Stop Doing Shit You Hate

I shared this pithy little quote from entrepreneur and social media super user Gary Vaynerchuk yesterday.

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I’m fairly resistant to cat posters and motivational image-quotes online.  But this single sentence caught my eye.  It’s something I constantly preach as a better alternative to trying to find and do what you love.

In fact, I think this simple sentence contains one of the most powerful truths in the universe for unlocking your own potential and fulfillment.

Here comes the resistance…

It was Facebook so of course this couldn’t go without objections.  A commenter quickly claimed that (paraphrasing):

This idea is laughable to anyone who has ever had to pay bills.

A tragic response.

Charitable interpretation

Perhaps the most important skill if you want to gain maximum value from the stream of ideas in the world is the principle of charitable interpretation.  It’s simple, but really hard and really rare.

Assume people aren’t idiots who have never thought of objections.  Assume the best possible interpretation of their words.

In this case one could uncharitably assume that Gary V means to immediately cease doing anything uncomfortable, even if necessary for survival.  I hate preparing food and eating is often an annoyance.  Is Gary telling me to die?

It doesn’t take much charity to move beyond such a silly interpretation.  The source must know that a single sentence can never cover every context.  He chose to share it anyway because he must believe there is still some nugget of truth in it.  If you set yourself to finding that, instead of pointing to the obvious ways it might be misunderstood, you just might get some value.

Who doesn’t have to pay bills?

Everyone has to pay bills.  Scarcity exists everywhere for everyone.  Sure, the tradeoffs change.  For some it’s a ham sandwich or a bus ticket.  For others it’s a private jet or a Caribbean island.  Everyone needs stuff to maintain what they see as an acceptable lifestyle, and stuff is not free.

If by pointing out that the acquisition of material needs and comforts requires work you think you’ve revealed that no one should attempt to avoid stuff they hate doing, you’ve already refuted yourself.  A large part of the reason to do things that aren’t fun is because it enables you to do more things that are.  The quote is a reminder of the why behind the process of doing crappy stuff.  So you can do less of it.

It’s a process

Even if in the present you feel compelled to do things you hate in order to pay bills, this quote provides an inspirational challenge and reminder.  It nudges you to ask yourself what things you do that you hate.  It pushes you to plot a path to escaping them.

Even if at this snapshot in time you have to do something you hate the message here is that your life extends through time.  You have tomorrow and the next day and the next.

Do you want to do stuff you hate forever?  Can you put together a plan of action or some tests to see how you might exit those activities?

Do you hate your bills?

If paying bills keeps you from doing things you enjoy, maybe the bills themselves are the problem.  If you hate paying bills, can you conceive of a way to do a lot less of it?

A great many people are lifestyle slaves.  You keep doing work you hate because you have to to pay for a car you think is necessary because the neighbors in the place you chose to live would be leery of someone driving a beater.  And so it goes, on and on.

If you really love these things and gain value over and above the suffering you endure to obtain them, fine.  If not, Gary’s quote is a good reminder.  If you hate paying for the car and cable bill, quit.  Build a new lifestyle in a cheaper house or city.  Create a new standard that doesn’t appeal to those around you but only the things you really value.

What’s the alternative?

If the commenter’s objection is an inescapable truth, what’s the implication?  If it’s impossible to quit doing things you hate because of bills then life must be an inescapable cycle of hated activities.  Yet a great many people don’t seem to hate every minute of their life.

To deny the value of this quote is to say that you have already eliminated every possible hated thing from your life.  There is no improvement you could make.  Has this ever been true of anyone?

The number of things you do that you hate – whether going to a soul-sucking job or attending a boring social event or family reunion – is higher than you suspect.  When you begin to examine your life you realize you spend tons of time and inordinate mental energy on things that make you unhappy.  Many of these you can shed right now with minimal consequences.  Others require planning and an escape process.

What’s really holding you back?

If you admit that it’s possible to do fewer things you hate you become vulnerable.  Now the burden shifts on to you to make it happen.  If you embrace this philosophy the pressure is on to implement it.  But what if you fail?  What if you say you want to quit doing what you hate and go pursue something you like and it doesn’t work out?  Better play it safe and not try.

Fear of failure and embarrassment is the major roadblock.

You will fail.  So what?  It’s a process of experimentation.

It’s comfy and has some rewards to be a martyr or a critic (I’ve written about these roles and why they keep us from exiting a bad situation in more detail here).  It’s also dangerous.

The other truth is that doing things you hate or merely tolerate is easier than doing things you love.  You might imagine doing what you love is easy.  A lucky life for the fortunate.  It’s not.  It’s a shitton of work.  Sometimes you don’t quit because you don’t want to work that hard.

