How to do what you love

Reflections of ikigai in an essay by Paul Graham

Do you know who Paul Graham is?

Unless you work in tech, the answer is most likely no.

But you’ve probably heard of Airbnb, Reddit, DoorDash, Dropbox, and Instacart, right?

These are just a few of the successful companies to graduate from Y Combinator, the insanely competitive startup accelerator that Paul Graham co-founded in 2005 (at 1.5%, their acceptance rate is lower than the most selective colleges and universities in the world).

But Paul is more than a savvy tech entrepreneur. He’s a wise philosopher and a great essayist, as well. Take this essay about how to do what you love, for example. In it, Paul eloquently reflects on his childhood, college years, and work.

What I love about this essay in particular is how much of it is a testament to the importance of teaching our teenagers about ikigai, even though Paul never directly mentions the word.

Paul opens his essay with the following statement:

Doing what you love is complicated.

The very idea is foreign to what most of us learn as kids. When I was a kid, it seemed as if work and fun were opposites by definition. Life had two states: some of the time adults were making you do things, and that was called work; the rest of the time you could do what you wanted, and that was called playing…

And it did not seem to be an accident. School, it was implied, was tedious because it was preparation for grownup work…

Once, when I was about 9 or 10, my father told me I could be whatever I wanted when I grew up, so long as I enjoyed it. I remember that precisely because it seemed so anomalous. It was like being told to use dry water. Whatever I thought he meant, I didn't think he meant work could literally be fun—fun like playing. It took me years to grasp that…

It was not till I was in college that the idea of work finally broke free from the idea of making a living. Then the important question became not how to make money, but what to work on. Ideally these coincided, but some spectacular boundary cases (like Einstein in the patent office) proved they weren't identical.”

Let's break that last part down and get literal for a minute. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

A job is: to carry on public business for private gain

Work is: to exert oneself physically or mentally especially in sustained effort for a purpose or under compulsion or necessity

So, your job is purely a means to an end - to put a roof over your head and food on the table. Work, on the other hand, is an act of deliberate effort guided by "purpose."

In other words, your job defines what you do. But your work defines who you are.

As a society, we've blended the meaning of these two words to a point that they are synonymous, despite distinct differences. It took Paul Graham nearly two decades to recognize and appreciate the distinction between work and a job. Unfortunately, many people never do. Which is why we made it one of the essential lessons we teach teenagers in our Ikigai & CHIL course at Everydae.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept if ikigai, it’s a Japanese concept that loosely translates to “your reason for being.” At its core, ikigai is about discovering what you love to do and using that as the north star that guides your work.

Paul Graham’s essay continues,

“The test of whether people love what they do is whether they'd do it even if they weren't paid for it—even if they had to work at another job to make a living. How many corporate lawyers would do their current work if they had to do it for free, in their spare time, and take day jobs as waiters to support themselves?

Finding work you love does usually require discipline. Some people are lucky enough to know what they want to do when they're 12, and just glide along as if they were on railroad tracks. But this seems the exception. More often people who do great things have careers with the trajectory of a ping-pong ball. They go to school to study A, drop out and get a job doing B, and then become famous for C after taking it up on the side.”

On that note, let your child know that where they go to school, what they choose to major in, or which job they land immediately after college does not define who they are.

But sadly, many students feel immense pressure to have their whole lives figured out by the time they graduate high school. However, as Paul points out above (and below), those who do are a rare exception. Or worse, just wrong:

“Kids who know early what they want to do seem impressive, as if they got the answer to some math question before the other kids. They have an answer, certainly, but odds are it's wrong.”

With academic and social pressure among teenagers higher than ever before, it’s on us as parents, as educators, as people, as a nation, to stop treating students like statistics and start celebrating their character, not just their report cards. And by rewarding effort, not just outcomes.

How, you may ask?

🥡 The Takeaway:

Here are two bits of great advice from Paul Graham that you can share with your teen:

  1. Do a good job at whatever you're doing, even if you don't like it. Then at least you'll know you're not using dissatisfaction as an excuse for being lazy. Perhaps more importantly, you'll get into the habit of doing things well.

  2. Always produce. "Always produce" is also a heuristic for finding the work you love. If you subject yourself to that constraint, it will automatically push you away from things you think you're supposed to work on, toward things you actually like. "Always produce" will discover your life's work the way water, with the aid of gravity, finds the hole in your roof.

If you want your teenager to be happy, to live a good life, and (discover how) to do what they love, encourage them to heed Paul Graham’s advice. Remind them that where they go to school, what they choose to major in, or which job they land immediately after college does not define who they are. And teach them about the awesome power of exponential little bits.

See what else we’ve written: