Mike Sturm


Rethinking the Concept of “Life’s Work”

A New Way to Think About the Dreams We Chase

“A Weaver’s Workshop” by Cornelis Gerritsz Decker

I grew up with an ideal in my mind that the best thing I could achieve was landing a career doing what I love. It is no mystery where this came from. My father worked for almost 40 years — for 12–16 hours per day, at a job that he hated. He impressed upon me that I must do whatever I can to make sure that I didn’t fall victim to the same fate he did — that I find a job that invigorates me, that isn’t even really work because, well, I love doing it.

I Had a First Love

I originally thought that art was my way to do just that. I had been drawing since I could remember doing anything. I devoured comic books (figuratively speaking, of course) and each time I finished one, I’d rush to my little table and draw the heroes and villains I had just read about. This continued (albeit in a more mature form) as I went through high school, but during that time I began to really embrace more scholastic and intellectual subject matter. I began really enjoying the critiquing of art — the examination of themes, concepts, and ideas. I began procrastinating on my own work, turning in technically shoddy pieces, and explaining away the shoddiness with flowering, interpretive prose.

By my senior year, I had a “portfolio” to turn in to the College Board that was truly lacking. The only area in which I shined, according to the feedback from the board, was the essay explaining my portfolio. Simply put, I didn’t have the time or energy to waste on doing what I supposedly loved, but I could devote plenty of time and energy to putting words together to explain it. I should’ve learned something from that, but I was 17, so I just applied to the visual arts program at the state university I planned to attend, and enjoyed my summer.

Once at said university, I began to feel completely outclassed by the people in the illustration program. From the introductory drawing classes, to the 2D and 3D design classes, I was out-shined every time we put work up on the big board to review. The only time that I didn’t feel out-shined was when I was talking or writing about the ideas and concepts surrounding works of art. I received numerous compliments on my critiques and insights, but because I still was so sure of my chosen path, I ignored what they could have shown me about my real aptitude.

But No Love Lasts

Given all of that, I shouldn’t have been surprised when, after the final exam in my very first philosophy course, the professor made it a point to follow me out of the room and chase me down to talk with me. He noted that while I was not great at attending class regularly (and here I thought I’d fooled him), he saw a lot potential in me, and suggested that I pursue philosophy as a major. Had I not already been on the verge of failing my illustration classes, the message might have fallen upon deaf ears. Days later, I decided to change course, and formally declared philosophy as my new major.

I proceeded to fall in love with philosophy, and because I really wanted to continue doing it, I looked for the well-trodden path which most lovers of the subject used in order to make a living out of it. That path is to get a master’s degree, a PhD, and become an academic. So in starting to take that path, I narrowed my vision for myself, and made my success contingent upon walking that exact path. I began work toward my master’s degree, and dreaming of PhD programs. I set myself up to only be professionally fulfilled, and only do great work, if I followed that single narrow path. As I look at back at this process, which I engaged in almost without regard to its implications, it is now so very evident how wrong it was.

By indulging this dream, I really gave myself a shortcut to severe disappointment.

I essentially crafted an ultimatum for myself: either do exactly this one thing that I believed was the only thing that would make me happy, or be miserable at any other job.

So when — for financial reasons — I made the decision not to pursue a PhD, I found myself hurtling toward months of doom and gloom as I drove to my regular jobby-job, which I had convinced myself that I hated. But then a funny thing happened as I came to accept the detour from my original route to happiness: I realized that my focus had been too narrow — way too narrow.

Don’t Let “Love” Blind You

Where I thought I had been setting myself up for success, I was really increasing the probability that I would fail. After all, good jobs in academia are becoming fewer by the day. Good academic jobs in philosophy even more so. So when my financial situation demanded that I turn down 3 funded offers to do doctoral work in philosophy, I initially felt a wave of regret and sadness at having lost my shot at doing what I love. But at the behest of my wife (always the voice of reason at my side), I began to re-frame this loss. She asked what it was that I so loved about being a philosophy professor.

I replied “I love thinking about interesting problems, teaching others how to try to solve hard problems, and writing about hard problems.”

She said “Okay, but do you have to be a professor to do those things?”

I didn’t have a ready answer, but it quickly became clear to me that the only correct one was an emphatic “absolutely not!”.

In hindsight, I should have let myself benefit more from hindsight. After all, I had been down this road before, holding on to such seeming certainty about art as my “life’s work”. But the whole time during which I felt that “certainty”, there was a better fit for me lurking just behind the veil.

If I had been honest with myself from the start, I would have admitted that (as a kind of hero of mine once proposed) what I was really interested in were sharp tools and interesting problems. Fortunately for me, those two things are everywhere, and perhaps in even greater supply outside of the ivory tower. I don’t need a fancy postgraduate degree or permission from academic journal editors to explore these problems. I could begin writing about the persistent interesting problems in any arena I choose, today, right now. All I had to do was give myself permission to think differently, to think more openly, and to shed the cognitive anchors to which I had hoisted my entire self-perception.

The lesson I learned is this: it is important that to lead a fulfilling life, you do what you love to do. However, you must be as inclusive as possible in defining what that is.

Open Wide and Dive In

Think about it: jobs appeared after people started pursuing their passions, not the other way around. So if we act as if jobs are these static things that existed prior to hopes, dreams, and passions, we’re going about things in a backwards way. If you shape your passion and your interests to fit an existing job, you are short-changing yourself, and cutting off opportunities that may just be the in-roads to your real life’s work.

Take your interests, your obsessions, your enthusiasm and curiosity, and shop them around. Do it with an open mind, at whatever job you can shoehorn your way into. Embrace the hustle, look for interesting things to work on, things you may even know nothing about. Get yourself in a bit over your head, so you have to learn, and learn quickly. Then take a step back, and look at what you’re doing now that really moves you. If you do this right, you can begin to realize your broader passion — the more eternal, overarching thing that drives you.

You could also fall flat on your face. And if you do, good on you; I pity the person who has not been fed the wholesome and rejuvenating fruit of mistakes. Feast on the mistakes you make, and rise from the table, armed with the knowledge you’ve gained from them. The younger you are, and the more narrowly you perceive your path toward your passion, the more this advice applies.

There is, at the day’s end, only one real mistake you can make, and that is to act in fear of making mistakes. Mistakes always have lessons — lessons as specific as procedural changes and as transcendent as your life’s real meaning. Look for all of them, and really look at them. It could mean the difference between merely working all your life and doing your life’s work.

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