This is not to say you need to do work you love.  It all depends on what work means to you and what your other values are.  Doing work you love and being happy are not necessarily the same thing.  It does mean you need a great deal of self-knowledge and self-honesty to find your values and the courage to move ever closer to living them.

It’s not just about work

Don’t limit your notion of things you hate to work.  You probably have habits and relationships and other things you hate.  Quit those too.

There are a million reasons to laugh at the advice.  I doubt any of them will improve your life after the short-lived glow of the clever dismissal.

Things can always suck less.  See if you can figure out how.

Doing Work You Love and Being Happy Are Not Necessarily the Same Thing

Would you believe me if I told you that people can be happy doing work they hate?

Everyone wants to be happy.  Well, there is actually some debate about what people want and whether the word “happy” is the the most accurate.  Call it utility, or fulfillment, or flow, or bliss, or the good life, or anything else you like.  I’m going to use the word ‘happy’ to describe an existence that maximizes those moments when you feel proud and thrilled to be alive, and minimizes those where you feel the opposite.  Just give me some definitional generosity, or substitute your preferred word that defines what it is you seek.

Now, most people also think that they want to do work that they love.  That is, they want the way in which they procure the resources needed for survival and material pleasure to be an activity that is inherently interesting and fulfilling.  They do not merely want the hunt to be done for the meat, but they want to enjoy it for its own pleasures.  At least that’s what they’ll tell you.

You might be lying

I think a great many people are lying to themselves and others about what they actually want.  A lot of people want to be the type of person who seeks meaning in their work, but they actually care a lot more about just finding a way to get the resources needed to relax more.  Doing work you love is harder than doing work you can tolerate.  I don’t think that’s a bad thing.  There is nothing morally superior or inherently noble about wanting to do work that you love, and there is nothing bad about wanting to just get the money you need to work as little as possible.  These are personal preferences, and either approach can lead to a happy life.  Of course, lack of self-knowledge or dishonesty with oneself about which approach you prefer can lead to unhappiness just as easily.

In other words, doing work you love is not the secret ingredient needed to be happy.  At least not for everyone.

There are people who can never be happy unless they are doing work they love.  For them, it doesn’t even matter if they make a lot of money at it.  If those people chase money and status over fulfilling work, they’ll be miserable.

There are also people who can never be happy unless they have a large amount of money, free time, leisure, and a minimum of stress.  For them, it doesn’t even matter much what kind of work they do, as long as it yields them enough money in a small enough amount of time to do what they really love.  If those people chase a meaningful career with all the material and time sacrifices that requires, they’ll be miserable.

Who are you?

The key to happiness is to discover which type of person you are, be honest with yourself and others about what you find, and have the courage to live it.

Let me illustrate this with a matrix.  I love a good 2×2 matrix.  It’s been awhile since the last one I made (in what is still one of my favorite posts), so I decided to conjure up a new one.  My graphic design skills are once again on full display.  You’re welcome for the visual feast.

Doing Work You Love and Being Happy

Let’s walk through each of the four quadrants one by one.  See if you can recognize people in your life who fit them.

Oh, and notice in particular the fact that the amount of money earned is not the relevant factor in any of the quadrants.  You can have rich, poor, or anything in between in any of them.

“I love my work and I’m happy”

The upper left quadrant represents those people who have gone all-in to find work that makes them feel alive every day.  They may be billionaire tech company founders who live and breath their company, or penniless beach bums who spend all day on the waves and scrape together just enough money giving lessons for a burger and a brew.  I know people so passionately obsessed with their work that they’d rather be doing it than anything else.  Depending upon what that work is, they may be very wealthy or very poor.  They don’t much care.  They care about their craft, and so long as they’re doing it, life is good.

“I hate my work and I’m happy”

The upper right quadrant is where people who have accepted the fact that work is not for them hang out.  They’ve also come to grips with the fact that the things they actually do love require a good bit of money and time, and work is required to get it.  They configure their lives to do the minimum amount of drudgery to get the maximum payoff.  I know business owners who have no interest in their industry, or salespeople who would just as unhappily sell something totally different.  They just found a niche where they can get what they need.

They sometimes live the Four Hour Workweek life, and truly put in almost no time to keep the income stream going.  Those with a longer time horizon and ability to defer gratification may put in a lot more hours upfront and endure a high degree of boredom for the payoff of evenings, weekends, or retirement.  I know people who I don’t think would ever find happiness in any kind of work.  They want leisure.  But they’ve made their peace with this fact and put all their energy into being true to that reality, instead of unhappily chasing an illusive form of work they’d love, or feeling guilty for their material desires.

