Choose a Job You Love, and You Will Never Have To Work a Day in Your Life

Confucius? Arthur Szathmary? An Old-Timer? Janet Lambert-Moore? Harvey Mackay? Anonymous?

jobchoice11Dear Quote Investigator: I assist students in the selection of accurate and properly credited quotations for the school yearbook. One student would like to use a popular adage about career choice:

Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.

This statement is often attributed to the ancient Chinese sage Confucius, but the student considers this assertion anachronistic because job choice flexibility was sharply limited in the era of Confucius. Would you please explore this issue?

Quote Investigator: Researchers have found no substantive support for the claim that Confucius made this statement.

The earliest strong match located by QI was published in the “Princeton Alumni Weekly” in 1982 which quoted a Professor of Philosophy named Arthur Szathmary who employed the saying; however, Szathmary attributed the words to “an old-timer” who was not identified. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

An old-timer I knew used to tell his students: ‘Find something you love to do and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.’

The expression has sometimes been attributed to the entrepreneur and top-selling author Harvey Mackay who did use the adage in 1989 as shown in the citation given further below, but QI believes that he did not craft it.

This article presents a snapshot of current knowledge on this topic; and future research may uncover citations which antedate the 1982 passage above. QI suspects that earlier instances exist that use a different phrasing.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In the years after the death of Confucius circa 479 BC a compilation of his teachings and aphorisms was constructed which is now referred to as the “Analects”. One passage described the recommended actions of a benevolent ruler. The potentate should select tasks for his populace that are appropriate and constructive, and these proper choices should result in subjects who have no reason to be unhappy and complain: 2

Tsze-chang said, “What is meant by being beneficent without great expenditure?” The Master replied, “When the person in authority makes more beneficial to the people the things from which they naturally derive benefit;—is not this being beneficent without great expenditure? When he chooses the labours which are proper, and makes them labour on them, who will repine? When his desires are set on benevolent government, and he realizes it, who will accuse him of covetousness?

The above remark provided a weak match to the saying under investigation. The choices were being made by the ruler and not the jobseeker; in addition, the word love was not used. Nevertheless, QI includes this citation for the sake of completeness.

In 1982 a Princeton professor employed the saying and credited an unnamed teacher as mentioned previously:

An old-timer I knew used to tell his students: ‘Find something you love to do and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.’

In June 1985 the saying was printed as an epigraph to an article in the trade journal “Computerworld” by the journalist Glenn Rifkin who attributed the words to Confucius. This is the first linkage to the luminary known to QI: 3

Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.
— Confucius

Also in 1985 a self-help guidebook titled “How to Start, Expand & Sell a Business” by James C. Comiskey was published, and the author described the saying as an “Oriental proverb”: 4

As an Oriental proverb quite aptly states, “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

In August 1986 a piece in “The Boston Globe” quoted an art teacher named Janet Lambert-Moore using an instance of the aphorism: 5

The outgoing, former art instructor in the Dracut school system took time out from a poster of Ellis Island to explain her philosophy: “If you love your job, you never have to work a day in your life. I’m here most of the day. I probably could get a lot more accomplished without the interruptions.” She steps out of the way so two elderly tourists can take a look at her hand-watercolored prints. “But I like the contact.”

In February 1989 a book reviewer in “Jet” magazine employed the saying while analyzing the biography of a famous musician: 6

“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life,” Confucius once said. If this is true, one of America’s giants of jazz, trumpeter/scat singer Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong never worked a day in his 40-year musical career.

In May 1989 the military newspaper “The Stars and Stripes” printed a short item that included a quotation from the motivational speaker Harvey Mackay: 7

A person is never too old to achieve success, said the 56-year-old Mackay, who will address the subject of aging in the new book.

“I don’t believe in age,” he said. “Find something you love to do, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life. You find people like that at any age level. Age doesn’t limit people one-tenth of 1 percent.”

In conclusion, this saying was anonymous in the earliest citation in 1982 located by QI. The linkage to Confucius appears to be spurious. Harvey Mackay helped to popularize the adage, but he was not the originator.

Image Notes: Confucius image gouache on paper, circa 1770 via Wikimedia Commons. Avatars for professions from OpenClips on Pixabay. Images have been rearranged, clipped, and resized.

(Special thanks to top researcher Barry Popik for the research he performed on this topic which is presented on his website. Great thanks to Vic Goddard, Andrew Old, Nina Gilbert, and Kat Caverly whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks to Brian Whatcott who helpfully pointed to the passage from Confucius containing the partial match. Thanks also to the Project Wombat discussants and the forum participants at the Straight Dope website.)

Notes:

  1. 1982 October 6, Princeton Alumni Weekly, Article Title: Toshiko Takaezu, Article Author: Ann Woolfolk, Start Page 31, Quote Page 32, Column 1, Published by Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Google Books Preview)
  2. 1861, The Chinese Classics with a Translation, Critical and Exegetical Notes, Prolegomena, and Copious Indexes by James Legge (London Missionary Society), Volume 1 of 7, Section: Confucian Analects, Quote Page 216 and 217, Printed at the London Missionary Society’s Printing Office in Hong Kong, China; also published by Trubner and Company, Paternoster Row, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1985 June 3, Computerworld, Section: Update, Finding and keeping DP/MIS professionals by Glenn Rifkin, (Quotation appeared as epigraph for article), Quote Page 3, Column 1, Published by IDG Enterprise. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1985, How to Start, Expand & Sell a Business: The Complete Guidebook for Entrepreneurs by James C. Comiskey, Chapter 2, Quote Page 25, Published by Venture Perspectives Press, San Jose, California. (Verified with scans of third printing 1986 revised)
  5. 1986 August 21, Boston Globe, Lowell: Where the Past Powers the Present by Tom Long, Quote Page 10, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  6. 1989 February 20, Jet, Volume 75, Number 20, Satchmo’s Jazz Genius Hits High Note in New Revealing Book On Him, Quote Page 31, Published by Johnson Publishing Company. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1989 May 4, The Stars and Stripes (European Stars and Stripes), Faces ‘N’ Places: Mustachioed Michael a Suspicious Shopper, Quote Page 12, Column 4, Darmstadt, Hesse, Germany. (NewspaperArchive)