Faculty Guest Blogger: On Doing What You Love

Wouldn’t it be great to find a job where you get paid to do what you love ­ – work that you would do even if no one paid you to do it? Be careful what you wish for, some things that you like doing may not be as much fun when you do them for pay. Consider the following Jewish folktale.[1]

A Jewish tailor moved into a Southern town. When the Ku Klux Klan heard about it they incited a group of local children to go and yell insulting names in front of his shop every day. On the first day that the children showed up, the tailor came out of his shop and said, “I will pay you each a quarter for every bad name you shout at me.” They were delighted. The next day when the children showed up the tailor said, “I will pay you ten cents for every bad name that you call me.” Some of the children complained, but grudgingly agreed. On the third day the tailor gave the children a nickel and the fourth day he gave them a penny. When the children came on the fifth day, the tailor said, “I am not going to pay you a single cent.” Whereupon the children grudgingly responded, “If you won’t pay us, then we won’t come and yell at you any more.”

By making the children’s taunting into a business transaction, the wise tailor undercut the children’s mean-spirited enjoyment. He diverted their attention from fun to a cash transaction. Psychologists have observed a similar phenomenon. In one experiment, researchers observed nursery school children and determined what appeared to be each child’s favorite play activity. They then rewarded the children every time they engaged in this activity and in a short time, the children began to show less interest in it. Psychologist Edward Deci calls this the “over justification affect.” In other words when you pay people to do something that they already find rewarding, they feel they are getting more than they should for doing it.[2]  To balance things out, people devalue the intrinsic reward and/or meaning of the task and focus more on the pay.

So, I am not saying that you shouldn’t look for paid employment that allows you to do the things that you love. Rather I am saying that you should make sure that you engage in some activities for no other reason than you love them or find them good things to do. As Aristotle observed, a happy life is one that is filled with activities that are intrinsically good. Think about this the next time you are listening to your favorite music.

Dr. Joanne Ciulla is one of the founding faculty members of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies. She teaches courses in on ethics, critical thinking, conflict resolution, and leadership in international contexts. Dr. Ciulla gives lectures and seminars all over the world and has worked with organizations such as the Aspen Institute, the World Economic Forum and the Brookings Institution. 

[1] Nathan Ausubel, (ed.), A Treasury of Jewish Folklore (New York: Crown Publishing, 1976), p. 440.

[2] Edward L. Deci, “Intrinsic Motivation, Extrinsic Reinforcement and Inequity,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, (Vol. 22, No. 1, 1972), pp. 113-120.


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