Well, folks, NaNoWriMo is well behind us, so I think it’s time for another post. Even further behind us lies the last Rant article I’ve posted. Let’s rectify that, shall we?
During my daily perusal of the Slate website a few days ago, I found a headline that managed to divert my attention from the Dear Prudence column, of which I am fond. This headline stated the claim that the old advice given to many of us in childhood – “do what you love, and love what you do” – was not only wrong, but dangerous. Elitist. Disrespectful of our fellow human beings, who do not love what they do. Having always found this advice to be some of the best and most rewarding I’ve ever received in my life, I felt compelled to read the rest of the article; to challenge my viewpoint, even if I didn’t expect to be swayed. I have no wish to be dangerous, elitist, or disrespectful, and I was hoping for something that might shed some light on how I might better conduct myself.
In the end, I found myself compelled to respond to an argument that I found to be just as short-sighted and defensive as the one the author attacks. I think there is much to say about people taking jobs and making life choices that suit them on both sides of the “love what you do” fence, and unfortunately, articles like this one have a tendency to prefer painting a picture of the enemy and the “other,” instead of finding a common ground that could benefit us all. If we could stop pointing fingers for just a moment, we might find that the way forward is not mutually exclusive to either viewpoint.
First, I will link to the article, in its entirety. It will help to have context here. Take some time to read it, and formulate your own opinions, before you return for the rest of my post.
“Stop Saying ‘Do What You Love, Love What You Do.’ It Devalues Actual Work.” by Miya Tokumitsu
Are you back? Great. Let’s jump right in.
There’s little doubt that “do what you love” (DWYL) is now the unofficial work mantra for our time. The problem with DWYL, however, is that it leads not to salvation but to the devaluation of actual work—and more importantly, the dehumanization of the vast majority of laborers.
This is the claim of the article, as written by the author. It is also the part that first left me scratching my head. How could advising someone to love what they do – to take joy and pleasure in whatever job they choose to devote their lifetime to – devalue work? How could it dehumanize people, when at its very core is the desire to return some sense of humanity to our business ventures? Keep reading, folks. The story’s just begun.
Superficially, DWYL is an uplifting piece of advice, urging us to ponder what it is we most enjoy doing and then turn that activity into a wage-generating enterprise. But why should our pleasure be for profit? And who is the audience for this dictum?
Two questions arise here. First, why should our pleasure be for profit? I’m not certain the author understands who the audience for this dictum is, either. If she did, she might realize that those of us who do take this advice, and “do what we love,” do not view the pursuit of making money through what we love as turning a profit on our pleasure. This isn’t some kind of prostitution gig. The intent is to put our skills and passions to use in such a way that we are able to devote the bulk of our lives to them. The alternative is to relegate those skills and passions to hobbies, which is what most people choose to do, and unfortunately, many people are obligated to do through necessity.
Who is the audience for this dictum? Historically, this advice is given to folks in high school and college by their parents and teachers. It is advice given from grown-ups who have relegated their skills and passions to hobbies, either by choice or by necessity. Their aim? To encourage young men and women to make lifestyle choices that include their skills and passions as a larger part of their world, rather than something to do when time allows. As we grow up, we lose the freedom to do what we love, and instead focus on the jobs that will support us, our loved ones, our families, and our eventual old age. Many of us reconnect with our skills and passions in retirement, but having the time and/or money to capitalize on that future – much less the health – is becoming an unrealistic expectation. Is it so hard to understand the attraction of a claim that you can have what you love, and a job that brings you enough money to live well, by combining the two?
According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation but is an act of love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, presumably it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.
This statement assumes quite a lot, and manages to miss the mark on almost all of it. Most of us recognize that “labor” means work. Work can and should equal compensation, even if that compensation does not happen to be in monetary form. There are many forms of compensation – skill development, opportunity wealth, industry recognition, vacation time, stock options, even the simple good feeling of accomplishing something you thought you could never do – the sky is the limit. Most of us tend to view anything but profit compensation as sub-par – this is reflective of our culture, and it is a large enough argument by itself that it should be saved for a more opportune time. it should be noted that many “do what you love” folks do what they love for no monetary gain at all.
