“Do what you love and love what you do” is a ubiquitous, oft-cited mantra, particularly for students, recent graduates, and young professionals entering the workforce. The catchphrase makes intuitive sense—our work life will of course be more fulfilling, and likely more productive, if we are passionate about and engaged with what we’re doing. The prospect of going into work five days a week for the foreseeable future is ideally something that wouldn’t bring a sense of despair. But what does “doing what you love” actually look like in practice?
Is “do what you love” is even good advice? It can certainly feel like a vague platitude at best, and even daunting if you find yourself still unsure of what exactly you want to do and who you want to be. Especially in the context of a rapidly changing labor market, high turnover rates (especially in the public sector), and a pervasive national sense of economic precarity, finding a steady job at all can be difficult enough.
Is it too much to expect that we be completely enamored by our nine-to-five as well? Should millennials feel guilty, or feel like they “sold out,” if their work doesn’t feel glamourous or incredibly meaningful? Are we supposed to “fake it till we make it”?
It’s important to remember that it’s okay not to be sure, and not to have an answer to the question, “What do you want to do for the rest of your life?” It’s okay if your first job or first major internship isn’t necessarily the career of your dreams.
When you’re experiencing a lull at work or spending your afternoon sending off routine emails, it’s natural to feel uncertain if the career path you’re on is really the right one. This is not to say, however, that you should prepare yourself for inevitable disappointment and begin your career with a sense of cynicism. Instead, a valuable way to think about your first few years as a young professional is that work doesn’t have to be an end in-and-of-itself; it’s also a crucial learning process.
As an example, think back on your college experience: how many of us went into college with an exact idea of what we wanted to study? How many of us had a “life plan” of sorts, or at least a general idea of a dream career we wanted to work towards? How many of our plans changed?
Being in school—a time flush with exciting new classes and encounters with peers from all walks of life—is a transformative learning experience and a period of self-discovery. In the same way, our first forays into the workforce present an opportunity to learn more about who we are and what we are meant to do. You might start work and realize that the job that seemed so incredible on paper isn’t actually something you enjoy. Perhaps the part of your job you weren’t expecting to like is actually your favorite part of the day; or maybe after a year, you find yourself wanting to go back to school so you can pivot to something new.
Working or interning will likely give you a clearer, more complete idea of what kind of career you want (or equally important, what kind of career you don’t want). But the experience of trial-and-error can be frustrating, especially if you find yourself in the latter category feeling uninspired or stuck. Having to enter the job market once more and start from scratch—with all the cover letters and interviews that entails—can certainly be a source of stress. The prospect of sticking through a current job might feel like an obstacle to overcome in order to get to the part where you can finally “do what you love.”
Thinking of work as a learning process, however, can help reframe a less-desirable position from a hurdle to a stepping stone; it can encourage us to stop chasing the idea of a perfect “dream job,” and instead look for things within each workday to love.
Ultimately, if you don’t love your job and you find that it’s not a good fit, you’ll move on. But ask yourself how you can make the most of the opportunity and work experience while you’re there. Perhaps you aren’t as engaged with the subject matter, but you’re interested in acquiring or honing certain technical skill sets. Maybe you don’t love the day-to-day tasks, but get along well with your coworkers and want to maintain those networking connections.
Open communication with your supervisors or managers is key, too, because they also want you to succeed. Consider having an honest conversation over coffee about where your initial expectations haven’t been congruent with your work experience, or ask if you can take initiative on projects that might align more closely with your interests.
People are motivated by different things, and loving a job can be dependent on a number of factors: the specific types of work you’re doing, whether or not you feel fulfilled by your organization’s mission or a fantastic office culture. It is important to find meaning in what you do, but there is no one, magic answer for what this looks like.
Instead of feeling panic, we should embrace, perhaps even fall in love with this uncertainty. Think of this as a time to continue learning about who you are and throw yourself into new things. Perhaps it’s less about discovering your dream job or having it fall into your lap than growing towards it.
For more reading about millennials in public service, check out this weekly GovLoop series, First 5: Advice from millennial to millennial.