do what you love, or do what you have to?

February 20, 2014 |  Category:   life rambling


I’ve been thinking a lot about the catch phrase, “do what you love” lately. Is it a choice? Is it a luxury? Is it within reach for everyone, or only attainable for some? I’m finding myself sort of split between thinking it’s a worthwhile mantra to model your life after, and thinking it’s an unrealistic dream for most people. Positioning it as a choice might make the most sense to me because not everyone is able to do what they love and earn a living from it, but if money wasn’t your main motivation than maybe you can do what you love with some compromises. But what about the people who feel they can’t leave their jobs in order to pursue their passions? Should they stay in their jobs if it makes them miserable just because it’s safer and more responsible? No, I’m not arguing that at all, but I think “do what you have to” might be a more accurate depiction for many of us.


When my girls talk about what they want to be when they grow up, they always count off the things that they love to do. It’s not surprising, is it? As children, it makes perfect sense to think that the things we love to do is the way that we’ll be spending our days as adults. Personally, I do believe I have always tried to pursue what I want, but what I want and what I love aren’t necessarily the same things or the same path. I want to provide a good life for my family, to earn enough not only to provide the basics of what we need, but also enough to enjoy the extras and secure our future, but the path to get there isn’t necessarily doing what I love.

Lately, I’m feeling like my overwhelming sense of responsibility in creating financial stability is the thing that is making me feel a bit stuck. I know that we aren’t your typical corporate, 9-5 office type family, but I still feel what many people feel – trapped in a job or career because it pays the bills. Our choice of self employment isn’t without compromises either, namely a steady income and in my case, career mobility and possibly more earning power, but it is a choice that we continue to make (maybe I didn’t “lean in” enough. Sorry Sheryl Sandberg). Still, as fortunate as I feel that we can afford to have all the trappings of a middle class family – an apartment, a car, savings, a yearly vacation – all the things that I want and work hard for, I can’t help but question that there has to be other ways of getting there.

Something that I read in this New York Times article about an elderly woman who finally followed her dreams of becoming an artist really struck me – how “those dreams were derailed long ago by her duties as a wife and mother.” Inspiring to see someone so passionate about their art, but bittersweet because it took her so long to finally be in the right time in her life to fulfill what she’s always wanted to do. We do what we have to, right?
These days, I’m trying to see if a balance exists. Mostly, I feel frustrated with myself for becoming so cautious for the sake of stability that I don’t allow myself the space to even think about unfamiliar waters. This isn’t anything new if you’ve been reading here awhile, but some days it burns a hole in my soul more than others. What am I afraid of? A failure to prove that I can earn a living doing what I love (which I am still searching for, by the way)? Maybe, yes. But I don’t want to live a life, afraid. Because it you can’t learn to love what you do, then maybe the answer is to close the gap between doing what you love and doing what you have to, even with some compromises.

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  • nikkiana February 20, 2014 at 12:51 pm

    I think it’s a difficult thing to strike a balance with, and I think that balance is going to vary greatly depending on what your individual situation is. I know I’ve been searching for it myself…

  • Nicole February 20, 2014 at 1:10 pm

    Jenna, you are not alone. I’m struggling with the exact same questions and challenges. Let me know if you find that balance. I’d love to hear your approach.

  • emily February 20, 2014 at 1:17 pm


    I recently stumbled upon your blog, and am so grateful for doing so! Your insights into life are inspiring, and reading your posts is like reading a letter from a friend. This post especially resonated with me, and I wanted to thank you for sharing with such honesty! I too am struggling to find that balance – and I don’t have kids to chase after!

    I wanted to share with you some advice my Grammy gave me: “there will never be enough hours in the day or days in the week, but there is always room in your life for something that you truly love”. This was followed by more realistic wisdom: “Sometimes you won’t always like what you’re doing, and that’s fine. What’s important is that you still love the life you have”.

    From that, I’ve decided that it’s okay to be in a not-so-great job if it provides you with the ability to live a life you love. Whether that’s the financial security to have a safe and happy home to rest at the end of the day or the spare change to travel or health insurance, so be it. When that not-so-great job starts to cloud your heart and disrupt your ability to be yourself, then it’s time to move on.

    Whether or not this is realistic is entirely a matter of faith.