Labor, then, isn’t about what you do for love. It is still very much about what you do for compensation. There are some folks who truly just write, paint, and otherwise create only when the mood strikes them, and have no interest in sharing what they produce, but most creators in the world do so out of a desire to share what they have created with others. As a writer, I create stories because I love doing it – but it also compensates me by enriching my mind, furthering my skill with the written word, and carries the potential for me to earn profit and industry recognition, if and when I am skilled enough. If that compensation did not exist, I doubt I would be a writer. I would search for something that filled that need.
If profit doesn’t happen to follow… the level of assumption here is phenomenal. The number of things that could be preventing a person doing what they love from achieving profit or success is astronomical. However, those things can and do fall under the blanket of “insufficient passion and determination” from time to time. Let’s use an example here – a young man loves making video games, and wants to eventually sell the next big thing in the industry. Let’s assume he has the talent to do it. However, like many stereotypical game creators, his social graces leave much to be desired. He doesn’t present or sell himself well. He gets angry whenever someone, inside or outside his industry, has suggestions or ideas that differ from his. He hates business and PR. If this young man does manage to sell his game on talent alone, he is going to struggle with the needs of his career that he has not yet met, and put his future success in jeopardy as he does so.
This is where love matters most. A person truly devoted to doing what they love cannot and will not be dissuaded from doing it. A person doing what they love looks up with red-rimmed eyes after the thousandth negative review and says “You know what? Maybe I need to rethink the way I do things.” A person doing what they love looks a critic in the eye and says “Actually, I didn’t like that part either. I’ll do better next time.” It is unfortunate that most people in this situation instead decide that doing what you love is a joke or a lie. They then give up on what they love, and enter a job that they don’t enjoy, take no pleasure in, and blame for the failure of what they loved most. They cause undue hardship in those careers too, as you might have noticed anytime you go out to eat, or shop at a store where you need help finding something. Someone doing a job they do not enjoy at all is far more at risk for causing harm than someone who is.
“But,” you cry, “that’s what the article was trying to say! It’s not fair to tell people to do what they love, when there are people like this guy in the world!” More on that later.
One last note, though, before we move on. Labor that serves the self, and labor that serves the marketplace, should be one and the same. You are working for some sort of compensation, yes? That serves you in some fashion, even if that fashion isn’t monetary. It also serves the industry, because your product wouldn’t be out there. Capitalism – and by extension, our economy – doesn’t flourish without this truth. Even if you are one of those folks that does what you love 100% for no profit, you are benefiting the marketplace by expanding the craft – let’s use an artist as the example here. That artist will do things unique to them that nobody has ever seen before. Even if he doesn’t sell his work, his kids will inherit his work. Perhaps he’ll inspire one of them to paint. Perhaps his kids never liked his “junk” and throw it in the trash when he dies – only to have it fall into the hands of a homeless man with a pen, a dream, and a love for art deco. He may not have foreseen any of that, but without his painting, none of it could have happened. It’s a small world.
Ah, yes. This is where most folks trip over the “love what you do” wire. Unfortunately, as anyone who does anything for a living that they enjoy will tell you, taking this statement at face value is a laughable offense. Of course it’s still work, even if you love doing it! The mental image many of us get is of a writer who just waltzes in on some dreary Thursday and knocks out the next Harry Potter novel, or an artist who just sits down and recreates the Mona Lisa out of chewing gum. Nobody has it this easy in the world, folks, and anyone who tells you they do is lying to you. Even if you love what you do, you will work. Hard. Sometimes, you will even work harder than the folks that don’t love what they do.
“Aha!” you cry, your fist in the air. “Proof that doing what you love and loving what you do is bad advice!” Just wait a minute.
