Do What You Love. These are perhaps the most inspiring and oppressive words of our generation. At face value, Do What You Love is uplifting, encouraging, positive. You can find happiness in a career you love! Let me begin by saying that at it’s core, this is a nice idea. We should all have passions and we should pursue them wholeheartedly. If your passions happen to align with a career track and are something you wish to pursue full time, power to you. However, a darker current runs under the DWYL mantra—one of naivety, condescension and belittlement.
First, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page. What exactly is “Do What You Love?” It’s the idea that we should all be truly passionate about our jobs and that once we find our passion, we should turn it into a career and spend every day pursuing our dreams. It’s the encouragement that we shouldn’t stop until we have our dream job. It’s a notion so prevalent in America today that it is almost a mantra—words that so many people live by that they’ve supplanted the American dream. We’re no longer happy with the nuclear family and white picket fence. The new American dream is the ability to Do What You Love.
The idea is best summarized by Steve Jobs in his commencement address to Stanford University’s Class of 2005:
“You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.”
One major question that the DWYL idea doesn’t answer, though, is what happens if you don’t love your job? If everyone is able to do what they love, if the only obstacle to DWYL is the actual doing of it, then not doing it is failure, laziness, or settling for less than you should. What kind of idea is that? At best, it is a very naive idea. Not all passions can be monetized successfully—or at least monetized enough to sustain a living. It’s wonderful if you are lucky enough to be passionate about something that can make you a lot of money. Personal brand consultants or travel writers are very blessed to be passionate about something, and good enough at it, to make a successful living doing those things. But what about those of us who just love selling hand-knit scarves on Etsy, or singing karaoke with overwhelming enthusiasm, but little actual skill?
At it’s worst, the idea may be condescending and dismissive. It completely discounts that there are jobs that have to be done, whether or not the doer is passionate or pursuing their vocation by doing them. We can’t all follow our passions—someone has to supervise the gas stations and manage the CEO’s schedule and transfer the luggage from the Boeing to the Airbus while you grab a coffee on your Dallas layover. Are the gas station managers and administrative assistants and baggage handlers of the world passionate about their jobs? Maybe, maybe not. It’s not for us to know or decide. But for argument’s sake, let’s say they’re not. Say they actually want to be oil tycoons or CEOs or pilots. We can’t assume they’re lazy or unmotivated or settling. And even if they are—someone has to. Someone has to do these things in order to allow the travel writers and bloggers and consultants and inventors to follow their dreams. And by assuming those who aren’t doing what they love are settling, we minimize the importance and quality of the work they are doing. Which is the complete opposite of cool.
What about the workers who went to college, invested a lot of money into getting a job and are now underemployed, like so many recent college grads are these days? What about the lawyers and social workers who realize they made a mistake but can’t just flit around in unpaid fashion internships because—why again? Oh, because of crushing student debt or the idea that adulthood means being an adult and not throwing everything away because it isn’t what you feel like doing right now.
It’s interesting to note that the DWYL movement is a fairly recent idea. You don’t see vintage WWII-era posters telling you Uncle Sam wants you to follow your dreams. Our grandparents didn’t grow up believing they should be able to choose a job they loved. They grew up believing that they’d get a job that would provide for their family, and be grateful for it (this is barely post-Depression here). Did my grandfather love filling pot holes and plowing snow? When I asked, he didn’t say he loved it, but didn’t say he hated it. He talked about the great people he worked with and the fact that the job paid enough to support his five children.
The last few decades have been ones of relative privilege. In America especially, this has allowed us to get used to the idea that we deserve more, that we should be able to make a lot of money and love what we have to do to get there. As a result, we’re less willing to settle on anything that isn’t everything.
In the last few decades people have been able to work for free in order to pursue their dreams. Sure, apprenticeships have been around for awhile. You worked for someone learning their trade in exchange for at least room and board usually. But this idea has developed into unpaid internships and being supported by one’s parents until the age of 25, 28, maybe even 30 because your job doesn’t pay you enough to live where you need to live in order to work at that job, only because it’s your passion, your calling, your dream.
Last year a friend and I were at a networking event for women in the communications industry. There was an older woman there who cornered us and started handing out unsolicited advice. Towards the end we asked for advice on something we actually cared about: what did she recommend doing in order to break into the (very competitive) field in which we hoped to work? Her first words were “Well, are you married?” No, we said. “Too bad,” she replied, “because I was going to say if you’re married then you just offer to work for free until they realize how good you are and hire you.”
I’ll put aside most of the (many) disturbing connotations of that statement for now, but it still comes down to the idea that it’s better to work for free than do a job you don’t love. You should put your whole life on hold until you get exactly what you want. How can we live like this? And why should we even want to? Is it better to work for free and focus your entire life on getting The Job, than to find A Job and enjoy other parts of your life? Does that not diminish the importance of who we are outside of our jobs? It turns our job, or even our career, into the one defining factor of our lives. In a culture that’s already predisposed to self-definition by career, that’s a dangerous thought. It promotes the “live to work” mentality over the much healthier “work to live.” Not to mention if feeds a culture of work addiction (“I love my job so I should do it all the time”) and dissatisfaction (“I don’t love my job, so my whole life is a waste.”)
None of this is to say that successfully doing what you love is a bad thing. It is sometimes possible to make a living doing what you love and that idea, at it’s core, is a good one. It is not bad or evil to pursue your dreams (obviously—I feel weird even writing that sentence) and you should if you can and want to. The danger is the emphasis on the all-encompassing importance of having a job that you love, of putting that at the top of the priority list, and the pressure that puts on us all. We shouldn’t feel ashamed for having jobs we’re happy to leave, or for putting our families or other interests ahead of our jobs. As long as we strive to do our best in whatever position we’re in, we should never believe that what we’re doing is not enough.