Alex Payne is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.

since 2001, has served as his online home.


Back in March, I wrote (and subsequently removed most of) a ham-fisted post about the obligation that smart, privileged people should feel to work on things that might make a difference to other people. This was discussed in the context of questioning whether so-called lifestyle businesses are a good idea for entrepreneurs and society at large.

I’ve mulled over the idea of obligation and how it relates to entrepreneurship off and on in the intervening months. That thinking has changed my tune pretty significantly.

There are several obvious problems with obligation as it relates to work:

  1. Some people don’t feel obligated to do much of anything.
  2. Most people don’t like to feel obligated to do something, even if it’s the optimal thing for them to do. We like choice, or at least the illusion of choice.
  3. If what you’re doing isn’t making you happy, you probably won’t do a good job at it. You might even subconsciously sabotage yourself.

That final point, on happiness, is by far the most important of the three. Even if we had a magical machine that told us the optimal, most societally beneficial job for every individual – that is, the job we should be obligated to do – it wouldn’t matter if we were all assigned jobs that we hated. Fulfilling a sense of obligation isn’t a substitute for actual unqualified happiness, and it’s certainly not a recipe for good work.

At the end of the day, the best thing you can do is to figure out what makes you happy and then do the hell out of that thing. You’ll probably do a great job at whatever it is you’ve decided to do. Hopefully, your passion for your work will result in positive outcomes that benefit you and your community. Maybe we’ll all luck out and the job that makes you happy ends up benefitting a large number of people. If not: hey, at least you’re not miserable.

Problem is, it’s really really hard to figure out what makes you happy. It’s way easier to guilt yourself into a sense of obligation which you then use to rationalize the decision to do something you don’t actually enjoy. (Other popular happiness-avoidance tactics include doing nothing, trying to make a lot of money, bad relationships, and over-education.)

The type or scale of work you do doesn’t really matter as long as you’re happy. Some people are made happy by running a lifestyle business. Some people are made happy by running a Fortune 100 multinational. Doesn’t matter. Do what you love. If you don’t, you’re not going to make things better for anyone, very least yourself.

This advice is so completely and utterly not new, but it’s repeated over and over again because so few of us actually seem to remember it. Or maybe people do remember it, but they never create or are afforded the opportunity to do what they love. I’m not sure. All I know is that trying to do what you love as a guiding principle makes a helluva lot more sense then acting out of a sense of obligation. That, and I was pretty damn wrong.

On the Welcome End of a Black Year

One Year In Portland