The difference is that loving what you do often inspires you to go that extra mile in pursuit of your accomplishments. Loving something enough to keep doing it, no matter how hard it gets, or how much you have to learn in order to succeed at it, is what drives most of us that do what we love forward. It’s not that we stop working – it’s that work becomes what we do in the name of what we love, instead of the other way around. Most people that do not do what they love work jobs because they must. It is the subtle difference between working to your limit in order to seize the rare moments of freedom you have in your life to do what you choose, and working to your limit on something that is difficult – but still thrilling and rewarding because it was something you wanted to do. It is the difference between life itself as the challenge, and making challenges for ourselves. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that’s not a privilege, though. More on that in a moment.
One consequence of this isolation is the division that DWYL creates among workers, largely along class lines. Work becomes divided into two opposing classes: that which is lovable (creative, intellectual, socially prestigious) and that which is not (repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished). Those in the lovable-work camp are vastly more privileged in terms of wealth, social status, education, society’s racial biases, and political clout, while comprising a small minority of the workforce.
As stated here, lovable and unlovable are not opposing forces, the last time I checked. Those of us that have the luxury of doing what we love still require the world to function around us. We could not do any of the things we do in our lives without the folks that deal with the daily jobs that make things happen. We buy gadgets that are made in factories where millions of people work jobs they don’t love. We eat food at restaurants prepared by people who don’t love what they do. We wear clothes made from fabrics created by people who don’t love what they do. If we lost the infrastructure created by these countless, so-called unlovable jobs, America would suffer deeply. So many people can and do forget this, and it is shameful at best. However, the finger doesn’t need to be pointed at those of us who choose to do what we love. It needs to be pointed at society at large.
That said, it would be quite difficult to maintain a stable world if these people had no jobs. We need these people – but they need us to buy the things they produce, too. The minute that Apple factory stops selling units, those thousands of people employed to make iPhones and iPads and iWhatzits are going to be out on the street. Is that truly a better world for them? Believe me, I would like to see a world where we could take the money we would have spent on an iPad and give it directly to a Chinese factory worker too, but we do not live in that world. Change is necessary, but that change is needed not at a consumer level, but at a human rights one. This is a matter for diplomats and international activists, not consumers and producers. Volunteer, if you wish to help. Don’t point fingers.
Admittedly, Thoreau had little feel for the proletariat. (It’s hard to imagine someone washing diapers for “scientific, even moral ends,” no matter how well paid.) But he nonetheless maintains that society has a stake in making work well compensated and meaningful. By contrast, the 21st-century Jobsian view asks us to turn inward. It absolves us of any obligation to, or acknowledgment of, the wider world.
Going back to this statement for a minute, now, makes a little more sense. I would dare to suggest that the world could use more pride and honor when it comes to the un-lovable jobs, too. How many disillusioned, disappointed, struggling folks don’t perform to the best of their ability in simple jobs because they don’t feel like they should have to? It’s “just” flapping hamburgers, they tell us. It’s “just” washing diapers. Who cares how it’s done? Who cares if it’s done to standard, or how fast, or how well? And if they get fired from one “just” job, there are millions more waiting to be done. This is an unfortunately common refrain, and one that does not serve anyone well.
It doesn’t take a college degree to care about what you do. If you are hired to flap burgers, then by God, flap those burgers like you mean it! Be the best damn burger-flapper there ever was. Flip it twice for that one customer who claims flipping it just once causes cancer – not because he’s right, but because it makes him happy. Wash those diapers extra well. Find a spot someone missed and re-do the load. Ask that customer with delicate skin if she’d like the starch left out of her baby’s load. Moving up in the world is hard for all of us in today’s economy and worldview, but failure to care, failure to improvise and adapt, and failure to make the most of a bad situation hamper all of us. These are things that do not change in any profession, whether it’s doing what you love or not. And if your employers are good people, with an eye to the people who make them what they are, you will be compensated for the trouble of caring. If not, then that reflects on them, doesn’t it? Again – this is a human rights issue that needs addressing, but it is not the exclusive purview of those who love what they do. Please don’t make us the straw man here.