    And in regard to Sheryl Sandberg: you have to have a very narrow definition of success to write a book telling women to be more like you. I’ll keep living my own life, thanks! :)

    • Jenna February 20, 2014 at 6:52 pm

      I really like your granny’s advice, Emily, particularly the line about loving the life you have. Thank you for sharing that. I think this is what I’ve always told myself and why I endured on. As I wrote above, some days that balance does tip towards, what you so eloquently put it “clouding your heart”. That’s when these feelings creep in. I have no answers, obviously!

  • Dee February 20, 2014 at 4:10 pm

    I often wonder: if I did “what I love” full time, would I still love it?
    Thanks for taking the time to write this blog. I always enjoy it.

    • Jenna February 20, 2014 at 6:53 pm

      You’re right to wonder that. I made jewelry for years when I was in college. It started out as a hobby, but then it quickly grew into a little business when I found out that I could earn a bit of money while going to school, but by the end when I had decided I wanted to stop, I was so relieved. Ironically, I sometimes think about making jewelry again!

  • Desiree February 20, 2014 at 4:25 pm

    I think it might also be more complicated as the things you love doing changes throughout life. You choose to pursue your dreams when you are in your 20:ies before you even had a chance to actually try out what a career in the field you have chosen would be like. Then you invested all this time and money into studies and a collage exam. It is hard to chance and start all over when you reach mid life if you figure out the dream you had when you were 20 was not the right one after all.
    Another complicating factor is also that you may not be happy with your chosen career but you also are not sure what else you would like to do instead. What do you do then, when you just feel kind of misserable and stuck where you are but you just do not know which other path to try or to follow.
    I totally agree with what you say here in this post. It is all a fine balance.

    • Jenna February 20, 2014 at 6:55 pm

      I agree with all of this. and yes, my biggest dilemma, and one that I haven’t figured out in all these years. What is my next path?

      • Jeanette February 20, 2014 at 9:16 pm

        I think Desiree hit the nail on the head. I often re-read this essay on “How to Do What You Love” by Paul Graham that expands on her points in an (I think) enlightening way:

        It’s really long & sometimes arduous, but he has some great insights that I want to remember as I raise my kids.

        PS Sorry I’ve been commenting so much on your blog! I’m usually a lurker but you write super thought-provoking posts that make me want to respond. ;P

        • Jenna February 22, 2014 at 1:13 am

          I’m glad to see your comments Jeannette! thank you!

  • CG February 20, 2014 at 10:47 pm

    It’s so much harder to take the leap and risks when there are kids involved.

    • Jenna February 24, 2014 at 12:00 pm

      It is. It definitely adds another layer of complexity to the question and another level of responsibility obviously, but I don’t think it’s impossible! Again, maybe compromises are key. Also, trying to think about life “outside the box” a bit.

  • Deepa February 21, 2014 at 2:02 am

    I think the trick to closing the gap might be to have a little on-the-side activity that you somehow make the time for and is what you love while you continue to pay the bills and accumulate some security the old fashioned way, grinding away at a regular job. Easier said than done I know what with parenting responsibilities and only 24 hours(imagine that!) in a day to find the time/energy to pursue this more balanced lifestyle. But if it can be managed then it might be the route to a little more joy overall. I think I might find the time now when the kiddo is young only in bits and pieces or on weekends but have more when he’s in college(or is it wishful thinking eh!) You know I envy my husband for just that very thing you talk about. That he’s doing what he’s always wanted to do, still loves doing it and makes good enough money from it. Overall he’s always been less frustrated than me as a result.

    Best to you to find out whatever it is that makes u happy and feel like it’s all worthwhile.

    • Jenna February 22, 2014 at 1:13 am

      yes, I do think that is key too, but it is easier said than done.

  • Tim February 21, 2014 at 3:16 am

    At 52, I can tell you that the feelings you are sensing have ebbed and flowed throughout my life. Regret that I was working for a paycheck so that I could support my family and not chasing my dreams.

    I have no magic advice other than to work at the problem. A few years back, I decided that I wanted more than the high salary and high pressure. I wanted to be fulfilled at work as well as at home. I took a risk and found a new job that I thought would be perfect. It wasn’t. So, I found another and although much better and far more fulfilling, It is far from perfect. I’ve allowed my income to go down as I switch jobs as a trade off for less stress and more fulfillment. However, I have not lost sight of our long term financial goals (Less than 15 years to retirement). This compromise seems to be as good a solution as I have been able to find.

