Do what you love.

Seek the American Dream, and you’ll quickly be encouraged to “do what you love.” This short exhortation has been endorsed by some of the greatest American dreamers, including Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, and Henry David Thoreau, though the original source eludes even the best quote investigators. Most often, it precedes some mythic promise of prosperity, as in Marsha Sinetar’s 1987 book title, Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow, or the popular variation regularly misattributed to Confucius (and others): “Do what you love and you’ll never work another day in your life.”

Captains of industry, career counselors, and life coaches all grapple with the idea, even when challenging it. A 2015 Forbes article suggests that doing what you love is really a matter of learning to love what you do. Kate Boogaard at The Muse cautions that, while doing what you love may be rewarding, it’s still (and perhaps necessarily) going to be hard work. A growing number of eye-rollers find the advice deceptive and dangerous, as does Miya Tokumitsu in her book, Do What You Love and Other Lies About Success and Happiness. Perhaps the hard-truth version, which seems legitimately attributed to singer-humorist-politician Kinky Friedman, would better satisfy the realists: “Find what you love and let it kill you.”

Misattributions, misunderstandings, and misgivings aside, I actually believe in the sentiment. But, in addition to finding the courage to do what I love, I’ve often faced a bigger problem: finding what it is—precisely—that I love to do.

So. Many. Choices.

It’s the curse of the Renaissance Man, I suppose. I am interested (i.e., desperately curious, with a tendency to investigate a subject at the expense of dinner and a good night’s sleep) in a great many things: history, literature, music, web development, religion, philosophy, politics, culture, business, film, communication, education. Choosing a single interest as the Focus of My Career feels like an act of betrayal against the others (which child do you love the most?). Somehow, I managed to cobble my indiscriminate interests and varied experience together into a single, professional field: marketing. I like marketing, and I think I’m good at it, but it’s more something that happened to me, and not something I conscientiously chose.

So, a few years ago I decided to go back to school and earn a degree in “… business, I guess?” Since that didn’t sound at all like “what I love”, I did some searching, both in-soul and online. Then I found it. The “what” that I loved had a name, even a dedicated discipline, called American Studies. Suddenly, I had a new choice among my many interests: e, all of the above. In this field of study, we layer ideas and artifacts together, like telescopic (or microscopic) lenses, to bring certain questions and answers into focus. For example, we can learn a great deal about American fatherhood by considering The Scarlet Letter, its narrative content, its historical context, its influence on later American writers, and apposing those perspectives with modern American responses to DNA paternity testing.

Yep. I geek-out about stuff like that.

Back to school.

My love of learning revitalized, I applied to the Bachelor of General Studies (BGS) program at Brigham Young University (BYU), with an emphasis in American Studies. Most of my formerly eclectic coursework now seemed an excellent match: music theory and composition, jazz studies, creative writing, economics, political science, American history, American literature, and even filmmaking bootcamp. Since re-enrolling, I’ve completed ten courses (30 credit hours), with just two classes (and a capstone credit) to complete for graduation.

If not entirely doing what I love, at least I’m studying it. And studying what I love has increased my love for what I do. American Studies makes me a better marketer in at least two important ways: (1) I can better see, understand, and communicate to different perspectives and (2) I can better bring together seemingly disparate ideas into a single focus that creates greater value between company, commodity, and consumer. This course of study also inspires me to think about new constellations for my interests; for example, aligning my marketing expertise with my passion for learning institutions like museums, libraries, or higher education.

What they’re really saying.

As far as “never working another day in your life”, I tend to agree with the realists. Doing what you love doesn’t mean avoiding hard work or harsh realities—nor do any of the “quoters” mean that it should. “Do what you love”, they say, because it will help you overcome opposition and obstacles; it will motivate you to work in a way that’s wonderfully exhausting and invariably fulfilling. That’s the counterintuitive twist that makes this piece of wisdom easily attributable to someone like Confucius. Though, to me, the phrasing certainly sounds more like American entrepreneurial insight than Oriental philosophy.

In his investigation, Garson O’Toole discovered that Princeton philosophy professor Arthur Szathmary attributed the idea to an anonymous “old-timer” he once knew. It seems right that, somehow, this truth simply materialized from two centuries of American culture and history. We can easily imagine the representative gray-haired grandfather, who haunts American literature and myth with a twinkle in his eye, readily and generously offering wisdom born of experience to the earnest enquirer. Those who listen take the advice to heart. Nurturing their secret hope with hard work, they rush off into their own futures to see whether or not “doing what you love” leads to a happy ending. It’s an optimistic, adventuresome, and utterly American course of action.

And I’ll let you know how it turns out.