That sounds like Thoreau’s view. The author claims that Steve Jobs’ view, and the rest of the do-what-you-love view, is more inward-focused. I disagree. Mr. Jobs did a great many things for the world, but he was not known for his kindness – he was known for his profit. He is probably one of the worst examples that could be used to illustrate the lack of respect shown to those who do not “do what they love,” which is why I assume the author has invoked him here. Is every person that does what they love Jobs-ian in their blindness to what their choices cost others? No. I think you would find many of us insulted by the comparison. Many of us can and do care very much about those that allow us the freedoms we have. In turn, we attempt to support them in the ways that we are able to. Ask Mr. Jobs’ counterpoint, Bill Gates.
There is always more that can, and should, be done to help them – but this goes beyond any one person’s means. Nobody should suffer the indignities and cruel treatments that workers have suffered as a result of Apple’s factories, but laws and legislatures, both on our side of the pond and abroad, allow for this. Who is the real enemy?
“Do what you love” disguises the fact that being able to choose a career primarily for personal reward is a privilege, a sign of socioeconomic class. Even if a self-employed graphic designer had parents who could pay for art school and co-sign a lease for a slick Brooklyn apartment, she can bestow DWYL as career advice upon those covetous of her success.
Well sure, but what about those famous sports teams who play the college football and basketball we all enjoy watching? Some of those guys grew up on the streets in places that would make WASP skin crawl. They saw and did things none of us would wish on anyone. And yet they got through school, being recognized for their talents. (Say what you will about sports allowing schools to ignore basic learning – that’s an argument for another time.) They received help from schools and mentors based on talent alone. They went on to greater and greater things. Eventually they became the sports stars we know and love. Do you think they would tell you to do what you love? I do.
Telling someone to “do what you love and things will just work out” isn’t supposed to promise that they’ll get to do what they love AND live in a fancy apartment AND go to school. Strokes of good luck like that are most often – well, luck. Privilege. Most of us do not have this hypothetical graphic designer’s rich parents. More likely, we would have to choose – the fancy apartment, OR the schooling, OR the self-employment. Everything else would have to be prioritized after that initial choice. The reality of the world is that even most do-what-you-love folks don’t have everything handed to us. Some do – but some don’t, and over-generalizing this is just as infuriating to us as it is to you, when you see someone that has been handed everything. This isn’t about work – it’s about time, and the rather strange cultural belief that we are expected to be young, beautiful, educated, and independently wealthy on our own salary at age 25. Our expectations are so far out of alignment with the norm that it has long ceased to be funny.
If we believe that working as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur or a museum publicist or a think-tank acolyte is essential to being true to ourselves, what do we believe about the inner lives and hopes of those who clean hotel rooms and stock shelves at big-box stores? The answer is: nothing.
Again – being true to ourselves has nothing to do with the prestige of the job, and everything to do with doing the job that we have chosen – through choice or necessity – to the absolute best of our ability. Doing a terrible job at something has never been the road to success, and the only way you succeed while still doing a terrible job is through money. Isn’t that what we’re trying to avoid – privilege?
No one is arguing that enjoyable work should be less so. But emotionally satisfying work is still work, and acknowledging it as such doesn’t undermine it in any way. Refusing to acknowledge it, on the other hand, opens the door to exploitation and harms all workers.
Yes. If the author had said this, and couched the rest of her argument around this, instead of pointing the finger at everyone else and making radical comparisons between Steve Jobs and the rest of the do-what-you-love world, I wouldn’t have felt the need to respond.
It should be no surprise that unpaid interns abound in fields that are highly socially desirable, including fashion, media, and the arts. These industries have long been accustomed to masses of employees willing to work for social currency instead of actual wages, all in the name of love.
Actually, I thought internships were always supposed to provide significantly more value in terms of exposure and practice in a given field, than monetary compensation. It’s a chance to experience what having a job in the field entails, not a job itself. I am having real trouble determining if the author has any respect at all for compensation that is not monetary. A rich intern is not something I have ever seen in my life, at least, unless it came with the blessing of parental excess. That should be an anomaly, not the norm. (And consider just how much these parents are sacrificing for their intern children. When Daddy can’t retire until the day he dies, and Mommy can’t afford her hospital bills, I think we’re going to see a lot of folks regretting the usage of their money in this way.)
