Surely, Miya Tokumitsu is right. For too many people the defining concept of work has become: Do what you love. It is usually followed by the slogan: Love what you do.
In her words:
There’s little doubt that “do what you love” (DWYL) is now the unofficial work mantra for our time.…
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.
Tokumitsu is right to call us out for repeating this mantra mindlessly. She is right to see it as a symptom of a problem within American culture. She is right to identify it as a determinant of how people choose their work and careers. And she is right to explain that the problem lies in the confusion of remunerated activity with love.
There are many good reasons to reject the mantra. First among them must be this: you might not have the talent or the aptitude to succeed at doing what you love to do.
While it is true that people who succeed can enjoy what they are doing, that does not mean that anyone who enjoys what he is doing is going to succeed at it. Your success or failure does not depend on your feelings; it depends on the way other respond or don’t to your work.
How many of American Idol contestants love music? How many of them love to sing?
Most, if not all of them.
Now, how many of them will ever make a living singing? And how will they feel about doing what they love when it leads to serial disappointments?
And that is just the beginning.
No matter how good you are at what you are doing, succeeding at it requires, Malcolm Gladwell said, 10,000 hours of hard work. Do you need 10,000 hours of hard work to fall in love? Does love require that much effort?
If you need to work that hard at romance, you probably are not in love.
Hard work requires an almost mind-numbing attention to details. It’s work to test a new medicine or to troubleshoot your new sump pump. If you send out garments that contain defects or ads that were done on the fly, your business will suffer from your failure to work hard enough.
True love is different. As we all know, it's blind.
You might love to sing. You might have the talent to sing. If you do not work on it, long and hard, you will most likely not succeed at it.
Tokumitsu explains that the do-what-you-love mantra seems to apply to some jobs more than others. Everyone believes that people who work for Google and Facebook are doing what they love. Everyone believes that teachers love what they are doing. And everyone believes that artists love what they are doing… even if they are starving at it.
In some cases, doing what you love means being in a trendy business. In other cases, it means being underpaid.
Do you think that people who are working at Walmart or in a Ford factory are doing what they love? Would you say the same thing about people who work as caregivers or janitors at low wages?
Does that mean that their work has less value? The mantra suggests that it does; Tokumitsu is right to say that it should not.
Tokumitsu sees the mantra as a password that designates people whose jobs are supposed to put them above the common mass of humanity. In her analysis, it’s about status.
DWYL is a secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. 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.
When Marissa Mayer became CEO of Yahoo! she discovered that her employees so much loved their work that they never came to the office. Corporate headquarters felt deserted, like a wasteland. People did not work together because they had forgotten how to do it. Each employee was at home in his or her own pajamas… doing what he or she loved. Far too few of them were working for the good of the company.
Tokumitsu is right that the do-what-you-love mantra gives the false impression that work is about self-fulfillment or self-actualization and not the marketplace.
For her part, Tokumitsu has a doctorate in art history. Thus, she is especially aware of what happens to those who follow their bliss toward a Ph.D. in the humanities. Today, most of them are underpaid adjunct faculty members… if they are lucky.
But, when they chose to take their degrees, were they thinking of doing what they loved or of the market value of their degrees? How many of them, knowing that they were doing what they loved, were working as hard as they could? How many art history degree holders understand anything about the workings of the art market? How many artists do?
It’s nice to like what you are doing, but that should not be an excuse for sloppy thinking and less than optimal performance.