This post originally appeared on Medium.
Most American graduation advice you’ll find around this time comes across as some version of Steve Jobs’ commencement speech at Stanford. “The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking.”
I don’t disagree with this advice in theory; the intention behind it is good. You only have one life after all — it doesn’t make sense to waste it doing work you hate. But the advice “do what you love,” has become dogmatic to the point where it’s transformed into a mindless mantra that pretends to be a shining beacon but is instead a lure toward a common trap.
My experience working with hundreds of recent college graduates as a coach and mentor through Venture for America has led me to some better graduation advice:
Recognize that work is actually the pea fields
Work is the pea fields? I know it’s not exactly the most intuitive metaphor, but trust me, it’ll all make sense. Let me introduce you to Margey.
Margey owned an organic farm that I worked on between my senior year of high school and freshman year of college. On my first day, she sent me to a field in the back of her house, the strawberry garden.
“Let’s see if you take to farm work,” she laughed at me, a kid ripe as a green tomato.
For the first few days, I loved it, and Margey sent me home with vegetables for wages. After a few days, however, my Mom told me that I shouldn’t be paid in snap peas and green beans and should ask Margey for money instead. So I did.
“You want to be paid?” she almost laughed. “Well, if you want to be paid, I’ve got a different job for you.”
Margey sent me down to another field on the side of the farm unprotected by shade. Before me lay the gnarliest-looking pea shoot jungle I’d ever seen.
“We haven’t worked on this bed for months. I need you to clean it up.”
I hacked for hours at the pea plants and their fibrous roots like an axe murderer but the nasty purple and green plants wouldn’t budge. Meanwhile, the sun fried me like a Thanksgiving turkey and sweat dripped down my nose, arms, and back, which hurt from all of the swinging and the yanking and the pulling.
Every once in a while Margey came back to the field.
“Boy, looks like you still have a long way to go. Glad I’m not working this field today…”
The difference between the strawberry garden and the pea fields strikes me as very similar to the transition from college to the working world. In our four years of college, we can dig holes in the rich soil of our minds, plant our interests, and watch them sprout. We get grades in return for our labor, college’s equivalent of the vegetables Margey paid me. This reality is especially true if you don’t have to work during college to survive. But once things become about money, work is the pea fields. At its core, it’s a transaction of your time and energy for income, and it’s not always the most interesting, intellectually challenging, or exciting transaction.
I see so many recent college graduates awash in the cult of “do what you love” that they expect work to be the strawberry garden instead of the pea fields. Like me on Margey’s farm, these folks are in for a rude awakening.
Adjust your expectations
“Do what you love” sets up the expectation that you should love your job and that anything less is grounds for leaving. The reality is much trickier. 71% of people in the United States say they hate their jobs. That statistic doesn’t say they were neutral about their jobs or like it alright from time to time. This is the percentage of people who hate work, who wish they could summon Dr. Strange to cut a hole in space-time so that they can disappear for longer than lunch break.
It’s even worse for recent college graduates. “Just 28 percent of employed workers younger than 25 were satisfied with their jobs in 2013,” says the Washington Post. When put into the context of this data, doing what you love can absolutely be an aspiration, a dream, a goal to work toward. But it shouldn’t be an expectation.
When “do what you love” becomes an expectation, it’s crushing. Once the honeymoon phase at your new job is over and you see all of the unpleasant elements of the workplace (drama, politics, conflict, stagnation), it can be very difficult to love it. The impulse is to run away and move towards something else. “I’ll love my next job,” you say to yourself. You start searching for the next thing, praying that it’ll be something that you love. You get a new job and may even enjoy the honeymoon phase there…before you inevitably run into similar issues.
It’s a vicious cycle, but one that is oftentimes the case for recent grads, 71% of whom quit their first jobs between 7–12 months in. It’s gotten so bad that my generation, the Millennials, are being called the “Job Hopping Generation” and are cited as the least engaged workers of any generation working. A “do what you love” mindset that’s drilled into us over and over explains at least a part of this trend, although it’s impossible to say how much.
“Do what you love” frames the job market as something that exists for your pleasure, when in reality, an employer needs you to get something done. They don’t have to care whether or not it’s something you love doing or not (see: the pea fields). Job markets aren’t tailored to your desires and they’re not meant to be.
The truth is that every job will have elements you’ll love and elements you’ll hate. People are imperfect and organizations, behind their lofty missions, branding, logos, perks, and processes, are just groups of people.
So what’s better?
Build what you love
There are a few strategies we use to teach our Fellows how to create careers they are proud of. The first is to work hard at your organization, push through the initial highs and lows, do a great job, and scan the organization for roles or tasks that are more aligned with your interests if you’re not currently able to pursue them. This mindset not only allows people to navigate the initial shock of the pea fields, but also provides a base for resilience during the ups and downs. It frames not loving work, especially at first, as an okay thing (and exceedingly normal).
We tell the Fellows that the highs and lows of the workplace are an opportunity for personal growth, that navigating conflict is an essential skill (because conflict is everywhere), and that workplace challenges provide a rich backdrop for introspection about how you’d like to grow as a professional. And as you grow in your company, especially a startup, taking advantage of the things you’re interested in becomes more realistic.
Still, Steve Jobs wasn’t all wrong. There is a deep magic about aligning personal goals and passions with the way we make our income—and that’s where entrepreneurship comes in. As I mentioned earlier, the job market doesn’t solely exist to fulfill your career dreams…but that doesn’t mean that “do what you love” isn’t possible. More often than not, you just have to build it. “Build what you love” is a more realistic frame on Steve Jobs’ graduation advice. After all, that’s what he did. Steve Jobs didn’t apply to Apple — he created it.
So, recent college grads, my graduation advice is this: If you want to “Build what you love,” take note of the seedlings in your mind and do what you can to pursue them while you strive and struggle in the pea fields. Cultivate them in the mornings, nights, and weekends on your own time too. If you continue to water them, they’ll grow, and maybe someday, the plant, the fruit, and the entire farm will become yours.
Todd Nelson is the Senior Manager of Programs at Venture for America, responsible for coaching Fellows and teaching them professionalism. You can follow his writing, including the book this piece was adapted from, on 9th Path, his personal blog and website.