Doing what you love is not always a completely awful financial strategy

photo-130There’s been a lot written lately about the danger of doing what you love (“DWYL”). Miya Tokumitsu floated the anti-DWYL thesis in Slate in January, noting that DWYL’s “real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.” DailyWorth picked up on the piece in an essay called “Why Doing What You Love Means Not Getting Paid.” Writer Terri Trespicio laments that “In the Faustian bargain of doing work for love or money, I thought love mattered more. And I paid dearly for it.”

I don’t disagree with the broad point, that whether you love your work or not, you should expect to be paid fairly for it. Assigning too much value to the love part can leave you up a creek without a retirement account.

Nonetheless, I think these either/or scenarios miss a lot. For starters, few people face an explicit trade-off between doing what they love and making money. Indeed, most people aren’t in jobs that are either massively remunerative OR crazy-fun-exciting. The labor market is neither perfectly transparent nor efficient. It’s hard to optimize on any dimension. Or to put it another way, if you don’t like your current job, it’s always possible you’ll like a better-paying one more!

Within any given job, there are also lots of ways to love it or hate it. It’s much like a relationship. If you put a lot of effort into a situation, seeking out new opportunities and forging connections, or negotiating work/life balance improvements, you can turn something ho-hum into something pretty great.  

But even if you do what you love, the reality is that you can still be hard-nosed about money, rather than acting so grateful for the opportunity that you devalue your work. The first key principle is to be agnostic about the specifics, even as you are clear on what kind of work you want to do. If you’re in publishing, for instance, you can be willing to move between houses, or to an indy press, or to different kinds of books (fiction vs. non-fiction) for a better offer. You do what you love, but you’ve got a free agent mindset.

Second, you can use that free agent mindset to leverage even low-paying jobs into multiple sources of income. In 168 Hours, I wrote about Danny Kofke, a teacher who left teaching for a while because of concerns about supporting his family financially. He got a job in a high-end rug store and hated it. While, in theory, he could have made more from high-end rug commissions than he would have from teaching, when you don’t want to sell something, it’s hard to become a top sales person. So he went back to teaching, and then also figured out entrepreneurial things he could do on the side — like parlaying his family’s budgeting prowess into personal finance books and workshops, specifically pitched as surviving and thriving on a teacher’s salary. He’s doing work he loves, yet is making more money than he did before.

That’s how I’ve been trying to approach the business of writing (please see my post on The economics of writing — or how to write for a living and not starve). I write for lots of different people, and I write lots of different kinds of stuff. I love writing books, and I’m thrilled I get to do that. But I also recognize that some kinds of books (e.g. time management and productivity) are going to sell better than, say, books of seasonal poems, even if I might like to write those too. I can write those, I just don’t spend all my time on that sort of thing. These situations are more complex than a simple do-what-you-love vs. make money calculation.

Have you ever traded off income to DWYL? Or have you found a way to increase your income while DWYL?

Photo: Sometimes doing what you love means making a robot out of Valentine’s Day candy boxes.

7 thoughts on “Doing what you love is not always a completely awful financial strategy

  1. Some loves are more lucrative than others. Nobody is going to pay me to read only the novels I want to read, especially if I do not want to write about them after.
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    Some loves are only lucrative if you are a star or superstar. See professional sports. Even the minor leagues require tremendous ability and practice.
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    Some loves you can surprisingly make a lower middle class income at if you’re good and willing to do corporate work. See art.
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    But you can’t say, that basketball thing worked out for Kobe, you give it a try. Folks like that need a plan B.

    1. And your point #1 is why I ended up an engineer rather than in the humanities somehow (despite having much higher grades in English & History than Math). I actually realised that I love reading too much to turn it into something I do for money! I wanted to keep it purely fun – and any job has parts that end up sucking some of the fun out of even the things you love the most. And from high school onwards, I realised that writing about what I read sucked the love for me.

      1. @Zenmoo- this is an interesting concept for me, that doing something for money would suck the fun out of it. I honestly don’t feel this way. While I certainly don’t love-love-love everything I write about, the fact that it is what I get to spend the hours of 8-5 doing each day makes up for a lot. Like if I spend 3 hours doing stuff I’m not totally into, but 5 hours on stuff I am into, that is still more time than if I was doing something else from 8 to 5, and then only got 2 hours to write at night.

  2. I have always counted myself very very lucky to love a highly-paid career – medicine. Within medicine, there are much better-paying areas than mine, so in that sense I have taken the tradeoff. I liked primary care and I love hospice, so I don’t make as much money as a procedural cardiologist, say. That’s the difference between making a lot of money and making a ridiculous amount of money, though…

    What we talk to our daughter about is figuring out how to do something that she really enjoys. That doesn’t mean it’s bad to make money or that she should do only things she’s passionate about. It means that she should identify her strengths and her passions and figure out what jobs require and reward those. We can afford to teach her this because we can afford to live in a safe neighborhood, send her to good schools and put her through college, and it’s unlikely she’l ever be one paycheck away from the street. That’s a great privilege.

    1. @Jenni- it is a great privilege. I should probably write a post (or heck, book) about the angst of what to tell one’s kids about careers and all that. I maintain that there is no one career you can tell people to go into that will always be safe, which is why your approach — figure your strengths, and which lines of work line up with those — is a good one. There’s also the matter of being clear on what the day to day work of a job involves. Being a doctor sounds great, but if you go into a field where 75% of your time is spent doing a certain procedure, and you find out you don’t particularly like that procedure, that can be a problem…

  3. This is great food for thought. I think that people can “love” many things, even if they’re not the traditional sort of creative activities that people are referring to in these sorts of articles.

    I wouldn’t say I “love” software project management, but I definitely loved the money, and had lots of projects where I enjoyed the people and the work.

    I do *LOVE* papercrafting but it’s never going to be as lucrative as the software gig. But I can (and am!) make real money doing it, so I appreciate the message.

    I was honestly surprised at the amount of money I could make selling my handcrafted work, even on a very part-time basis. Just being organized, consistently increasing my skills, and making a few things others find useful or beautiful counts for a lot.

  4. Looking at the second article, it doesn’t seem to be about doing what you love at all, but about the lack of confidence on part of women to ask to be compensated for appropriately, a well known but separate topic. The first article makes a premise that DWYL devalues work, which I don’t get.
    My professional path has been inspired by advice from my father to “find out what you love to do, develop a niche and be the best person in your niche.” This generally worked for him and it’s working for me, too. I never thought I shouldn’t get paid well for what I do just because I enjoy my profession, I never treated it as a hobby and I would change jobs if I found them lacking. And yes, I work in a creative profession, Interior Design specifically. Many people consider it a fun “dream” job that’s often a hobby of affluent, but it can be a fairly lucrative profession when practiced, well, professionally.

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