“I love my work and I’m unhappy”

Ah yes, the martyr.  The people in the lower left quadrant are probably the hardest for me to be around.  They self-righteously remind everyone about how they opted not to “sell-out”, but then never stop bitching about the costs they incurred for doing so.  The truth is, these are people who would be happier seeking money instead of work they think the world will see as meaningful.  This is the jazz artist who gets angry every time the Grammy’s come along and some blonde pop star takes home the hardware.  This is the adjunct professor who chose an obscure academic discipline with almost no chance of good money but never stops yelling about the injustice in the fact that no one values what they do enough to pay them big bucks.

The funny thing is, this is a phenomenon found almost exclusively in rich countries.  The unhappy work purists are typically quite wealthy by world standards, but they can never stop comparing themselves to the richest of the rich.  This obsessive tendency to compare reveals their true preference for material wealth over career fulfillment.  They’d be a lot happier if they were simply honest with themselves and, as my friend Jason Brennan suggests, got a job at Gieco.

“I hate my work and I’m unhappy”

Opposite of the previous category, those in the lower right quadrant believe themselves to be made happiest by money, status, and “normalcy”.  But they are wrong about their true desires.  These people chose the best school, the best major, the best internship, and the job with the best title at the consulting firm because everyone around them egged them on the whole way.  Surely a great job, nice house, respectable resume, and good income will lead to happiness, right?  In their case, wrong.

They find themselves hating their work and not really enjoying the material benefits it brings either.  Their weekends are just as dull as the workweek.  As they keep ratcheting up the career ladder they also ratchet up their lifestyle, hoping that the next level and a new car will bring happiness.  It doesn’t.  But because their material quality of life escalates with their income, they feel trapped.  If they happen to realize that they never cared much for money and status as much as meaning in their work, it seems too late.  How could they give up $180,000 a year to start a band or become a chef?  They might lose their marriage, and surely their social standing.

Knowledge and Honesty

Again, every quadrant has examples of both rich and poor within it.  The two happy categories include rich and poor as well as those who love their work and those who hate it.  The key is not finding the one true path that works for everyone.  The key is finding out who you really are.  Then not being ashamed of what you find and not lying to yourself about it.

Self-knowledge and self-honesty.

Finally, after discovering and being truthful about what makes you happy, go do it.  It’s worth all the costs.

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For more on this topic check out the podcast episode with TK Coleman, “Should You Follow Your Passion or Not?

Working Hard Doesn’t Have to Mean Burnout

I often write about how you can succeed by working your butt off to be the most reliable, consistent, effective person in whatever work setting you find yourself.  I talk about the need to be so good and so reliable that those you work with never have to worry about you.  I had an interesting response from a reader who said that these ideas seemed to lay the groundwork for suffering a terrible work environment.  If all your focus is on working hard and making sure you don’t cause stress to your colleagues, you might end up burned out and unhappy.

It’s a fair criticism because I don’t always make explicit an assumption that precedes the work hard advice: don’t stay someplace that sucks.

Don’t do things that make you dead inside.  Don’t stay anywhere – home, school, job, relationship – where you feel devalued or depressed every day.  Don’t settle or compromise.  You may not know what makes you come alive, and that’s OK, but as soon as you find things that make you die, quit.  Exit.  Leave.

Your professional life is too valuable to find some kind of middle ground or happy medium where you kind of like it OK, therefore you kind of sort of do a decent job.  No.  If you’re not kicking ass and being your best self day in and day out, why be there at all?  If grinding it out at 100% results in your being abused or burned out, the solution is not to work less hard, it’s to find new work.

If you’re unhappy, slacking off a bit more will not improve the root problem.  If doing your best work doesn’t bring you joy, you need to find work that does.

The Hunt-to-Meat Ratio and Personal Fulfillment

I was talking with Levi about an article we both came across describing how extreme athletes and entrepreneurs share a brain chemistry that gets a bigger high off of overcoming risky challenges.  The basic idea is that both types of people need that ever ratcheting risk or they become depressed.  This is why entrepreneurs who get a big payday almost always end up launching another venture instead of retiring on an island.  We discussed how plausible this seemed, and in the process hatched the hunt-to-meat ratio.

Hunting is hard and unpredictable.  It requires some practice and training, you may come up empty, or your prey or another predator could turn on you and end it all.  It’s physically and mentally trying, involves lots of patience punctuated by quick bursts of adrenaline-fueled activity, and pre and post hunt analysis.  The assumption is that we hunt because we value the meat.  This is only partially true.  We also hunt because we value the meaning and fulfillment we derive from the hunting experience itself – because of, not despite, the risk.