    I’ll be reading along as you work towards your own solution. I’m sure that you will find a balance that is unique to you and your life.

    • Jenna February 22, 2014 at 1:18 am

      I think I’m open to that trade off Tim and appreciate your perspective from someone 10 years ahead of me. I don’t want to have regrets when I’m older, so I’m working through that now, as you put it. But it is hard with college costs and retirement closer rather than farther away at this point, which is why I question whether or not I should just really buckle down and earn the money while I still can – because it’s important, and it enables us to do some of the things we love.

  • Lara February 21, 2014 at 6:57 am

    It’s uncanny much how your thoughtful posts seem to capture the thoughts & concerns that I have these days. I’ve always come to your blog for the beautiful visual inspiration, and though I always feel that you and your family were a few steps ahead of me and mine, I loved being able to see what sorts of ideas might be just around the bend. But lately- I just start thinking about how to spend time alone, how to balance the bread&butter opportunities and my own creative aspirations, what is necessary and what I can let go of, and then I see your post on similar thoughts percolating. Thanks so much for putting it down, I admire the discipline and honesty that must take,
    I have always had a hard time saying no to opportunities that fall in line with the design training and experience I have- after all I’ve been doing this (architecture) for almost a decade now, and I feel dutifully lucky to have a steady flow of projects and freelance income, which is not the most lucrative, but it keeps me working and autonomous which I have really come to value. But when I think about how little freedom my current setup gives me to be creative, and do what I think I love (or find what I love to do), the setup feels more confining. I do find moments of pleasure in doing the work, solving the design puzzles that come up, but I never feel like I have the space and time to set the agenda. Or even to think about what that agenda might be! And yes having a kid (or two!) I think makes it harder. Wish I had some way of getting through this dilemma a little faster, but I do think it is a process. And I also like the advice of Emily’s grammy to find contentment in the lives we have even while we struggle for more. I do have to say that the lovely photographs you share of daily life have a way of doing that, at least for me! :)

    • Jenna February 24, 2014 at 12:47 pm

      I feel the same way Lara. I do feel lucky that I’ve had the luck to have a steady stream of projects to keep this autonomous life going for so long (11 years now). Some projects have been really great – the kind that I can really sink my teeth into, that are challenging and creatively awarding, and have the budgets to really support that kind of work. I guess I’m questioning it more these days because the industry is changing and my work recently has changed a bit too. I’m still absolutely grateful to have a steady stream of work, but it has become tedious and I see it shifting in the future even more because of the changing nature of this industry. Maybe this is why it’s been on my mind a lot, because I’m searching.

  • Nina February 22, 2014 at 11:52 am

    I’m sixty, I live with a guy who is slightly older. He never had a family to care for. I had a husband, two daughters. He always came close to doing what he loved (still does) workwise. I did too: I raised my girls! The job I had in order to support them wasn’t necessarily one I loved (I was a professor, it was fine, with good hours), but I loved raising them. The parameters shifted over time. You love your marriage and your first independence, then you really love your kids (if you have kids) and then, when they leave, you have a chance to take stock. It took me ten years to do it, but finally, I chose a lower income and early retirement so that I could write. The job had taken on a different meaning: it was there only to secure a better financial future. Not good enough! So I let go of it.
    All this to say that I don’t know many people (anyone?) who can have it all — a solid support system for your family, complete artistic fulfillment, time to do all that you want to try in life. Dabble in all of it, yes, definitely — don’t let go of talents and dreams, but honestly, so long as the girls are young, they’ll be your main preoccupation. For better or worse. Probably for better! :)

  • Darcy Troutman February 23, 2014 at 2:58 pm

    Did you read this Slate article, it really resonated with me, here are a few quotes, but the whole article is really worth a read –
    “DWYL is a secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation but is an act of love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, presumably it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.

    . . . .

    One consequence of this isolation is the division that DWYL creates among workers, largely along class lines. Work becomes divided into two opposing classes: that which is lovable (creative, intellectual, socially prestigious) and that which is not (repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished). Those in the lovable-work camp are vastly more privileged in terms of wealth, social status, education, society’s racial biases, and political clout, while comprising a small minority of the workforce.

    For those forced into unlovable work, it’s a different story. Under the DWYL credo, labor that is done out of motives or needs other than love—which is, in fact, most labor—is erased. As in Jobs’ Stanford speech, unlovable but socially necessary work is banished from our consciousness.

