Justin Li

How To Do What You Love


I was thinking about one of those personal trivia quiz thingies, and one of my thoughts was that while I'm a nerd, I try hard to be a renaissance nerd. Googling that term gives some interesting results, but I ended up spending time at Paul Graham's site. I've visited the site before, and have also read a few of his essays, but today I spent more time on it.

My attraction to his essays could be from his view the superiority of nerds and intelligence, but I also like his humor.

His essay titled "How To Do What You Love", however, was not about that. It's about, on a more abstract level, how to live a good life, the idea that "work" is not necessarily different from "play". It's an idea I've played around in my head for a long time, and have had discussions about it with other people. Thus, I wanted to see if my idea of the concept was the same as Graham's.

After reading, I didn't find to many points of disagreement. There was however one idea I was taken with. In the essay, Graham points out that one of the harder parts of the problem is figuring out what you love. He writes,

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?

That set me wondering, what do I do in my spare time that I don't get external/material rewards for?

Let's start with what I have been considering as my dream job, teaching and doing research in computer science at a university. Whether this passes the test or not depends on how you break down this job:

One thought about research - people arguably took up their jobs because they liked something about it, as long as they wouldn't go bankrupt or starve otherwise. I can see an argument being made about how people are already "doing what they love" to a certain extent, but that is clearly not what Graham or myself had in mind (I feel so self-absorbed to be putting myself and Graham in one sentence...). I would say that both for my work with WebComm before, and the research I'm doing now, that I don't have to work, but I did it because I want to.

So I seem to be on the right route to doing what I love. But by pulling out computer science professorhood (or is it professorship?), I actually deceived all of you. There's something I've been doing a lot more in my free time than teaching, researching and coding, possibly even combined. It is in fact right in front of you: writing. I've kept a journal since April of 2002, and started this blog September of last year as well. I write an awful amount, and none of this gives me any reward except for satisfaction. Writing is, in fact, my most productive endeavor. As Paul Graham writes,

Another test you can use is: always produce. For example, if you have a day job you don't take seriously because you plan to be a novelist, are you producing? Are you writing pages of fiction, however bad? As long as you're producing, you'll know you're not merely using the hazy vision of the grand novel you plan to write one day as an opiate. The view of it will be obstructed by the all too palpably flawed one you're actually writing.

"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.

I do not, however, intend to be a writer, editorial or otherwise. Coming upon Graham's site is actually an inspiration, because he, like me (again self-absorbed), writes a lot. I don't think I would mind if my life turned out to be like his.

By "don't think I would mind" I mean "Yes! Please! Please! I beg you!" Eheh.