The thrill-seeker or serial entrepreneur might have a very skewed ratio wherein a much larger percent of their fulfillment comes from the hunt than from the meat that results.  This is all of course arbitrary and from the hip, but I’d say I’m somewhere around 85% hunt, 15% meat, meaning the vast majority of my fulfillment comes from the activity and not so much from the reward at the end.  Levi and some other entrepreneurs I’ve met are probably more like 95-5.

A great many people genuinely believe that they hate work and they’d be happy if they just had wealth without effort.  They believe that their satisfaction ratio is something like 10-90 or 5-95.  They focus only on the meat and hate the hunt.  They end up depressed, and many wrongly conclude that it’s because they need even more meat and less hunt.  They think the ideal life would be 0-100.  This is a tragic misnomer.  Though everyone’s level of fulfillment from leisure and wealth vs. the thrill of a challenge will differ, I suspect it’s hard to be really happy with a percentage of fulfillment that comes from the hunt lower than 50.  A 50-50 hunt-to-meat ratio means you enjoy the challenge of the work in equal proportion to the rewards.  With no struggle at all, we wilt.  Welfare recipients and trust-fund kids alike.

I’m not sure to what extent we have to discover our inherent hunt-to-meat ratio and to what extent we can create it.  Can you learn to get more fulfillment out of work with a different mindset, or does lack of fulfillment simply indicate you still haven’t found the right hunt?  Rather than wishing you didn’t have to hunt at all, I suspect finding your optimal mix and the optimal hunting style that gets you going is more effective.

Focus on What You Don’t Want

From the Praxis blog.

It’s really stressful for most young (and old!) people to feel the need to pick the career or job and plot a path to it.  How are you supposed to know yourself so well in the present, and know so much about what’s out there, let alone predict what your future self will want in a future world with unknown possibilities?

Relax.  With rare exception, it’s probably a bad idea to try to pick the one specific thing and try to get there.  You might be better making a list of general categories of activity and creativity that you enjoy, are good at, and/or you see as valuable to get you to some other end (wealth, free time, etc.)  Even that can be daunting.  Here’s an easier approach: focus on what you don’t like and know you want to avoid.

Make a list of all the things you simply can’t stand, are bad at, or see little value in.  Anything not on that list is fair game for experimentation.  Go out and get broad experience with the explicit goal of discovering more stuff you don’t like and adding it to the list.  As that list grows, the arena of what’s fair game narrows.  Any step within that range is a step in the right direction, and each step helps clarify and reduce the possible next steps.  You’ll probably never have it so narrowed that there is only one good next step, and that’s a good thing.

You don’t know what might happen as you and the world change, but the sooner you can figure out where you’re not in the zone, the faster you can start mining in places likely to have a mother lode.

Three Dangerous Words

“Must be nice.”

My friend and I have a longstanding joke where, no matter what reason one of us has to end a phone conversation, the other one says these three words with faked jealous anger.  The point is to get as absurd as possible and apply it to the worst situation.  “I’ve gotta run, the kids have smeared a dirty diaper on the walls!”….”Hey, must be real nice to be you man.”

It’s obvious how misplaced the sentiment is when purposely applied to extreme and negative circumstances, but the thing is, it’s always a misplaced sentiment.  A famous comedian (I can’t remember who) once said that he could have a giant brain tumor visibly protruding from his head and people would still claim he had it easy because of the millions he made on the last movie.  We don’t and can’t know the struggles of others.  We have no idea if their life would be nice.  It might be hell.

The worst part about the mentality that views others as having it easy is not that it misses their struggles, it’s that it increases your own.  At the heart of this sentiment is a mimetic desire – we want what we imagine other people want, simply because they want it.  This kind of desire blocks us from discovering our own true desires.  It clouds our vision and dampens our pleasure.  You assume that what they have is better than what you have.  When you dig down, the reason is more because they have it than any quality of whatever it is they have.

This reflects an abandonment of self and one’s own core values.  It means you are moving towards ‘be like others’ as a goal, and using other people as a measuring stick or standard against which to judge.  This is envy, and it is probably the most pernicious and destructive force in human society.  If you really make yourself discover what personal fulfillment looks like for you, and set that as your goal, devising your own standard to measure, you  will gain more from your own life and find that the apparent success of others adds to your life, rather than creating competitive pressure.

When you find yourself saying, “must be nice”, stop and consider what you actually know and what you mean.  Do you know that person is living a great life?  Would you actually want what they have and all the challenges that come with it?  Do you even know what it is you do want?  Unless they inspire you to discover and do what makes you feel alive, these three words aren’t doing you any good.

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