    . . . .

    In ignoring most work and reclassifying the rest as love, DWYL may be the most elegant anti-worker ideology around. Why should workers assemble and assert their class interests if there’s no such thing as work?

    . . . .

    “Do what you love” disguises the fact that being able to choose a career primarily for personal reward is a privilege, a sign of socioeconomic class. Even if a self-employed graphic designer had parents who could pay for art school and co-sign a lease for a slick Brooklyn apartment, she can bestow DWYL as career advice upon those covetous of her success.

    • Jenna February 23, 2014 at 6:00 pm

      Yes, I have read that article. I find her theory about how doing what you Love devalues work very interesting, if a bit flawed and debatable. It made me look at the phrase in a different way, though.

  • Jocy February 23, 2014 at 10:32 pm

    I don’t completely buy the DWYL thing. And by that I mean, that even if you do what you love, there can still be a lot of hard work involved and not all days are rosy.

    I think I’m a person who chased my dreams. Out of law school, I found myself at a firm and should have been quite satisfied with life. But I wasn’t. I wanted to do a different field of law – one that involved international law, human rights to be exact. So I took a job in Cambodia working on human rights issues.

    I loved it.

    But it was still very difficult.

    I’m now in the US, still working on international human rights law. And I am grateful for having taken the leap and sometimes can’t believe I’m doing this work.

    But some days are really tough. It takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice.

    And even within the field “I love” there are still subsects that make me happier than others. For instance, I’m happier working abroad directly with communities.

    Nothing is ever perfect.

    Some people don’t need that job they love. The job is a means to sustain a life they love. That is also great.

    I just happen to need both.

    • Jenna February 24, 2014 at 11:46 am

      Well, I question it too, which is why I wrote this post! I love this line of yours: “Some people don’t need that job they love. The job is a means to sustain a life they love. That is also great.” I agree, actually and this has been my pursuit – creating a life that I love. I suppose I am attempting to see if a better balance for myself exists…

  • Peter Nguyen February 24, 2014 at 12:33 pm

    I’ve always hated the “Do what you love” mantra, especially when it’s attached to “and money will follow” kicker.

    I think it’s too fluffy and new age sounding.

    For me, revising my place in fashion required a hard look at what I wanted to do, the realities of the industry/market and readjusting my definition of success and my goals.

    The first was destroying the idea of the money will follow. I tell people that ask me for advice “examine what you love, see where it is profitable and work hard and smart at it.”

    I think this flies in the face of many advice columns that tell you it’s not about money. Money is part of it. But not the only part.

    I don’t want to pretend that money doesn’t matter. Or isn’t a valid goal. Money is a necessity if I want to be a part of society. I certainly don’t overvalue money like I used to in my early 20s. I want to work on things I like and be able to sell it for money so I can fund more of my work (aside from living costs).

    Basically, what I’m advocating is not being dumb and have your head in the clouds with these mantras. To realistically examine what interests you and see where you can create revenue without compromising your goals too much (there will always be some compromise) I love cooking, but I wouldn’t want to own a restaurant. I love photography, but I don’t want to be a professional photographer. I work in fashion, but I know pursuing high end retailers and holding runway shows is a costly dead end for new designers, and that I’m better off building my own online shop.

    The danger I see in these mantras is we have a wave of people believing they should never have to do something they don’t like. And when they decide to monetize their “passions” they get discouraged because they don’t realize a huge part of creating income is doing things you don’t like. I spend 25% of my time designing and 75% doing spreadsheets and billing. It’s not glamorous runway shows and parties. But this has to be done. I’m not profitable. I’m scraping by. I do freelance work for ugly brands to make side money. Do what you love or do what you have to? Do what you have to to do what you love I say. But never be a slave to either idea.

    The only saving grace is knowing that safety is the biggest illusion. Ive had friends that were fired from their corporate jobs (their entire 15 person team in fact) in one swoop. My mom is 62 and has had a stable career she built, but hasn’t taken a vacation in as long as I can remember, only to be diagnosed with cancer in the last year. While she was able to raise some great kids in a middle income house, I feel like she hasn’t enjoyed life as much as she can.

    It’s a cliché, but this is what death makes you realize. This is all temporary. In 300 years, we’ll most likely be forgotten. And what the slate article fails to admit is that this world is imbalanced. There will be people that have the privilege of choosing. And we shouldn’t feel ashamed to be given the chance to decide we can do what we love. Wasting our lives doing things we don’t would be a bigger insult to those that can’t.

