When talking to a disgruntled pal who’s getting fed up with their job, you might be tempted to console them with this aphorism of dubious origin:
“Do what you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”
It’s only natural to reach for advice like this. It’s so easy on the ears: take what you’re passionate about and do that. It’s an easy-to-recite invocation against drudgery. It’s a promise of freedom from the daily grind. And it’s advice that all of us want to believe in. But is it true?
The internet is teeming with battle cries of inspiration urging you to hunt down work that doesn’t look like work. You might even feel like you’re doing something wrong if you’re not wading in your passions for 40 hours a week. It might make you feel like what you’re doing for a living isn’t what you’re supposed to be doing.
Put this advice back on the shelf. You don’t have to make your hopes and dreams the foundation of your career to be happy. (I love Nutella and five-pin bowling—what kind of job would that be?) Instead, we suggest swapping the idea of “doing what you love,” for loving what you do. Work doesn’t have to look like your favorite pastime to be meaningful.
A cheerless job can tempt you to dust off your resume, but you don’t have to quit just yet. First, make a genuine attempt to improve things from where you sit. Fulfillment at work is often a matter of perspective—not place. In fact, simply doing what you love is no guarantee your work life will be satisfying.
They said yes
Do you remember the precise moment you landed your current job? What a score! It’s generally a moment of triumph and validation. Landing a new job is like moving to a new town. It’s a chance to start fresh, redefine who you are, and do something great.
Now consider another moment (say, early on a Monday morning) when you felt much less elated. You’re negotiating with the snooze button instead of rushing into work. What happened? That job that was once fresh and inspiring is now another stressor in your life. Without really noticing it, your exciting new gig (the one all your friends and family congratulated you on when you got it) has undergone a metamorphosis. Now it’s an obligation, or even worse, a source of anxiety.
Sometimes there is a right time to move on from a job, but often the biggest difference between the first day of work and the “first day of dread” is your point of view.
To love what you do you must understand how (and why) you do it in the first place. That process can start by cultivating appreciation for your teammates, by diving deeper into what you do every day, and by thinking carefully about the results you achieve—at the job you already have. You don’t even have to leave your chair.
Here are four strategies that can help you shift perspective.
Learn something new
Whenever you start a new job, your mind is exploratory and receptive; your lack of institutional knowledge is actually beneficial—especially if your employer wants fresh, outside perspectives. As you gradually learn the ropes, understand the culture, or figure out how to operate the coffee machine, you exist in a state known as Beginner’s Mind. And in this state, you are more willing and able to abandon your preconceptions, consider processes more carefully, and think more creatively.
Tap into this mindset once more. Challenge your assumptions. Spend time thinking about individual steps, rather than brushing over things that are routine. And spend time in the moment. Being situationally aware and present can make you happier doing what you do.
Even if you’re a veteran of your industry, there’s always something new to learn. Perhaps especially so. Push yourself into the darkness of uncharted territory to become a beginner again.
Share your wisdom
If you’ve been at a job for while, you have probably gained some specialized knowledge or skills. Consider sharing or trading these skills with a teammate. It can give you a more positive perception of the work you are currently doing, and help you learn something different.
You could also become a mentor to a new employee or intern. Leveraging your experience to help others at work usually requires little cost or effort on your part, but it can immensely help someone starting out.
Your brain will thank you too. Giver’s glow is your body’s neurological response to altruistic acts, like helping:
“Such thoughts activate the mesolimbic pathway in the brain that is associated with happiness and production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Actual face-to-face helping also triggers areas of the brain associated with happiness.”
Mentoring can also be a catalyst that reminds you of your accomplishments and provides structure to all that you’ve learned at your current job. Spill the beans.
Reach for your strengths
Research shows that the more we employ our natural talents, the more likely we are to be happier at work and more engaged. You could take a personality test like Myers-Briggs or StrengthsFinder, but it’s often as useful to approach the people that know you best. Query your friends, a partner, coworkers, or a manager if there is particular talent or strength that you might have that you could be utilizing more.
For example, if you derive energy from presenting your ideas in public, seek out those opportunities at work, even if they are outside the scope of your current role. If you are an introverted type that prefers detail-oriented, self-directed projects, ask to see if that kind of work is available to take on (or provide assistance on).
They don’t have to be “career-furthering,” or high-profile assignments. They should be things that leverage the skills you naturally bring to the workplace. The kind of work you really get a kick out of might be torture for someone else. Ask around, and you might be surprised at the opportunities that are hidden in plain sight.
Enlist your manager’s help
In many ways, the relationship you have with your manager is the defining factor in your happiness at work. As the adage goes, “you don’t quit your job, you quit your manager,” so it’s crucial that whoever you report to is on board with keeping you content, thriving, and productive.
Every good manager wants their reports to like their jobs, but they can’t read minds. The boss-employee relationship requires input, cooperation, and work from both parties. In a Forbes article about improving your relationship with your boss, Joyce Maroney explains: “We get out of them what we put into them—as long as both parties are committed to the relationship.”
Keeping your boss accountable is important, but be accountable to yourself too. Be honest about what you truly want and need from your job, and give your manager actionable ways to help you. Getting a raise or promotion isn’t always easy—or guaranteed to increase your job satisfaction. But your boss can probably find ways today to act on requests like “I need more encouraging feedback” or “I want opportunities to learn new skills,” so speak up and let them try.
The sum of the parts
We’ve said before: if your daily work doesn’t ladder up to your stated objectives you should stop doing it. The same goes for your career too. It should lead you to where you want to be. Your objectives should be as much map as they are destination.
Think carefully about your company’s goals to calibrate them with your personal values. Is it a mission you can stand behind? When you think about serving a larger purpose, it can help renew your passion for what you do.
Falling in love—whether with your job or with a human—is as emotional as it is introspective; knowing yourself is truly the first step to being happy. And staying happy is an ongoing process of regrounding your long-term goals within your current objectives. When those align, you’re on the path to a job you can adore.
Get the “giver’s glow” and share this article with a friend or teammate. Your brain will thank you for it.