on doing what you love

I posted a question on Twitter about unrealistic fantasies. Some of the answers were flippant. Some were funny (“life of crime,” “girl walking around the office in a pencil skirt”). But a lot of the answers I got seemed to be all about love. As in: love of bookstores, cafes, films, uncultivated prairie land, novels, cycling, children’s TV shows, skiing.

Also a lot of the answers were, I don’t want to work at all—universal basic income, sugar baby, wealthy housewife. I don’t dream of labor.

I realized that the real question I asked was what would you spend all your time on if money was no object. The answers reminded me of my favorite Griefbacon post by Helena Fitzgerald, Soft Places, which is about how money matters but sometimes we get pockets of believing that it doesn’t.

It is hard to tell apart the brutalities of the economic system and the brutalities of the human condition; we are so used to interacting with everyone and everything first and foremost as what they will cost us that it has perhaps become part of how we know how to locate one another. Love is an interior room and an interior room is something you buy with money.

I think we get maybe one or two things in life that we can love the way we would love a person. Meaning: when you fall in love with someone you want to spend all your time on them. You study them carefully, trying to please them. You learn everything you can about them. You’re not going into the relationship with a specific outcome—you’re always just hoping for more time, more time. You want the conversation to start and never stop, unroll languidly across all of your days.

We don’t get to feel that way about many things. How many people have you met that you could really and truly spend forever with and never get tired of? Probably one or two.

I think a lot of people can’t imagine loving anything that much, especially anything that could conceivably make money. That’s perfectly okay. It’s also okay to like a lot of things and be unable to commit, especially for smart people who have a lot of energy and ideas. I’m reminded of this excellent Heather Havrilesky column:

I think complicated, inspired, engaged people are also (very often) irascible, moody, and neurotic. Are we good at many things? Maybe. Or maybe we just believe that we’re good at many things, at different times, on different days, depending on which way the wind is blowing. Do you catch my drift? It’s a type. We’re intense and we love a lot of stuff and seconds later we hate it. We wake up at 4 a.m. and feel inspired, certain that we’ve found the answer, and then later in the week we feel like jackasses for believing in anything at all.

If that’s you, I’d follow her advice: accept your uncertainty, give yourself time. But some people do know what they love. That doesn’t mean they can do it full-time—being able to chase what you love is partially a function of privilege.

For most people, doing what they love is incompatible with how they want to live. Instead they optimize for some combination of aptitude, money, and prestige. Is there anything wrong with that? After most unrealistic career fantasies aren’t really things you love (I don’t personally think most people who daydream about becoming a florist would actually enjoy the margins of running a flower shop). But there really are people in the world who really and truly do what they love, and as far as I can tell that’s the best thing in the world. For the rest, it’s all about sneaking time.

My dad loves soccer more than anything else. There are many reasons why he is not a professional soccer player. But as long as I can remember he’s been playing 4-5 times a week, and it’s always the best part of his day. There’s nothing else he would rather spend time on.

I feel that way about reading. I’m always halfway through a book, always looking to buy another one. I can’t think of anything I could realistically “get” from spending so much time reading—I’m way past the point of diminishing marginal returns. But love makes us stop caring about diminishing possible returns.

Love can’t escape money but it can escape ambition or, more accurately, it can provide an escape from it. Love is a grand failure, a sinking back into sleeping all day - nobody cares that you got somebody else to love you.

Love makes it possible for us to stop strategizing. Love makes it seem like some piece of us could escape commodification. Love flips our pockets inside out, messes up our hair. Love says: don’t do the things that are prestigious. Move towards what tugs at the deepest parts of you, little dreams “between the shadow and the soul.”

From a letter I wrote once:

I want to hear about all the time you spent on this earth before I found you ‘cause I’m so happy to have found you, happy to talk to you.

When I'm running through ——— I often wish you were there with me to see how beautiful it is. But then I think about all the beautiful places you've been in your life and it makes me so happy to know all that beauty is stored somewhere within you, part of you, the same way all the beauty I've encountered is contained within me. Happy to know that you are loved, that life has been kind to you. Mostly just knowing is enough. (Sometimes I do wonder what you'd say about all the places I love most, think about you and the pines and the sun and the snow: ———- in the flesh. But mostly I stay anchored to the present moment. I like perfectly well enough to be here now with the low insistent hum of you in the back of my mind.)

Love is just begging for more time. Love is waking up beside someone and thinking, I get one more day? I still can’t believe I got any time at all.

As Fitzgerald writes, love allows us to temporarily inhabit a space outside of calculation. When I was 19, 21, 22, in love and it didn’t work out, I remember kicking myself not because the relationship had ended but because I suddenly realized I hadn’t used the time well at all. I can’t believe I hadn’t asked how did you lose your virginity / don’t you think your sneakers are terrible / why don’t you tell your best friend to dump the girl he’s miserable with. I hadn’t excavated enough.

From the Griefbacon post:

We want to believe love can be something that transcends the language by which things are bought and sold, but it’s more difficult than that. The rooms in which love takes place, the warm spaces that allow love to be performed, are made possible by the fact that money hasn’t run out yet. The point of how we retreat into one another is the fact that we have a place to go. So much of love is really just the privilege of being able to go inside away from the weather.

We want to believe that love is separate from practicality, but it isn’t. It’s difficult to do what you love. It makes your life uncertain: it often leaves you vulnerable. Most people don’t achieve the alignment necessary to full-time work on something they really enjoy. When I ask most of my friends d you love what they do? they respond with “Well, I definitely like what I do.” Does the distinction matter to you?

If it does, there are different ways you can pursue that alignment: you can just plunge in and do what you love, knowing it likely won’t be financially lucrative. You can keep your full-time job and do what you love on the side, content with it remaining a hobby. You can plan to quit work early and spend the rest of your life painting forests. Any of these paths can work out or not work out. There’s never any guarantee.

I do know that just knowing what you love is worth a lot. Because then you can always try to be close to it for a little longer, and that’s its own reward.

P.S. Heather Havrilesky’s columns on this topic are really good. And so is this essay.