections than our peers in other industrialized nations. As workers, our well-being, engagement, and burnout rates frequently reflect this stress — a finding that cuts across multiple professional fields and levels of income and seniority. In short — whether you’re a banker, a teacher, a ballerina, a freelancer, or an employee — prepare to work a lot at whatever you do. A whole lot.

Working is a lot easier when you love what you do.

Work that you don’t like is even harder than that. Think about your experience of airline flights into a headwind, versus those with a tailwind. Employee motivation research performed at Harvard Business School suggests that love of your work can function like a professional tailwind, meeting deep human needs beyond the paycheck (again: the paycheck is really important, too!) Gallup research on employee disengagement, conversely, shows that indifference or dislike of your work can function as a powerful headwind, with damaging consequences to your individual career, family, organization — and, on a macro level, local and national economies.

How to Find a Balance

But what if your love doesn’t correlate clearly with making money? Well, my own first love was stage acting — not a traditional or obvious feeder to my later path to business school and consulting. I joined Team “Grow Up” shortly after starting college in New York City, and realizing that Broadway likely wasn’t for me. By making that transition awkwardly — dismissing, rather than analyzing, my love of performance — I missed some opportunities to find genuinely satisfying work on all fronts. My advice to those facing similar decisions now is to try asking yourself these questions:

What do I really love about my passion?

In asking myself this question, I found that while I loved the trappings of acting — costumes, lights, applause, make-believe — I just as importantly loved the collaboration. Live theater in particular is one of the closest, highest-stakes endeavors I know. If I miss my entrance, I leave my fellow actors alone on stage; if our lighting designer misses a cue, our Tony-winning performances (I wish!) become invisible. Conversely, if we can all rely on each other, that frees us up to create an experience, together with an audience, that can transform us all for the better.

How does your passion energize you?

What kinds of work will tap into that energy? What kinds of work will drain it? Analyzing my passion seriously in these way has led me to seek out and create meaningful collaborative work opportunities, across multiple fields and contexts, that energize me.

It’s also helped me steer away from more solitary pursuits, which, while attractive in many ways, would ultimately slow me down. Saying “I can’t ever make a living as an actress!” postponed that very powerful insight. Looking for the deeper, less obvious features of our loves can lead to more focused, powerful choices with positive ripple effects for all.

So when you’re thinking about the major in econ versus the one in French; the MBA versus the MFA; the teaching job versus the banking analyst gig; or the entrepreneurial versus the corporate paths: don’t let the outer trappings dictate your decision fully. Your head and your heart are both essential components of smart decisions, educational and professional, now and (as far as I can tell!) always. Good luck!

Follow this link to find further advice from Jessica Burlingame, or ask a pressing question about career preparation.