What unites all of this work, whether performed by GEDs or Ph.D.s, is the belief that wages shouldn’t be the primary motivation for doing it. Women are supposed to do work because they are natural nurturers and are eager to please; after all, they’ve been doing uncompensated child care, elder care, and housework since time immemorial. And talking money is unladylike anyway.
Honestly, I’m not sure we want to see the outcome of a world where women – or any gender – put price tags on their friends and family every time they need something. That said, nobody should be forced to work insane hours for no sort of compensation unless they choose to. Nobody is required to accept these terms to do what they love. Women are just more used to capitulating and accepting sub-optimal situations than men are when it comes to the workplace. “I can’t do what I love because it would require effectively becoming a bought slave” is a valid reason to say no, folks. Every time you say yes, despite knowing what it’s going to cost you, there will be a price to pay. Doing what you love, as we’ve discussed, is a privilege. If the price is too high, then you have the option of deciding you can’t afford to do it at this point in your life, and falling back on a job that is less glamorous, but pays better and doesn’t demand sacrifices that are more than you can bear. That shouldn’t be stigmatized, and anyone with a brain understands that.
Some sacrifice, though, typically is required to do what you love, at least at the outset. Nobody who is famous through a do-what-you-love path got there by refusing to work long hours (yes, I said work), refusing to take any sort of pay cut, or risking a more lucrative option along the way. It is not easy to do what you love, and this is at the heart of what I do agree with the author on – the need to recognize that doing what you love IS still work, even if it’s work that you feel more inclined to perform your best at. Taking this option in life isn’t a one-way ticket to Margaritaville. It’s a promise to yourself that you are going to make things happen and live life on your own terms – and then you have to go out there and DO it. If you cannot make that promise, or if you cannot actually follow through on your dreams, then you are going to have to accept work that is not doing what you love.
This is the side of doing what you love that doesn’t get enough attention, and this is where the inward focus comes from. If you are choosing to do what you love, chances are good that you’ve chosen either a creative profession (writing, painting, music) or something in the field of helping others (doctor, teacher, professor). In the former, you have the luxury of not having a boss – but that makes you, yourself, the gatekeeper of how much you accomplish with your life. If you don’t manage your time wisely, you may find yourself wasting the time you have, instead of truly doing what you love. It is amazing how easy it becomes to view what you once loved as troublesome or difficult when you do not have someone breathing down your neck to finish it or else. You are the one solely responsible for your own success or failure – nobody else can make it happen but you.
If you’re in the latter category, the way you choose to teach or help others falls under a similar situation. You can be the sort of teacher that loves students but hates teaching, and ends up being a lot of fun for your kids, but they don’t learn much from you. You can be the kind of doctor that loves diagnosing and treating medical issues, but has no bedside manner (hello, Dr. House). You decide how your curriculum advances, and what your students learn, and how your patient is treated – and nobody is going to do that for you. You’re now responsible not just for your own success or failure, but for the lives and livelihoods of others in addition to your own. That is a ton of pressure!
If we acknowledged all of our work as work, we could set appropriate limits for it, demanding fair compensation and humane schedules that allow for family and leisure time.
And if we did that, more of us could get around to doing what it is we really love.
In the end, the author is correct that we need to revisit the rather saccharine belief that work we enjoy doing is not work. It gives us, and the people around us, an incorrect idea about the kinds of things we do in our lives, and the things we accomplish every day. Only love will keep us coming back for more, when the difficult things start flying – but that is true of any job, not just the ones we do for love first. In any job, success and joy come from doing a job well, going the extra mile to be sure it is done well, and having the sort of boss (even if that boss is you) who will hold you to the promises you have made without placing unnecessary stress on you. We are not so different, are we?
Remember that, whether you’re doing what you love, or simply making the best of what you do, the real enemy is the folks that do nothing at all and still succeed.