    • Jenna February 24, 2014 at 1:15 pm

      I agree with pretty much everything you say here Peter. I’ve always had a reaction to the “do what you love” mantra” as being such a common phrase thrown around these days, but what does it really mean for most people? I guess that is the realist in me talking. I think attaching money to it is such pressure – and not always achievable for some people to earn a living on. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, of course. Recently I’ve decided that I need to remove the monetary pressure off from “doing what I love” because it’s become such a barrier that it’s preventing me from actually doing things. Maybe money will follow, but right now, that balance that I’m referring to is doing the things that I have to so that I can play around with the things that I love – without the attachments of money.

  • susan hutchinson (@fleurishing) February 24, 2014 at 7:41 pm

    It is something we all struggle with…my husband works a 9-5 job that isn’t necessarily his passion so that we are able to life the life we love outside of work. His efforts enrich our lives, and also allow me to do what I love…being a full-time WAHM, designer, blogger. It seems that there will always be some sort of sacrifice and/or compromise to be able to do the things we love.

  • nichole February 26, 2014 at 3:11 pm

    I just read a book by one of my friends I met in Paris. She worked in advertising and was miserable. She spent a year calculating how she could save enough to change her life and really get what she wants. It involved a meticulous process, and it was a fun read. She didn’t/doesn’t have kids, so easier for sure.

    What inspired me was her absolute resolve to figure out what she wanted, what was good for her regardless of the inertia of her life, what she had planned to do or trained to do. She just completely started over in her mid 30s.

    Lately I question just about every choice we made/make, and get the nagging sense that we aren’t in the right town or even the right state (feeling pulled toward more rural areas, believe it or not). I feel like I want to slow down and enjoy life, spend more time in nature, and to do that we need more financial freedom (cutting expenses).

    But most days I just roll with the punches, and that is what scares me the most: will I wake up one day and realize I just kind of rolled with it?

    Of course, it’s easy for me to think I don’t have the luxury of making those changes, but I think that’s a cop out most of the time. Aligning life to your values – and being brave enough to live that way – is one of the hardest things to do.

    • Jenna February 27, 2014 at 5:14 pm

      I wouldn’t be surprised if you guys moved to the country! You’ve been touching upon it for a while, no? From what I can see, seems like you made this change by not doing client work?

  • Yayoi March 12, 2014 at 8:22 pm

    Hi Jenna,

    I love your blog and have been reading for a long time, but never wrote anything to you in person before, so nice to “meet” you! I am totally with you. I have been thinking about my life and what I really want to do! I am a career changer; I was a fashion designer and then teacher currently and I love what I do, but I feel like I need some kind of change. But I know I own a condo and I have to pay mortgages no matter where I am and what I do, so I feel it’s impossible for me to change jobs or even try to change my job! My husband also finds comfort in stability, so he always discourages me about my thoughts. I have been working on children’s book since 2010!!! Yes, it is a balancing and courage, but this responsibilities in your life (kids, $, debt etc etc) are the things make us take less risks, i think.

  • DLGR April 3, 2014 at 3:32 am

    Bit behind on the times here Jenna but those last two paragraphs caught my eye while I was backtracking to get to where I left off on your blog before, and I KNOOOOW, right?! I LOVE drawing, I have a BFA in it, and I want that to be my full time job. But I don’t know why I just won’t get started on a single drawing nowadays. I guess it is fear, for me anyways.

    My mother struck fear into me about how I need to get a career job and make loads of money and get married/have kids or I will fail and I’ll end up poor and helpless and she won’t help me out then. I tried SO HARD to get into government job here in D.C. but they just never worked out. I would finally get to the point where I’d have a reasonably good salary and then BOOM! Let go. And here I am unemployed, again, and I SHOULD use this to get back to my portfolio and update it and get back into things. But even w/out the husband and kids I’m supposed to have by now…(I’ll be 30 in July, according to my mother that’s dried up-age,lol)…I still have debts and bills and such and I just…I feel like I’d be more at peace/would be able to focus more if I didn’t have those things lingering in the back of my mind. But it’s life…they’ll never not be there, right? lol!

    Gotta figure out a way to make both work. heh.

    Sorry, rambling. Continue on, lol!!