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Is 'do what you love' good career advice?

COMMENTARY There's an ongoing debate in career strategy circles that goes something like this: Should people seek to do what they love for a living, or is that setting the bar too high? Let's look at two opposing views and see if we can come up with an answer that makes sense, okay?

In a commencement speech at Stanford University, Steve Jobs said one of the most inspiring and insightful things I've ever heard:

Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice.

You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something -- your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.

This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life. 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.

While career advisor Penelope Trunk seems to take an entirely different approach:

One of the worst pieces of career advice that I bet each of you has not only received but given is to "do what you love."

Forget that. It's absurd.

If you tell yourself that your job has to be something you'd do even if you didn't get paid, you'll be looking for a long time. Maybe forever. So why set that standard? The reward for doing a job is contributing to something larger than you are, participating in society, and being valued in the form of money.

The pressure we feel to find a perfect career is insane.

So, how to reconcile these two seemingly irreconcilable viewpoints? Well, if you try to make this a black and white argument with sound bites of seven words or less, you'll never get anywhere. The issue requires a bit more nuance than that, but I think I can boil it down to a process that makes sense.

First off, all Jobs is saying is don't let anyone else decide your future for you. If you're not happy, keep looking. About that, I believe he's entirely right.

Trunk, on the other hand, makes it sound very black and white, like flipping a switch, as if you'll be miserable unless you find some utopian job. Fortunately, that's not really the way it works.

You see, over the years I've heard from lots of readers who weren't happy with their jobs or careers. In the vast majority of cases, it didn't take long to figure out that they were really just looking for a license to do what they knew inside they needed to do: move on. Once they did, things got better for them.

That's more or less how it works or should work. It's not all or nothing, hit or miss, you get one shot and that's it. Life is long and so is your career. There's plenty of time to gain exposure to different opportunities and, over time, perhaps find your way to a place that makes you reasonably happy.

Think of it as a process of successive approximation.

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Here's an example that I think will explain everything. In college, I was pre-med because my parents convinced me I wanted to be a doctor. First year chemistry fixed that. I got my B.S. in physics, which I loved, but still had no idea what I wanted to do for a living.

So I met a girl who's father was chairman of a semiconductor startup. He drove a Porsche and that sort of got me excited, so I went to grad school, got a master's degree in electrical engineering and became an engineer. Engineering was fun, but on its own, didn't ring my bell. The tech industry, however, did. Okay, check that box.

So I moved up the management ladder. That felt right. I liked running things. Over time, other opportunities arose. I eventually migrated into sales and then marketing. As it turns out, marketing was probably my true calling, if there is such a thing. Check. I also climbed the corporate ladder and found executive management suited me. Check.

I worked for companies of all sizes, but found I liked small-to-medium sized companies the best: less politics, more autonomy, more fun. Check. Keep in mind, this took place over decades. And it worked. You just have to keep moving, so to speak, until you find what works. It's the same with your personal life, your mate, where you live, just about anything.

That's really the point. Don't stay on a path that someone else has set for you. And if you're having a good time, accomplishing things that make you happy, and you're meeting your financial needs or goals, then stick with it. If not, and certainly if you're miserable, keep looking. Eventually, if you keep your eyes open, you'll find a better place that suits you. That's all Jobs was saying. And he was right.

Image courtesy of Flickr user royblumenthal.

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