Can you really love what you do?
Oh my gosh, yes. Yes, yes, yes. I watched my father be a successful engineer and salesman at an intractable cost to his happiness and our family peace. For this reason, I understand the trap that loveless work can be. But I also know that it doesn't have to be that way.
Some of us simply may have never figured out something we'd love to do; others are limited by our socioeconomic context; and there are those of us who may feel betrayed by something we thought would be an income-producing passion project, which didn't turn out that way.
What matters in the ever-changing domain of work that creates sustainable happiness is pursuing something that brings you joy and that creates good for others. No matter what your circumstances, having these two criteria at work will go a long way to having work that you love.
I can hear your "BUT'S" echoing in my head: "But, I don't know what brings me joy!" "But what brings me joy won't bring me money!" And yes, I've heard thoughts like these before, and neither of them are reasons to stay miserable.
I can promise you, as someone who does both, that there is no guarantee that every day will begin with excitement. The truth is that any work, even work you love, runs the risk of becoming a "job" if great care isn't taken to tend to it like it was a prize-winning rose bush.
So start by asking yourself these two questions. Your answers will provide you with the two most essential ingredients to figure out what it is that you will actually want to do, and how to make it happen:
1. What brings me joy?
If you don't know what brings you joy, you're desensitized to your own body's signals and you probably don't have access to your intuition. It could also be that you don't allow yourself the gift of fun, creativity or exploration. If you don't know what brings you joy, watch for people who do something that brings them joy and ask if you can join them. This doesn't mean you'll choose their joy as your destination, but it will start to train you to recognize what doing something joyful looks like and feels like.
Once you recognize it, you might remember things you used to do that brought you joy. Re-engage with those. Not because they'll become your career, but because it will open you up to the sensitivity required to feel your own body's wisdom and impulses towards the career moves that will matter to your happiness.
2. What can I do that improves other people's lives?
That, to me, is the next logical question in trying to figure out the "doing what you love" question. Joy often comes with the second criteria I've recommended. Doing something that improves life for people, animals or the planet, or something that brings more awareness to people so they can make better choices falls under this category. The work itself may be hard but a successful outcome will be satisfying enough to bring joy to your life.
When I have occasional hiccups in consistently loving what I do, or even have a life hiccup, I remember the best way out of my own funk is to do something for somebody else. One of my favorite ways to do this is to work with kids. I've used my background in theater as a tool for bringing out the best in others.
Working with a local church, I've helped kids spruce of their dance numbers for their upcoming musical or I've done presentation skill training at the elementary school or I choreographed the musical at the middle school. Seeing the kids succeed and enjoy the process brought me joy and made life a little better for somebody else. I come back to my desk inspired and ready to get the love back in my work because ultimately, I do something that fits both criteria.
Things that bring you joy or uplift the "condition" for all aren't always paying gigs. If that's describes you, don't think it has to stay that way.
I'm writing this on a plane coming back from the Sundance Film Festival where I met many people who started in something they could not make a living at but they persevered. They had day jobs and applied for grants and many of them were there to celebrate the film they delivered despite the odds. Some will be leaving to start the next project under the same circumstances and some just had the career breakthrough they were hoping for. One independently produced film sold for $12.5 million.
No matter your level of success, doing work without joy or impact is keeping your soul in a box. Your soul wants to be expressed. Give it that privilege and your happiness will come along for the ride.