How to do what you love — don’t be fooled by prestige

As a child you learn, (1) Play is fun, and, (2) Someday you’ll grow up and work, and that’s no fun. To prepare for this dark future they send you to school. School can be dull and tedious, but that’s good, because school is a preparation for work. It’s sort of mini-job to get you used to sitting quietly at a desk and working on pointless tasks.

This is the scenario with which Paul Graham opens his brilliant essay, “How To Do What You Love.” Graham is a programmer, writer, and investor, and though his essay seems to be directed toward young people, it’s good reading at any age. He presents a way of thinking about what you do and how to do more of what you love. (An excellent summary, along with excerpts from other writers, is at Brain Pickings.)

Here are a few quotes to entice you to read the whole thing. Graham talks about career day presentations in which adults come and tell kids how much they love their jobs — but do they really? Graham says of kids:

“By the time they reach an age to think about what they’d like to do, most kids have been thoroughly misled about the idea of loving one’s work. School has trained them to regard work as an unpleasant duty. Having a job is said to be even more onerous than schoolwork. And yet all the adults claim to like what they do. You can’t blame kids for thinking ‘I am not like these people; I am not suited to this world.’
“Actually they’ve been told three lies: the stuff they’ve been taught to regard as work in school is not real work; grownup work is not (necessarily) worse than schoolwork; and many of the adults around them are lying when they say they like what they do.”

So how do you figure out what you want to do, what you will really enjoy? Graham offers some good advice, but here I’m only going to draw attention to one thing, which to me is perhaps the most quotable and memorable part of the essay:

“Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like…

Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious. Plenty of things we now consider prestigious were anything but at first. Jazz comes to mind—though almost any established art form would do. So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself.”

Prestige as “fossilized inspiration.” I’m going to remember that.

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