06/25/2013 03:21 pm ET Updated Aug 25, 2013

Doing what you love

"Yes, but what are you really?"

"I told you, I'm a programmer ..."

"Yes, that's your job, but what do you really love? What really makes you tick?"

I was talking to a friend of a friend at a birthday party. We've met a few times before, but only got to talking when a stiff drink was involved.

She's one of those forever students Slovenia seems full off. People who go to college, pick a major they're roughly interested in, then spend the next eight odd years doing their undergrad degree and supplementing their parents' donations with student work. We aren't big on student loans yet.

Everyone does that. You're nothing with a high school diploma, so everyone goes to college. You can't even work the till at McDonald's without two years of college anymore. But graduating makes you too expensive to hire. So does dropping out.

The average completion time at my faculty -- computer science -- was eight and a half years for a four year undergrad. I don't know what the stats were for the whole University of Ljubljana, but hopefully the Bologna reform improved on this.

At least there's no tuition. Yet.

But my friend of a friend isn't a hopeless forever student. She's one of the rare few who actually do something and don't just rot away their youth waiting tables and doing administrative office work for five euro an hour with no sick pay, no paid leave, not even legally required lunch breaks.

She sells home-made jewelry on Etsy! She didn't seem enthusiastic when I asked how it was going, but she makes some sales here and there and turns a small profit. Not enough to live on.

It's a passion, not a job.

She couldn't fathom how a 25-year-old can be passionate about something that makes enough money to be a job. It just doesn't fit her worldview. "What do you mean passionate about your job? That doesn't exist!"

And she's not alone.

At a large family gathering a few months later I was munching on some steak when talk at my table turned to where I'm heading with my life. I dropped out of college with two exams to go, so it's obviously nowhere fast.

One of my dad's cousins asked about the flourishing freelancing business I've been running for the past eight months and I said my secret was that I never take on a project I'm not passionate about. I don't have time to mess about with projects that don't fit my ideals or are boring. Bad for business.

He was taken aback.

"Only do projects that you like? What the hell is this?"

"Oh you know, he's young and idealistic. Don't worry, he'll learn", my mum jumped in from the other side.

They both chuckled. Oh yes, to be young again. How quaint.

When you're a kid everyone tells you "Just follow your passion, man, you'll do fine. It's important to love what you do!", but it seems you're not actually expected to follow that advice. Focusing on your passion is surprising to just about everyone.

My first brush with this came the summer after high school.

I had been spending all my senior year afternoons at an advertising agency as a web developer. When classes stopped I could finally spend all my time there and I was always the last to leave before lockdown. I wasn't trusted with a key yet, but I could fulfill their multi-thousand euro client contracts. Go figure.

"So, kid, what are you doing spending all your time here? Why aren't you out there enjoying life?", a coworker asked over lunch one day. She seemed ancient then, but can't have been much older than I am now.

What do you mean enjoy life? Somebody is paying me to do what's been a hobby for the past 10 years of my life. I'm exactly where I want to be!

I didn't understand at the time, but the more I talk to people, the more obvious it's become. When you grow up, you're not supposed to follow your passion anymore. That's just a platitude. You're supposed to grow bitter and jaded and spend your life doing whatever pays the bills. You're supposed to meander along, counting down days to Friday, leaving for an early weekend, and misering your way through Monday.

Mondays are the worst, I'm told.

It almost doesn't matter who you ask. Everyone seems to hate their job and tries to get it over with as quickly as possible. Then they can get back to their "real life".

People aren't their job, a job is just something they do ... for most of their waking time during the most healthy and productive 40 years of their life.

Yeah ...

A few pockets of resistance remain. Some people love what they do.

Programmers, from what I've seen, are significantly more likely to love their jobs than most other professions. Sure they might not love every little bit of their jobs, but what other industry so methodically comes home from work, only to sit down and do hobby projects in the same industry for free?

What other industry has such a vast universe of creation beyond "job stuff" that most of the industry itself runs on projects people do at home as a way to relax from work? All the most popular tools of our trade, web servers, text editors and even operating systems started as someone's afternoon/weekend project. Many are still primarily developed by thousands of volunteers around the world who just need to wind down from their day job.

A programmer's idea of relaxation is to come home from a day of working on a website or an accounting system or a little widget on your favorite phone, and sit down to work on their own website or tiny widget or cool game or some other favorite thing that you use.

And that's special. Who else does that?

Do you do that?

The only other people I've heard of who are, as a group, so devoted to their craft are research academics. But they tend to just stay at the lab all night because you can't really work on E. coli or talk to Voyager from home.

But for the majority, your passion can never be your job. That's weird.

You should read my book, Why programmers work at night