Doing the work you love is a path to meaning and fulfilment

]1 Working in the Assembly and Repair Dept. of the Naval Air Base, Corpus Christi, Texas (LOC)

Hollem, Howard R.,, photographer.

In his post “The problem with “do what you love””, Rian van der Merwe linked to Miya Tokumitsu’s article in Slate which is titled “In the Name of Love” in which she critiques the idea that we should do the work we love:

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.

Tokumitsu’s article is pretty long and somewhat challenging to read at times (why so intellectuals insist on using the least familiar words for what they are saying?) but I understand her as saying a couple things:

  1. Doing work you love is a luxury reserved for economically advantaged people;
  2. Lower income workers who tend to do vital and yet “unlovable” work don’t have the luxury of doing work they love so this emphasis on loving your work somehow devalues their work;
  3. “Do the work you love” is also a means of control which is used, essentially, to enslave academics and interns who are required to work for little or no pay for the privilege of doing the work they love.

Her perspective on this is pretty simplistic and depends on a fundamental distinction between doing what you love and doing more routine and essential work. What nonsense. This paragraph really annoyed me and points to what is so wrong with her arguments (besides being self-contradictory and somewhat inconsistent):

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.

In other words, people who clean hotels, stock shelves and do a number of seemingly mundane jobs (utilitarian jobs, at that) could not be a path to your authentic self. Sort of. She doesn’t quite say that workers doing these jobs don’t love their work but she maintains a differentiation between loving the work you do and doing those jobs in the first part of her article before going on to say that, really, this whole idea of doing the work you love is a form of exploitation. So if you focus on doing the work you love you are either being elitist or exploited (or both).

She ends off her critique with this:

Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life! Before succumbing to the intoxicating warmth of that promise, it’s critical to ask, “Who, exactly, benefits from making work feel like nonwork?” “Why should workers feel as if they aren’t working when they are?” In masking the very exploitative mechanisms of labor that it fuels, DWYL is, in fact, the most perfect ideological tool of capitalism. 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.

Van der Merwe found himself agreeing with her arguments and interprets them as saying that when we do the work we love, that is all we would do because, well, we love it. What happens to leisure time? Does the imperative to do what we love preclude us from spending a weekend doing something other than work?

I think there is a lot more to doing what you love than Tokumitsu’s narrow, pseudo-socialist view and van der Merwe’s artificial incompatibility between work you may love and enjoyable leisure activities. Contrary to Tokumitsu’s position that saying you should “do what you love and love what you do” devalues work, I believe it enhances your work.

To begin with, this idea is not a modern invention. One of my favourite perspectives on work comes from Kahlil Gibran who wrote about work in his book, The Prophet. Here are the highlights (for me at least):

And what is it to work with love?

It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.

It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.

It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.

It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit,

And to know that all the blessed dead are standing about you and watching.

Work is love made visible.

And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.

For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger.

And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distils a poison in the wine.

Another perspective on this comes from Steve Jobs, who Tokumitsu quoted as expressing the antithesis of her point, who famously said this at the 2005 Stanford Commencement:

Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. 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.

Doing the work you love isn’t just about doing fun and meaningless stuff. Quite the opposite. Doing the work you love is an opportunity to do more meaningful work that aligns with who you are. If you can find work you love, you may be able to do what most people have never experienced which is to connect to the core of who you are and express that in the work you do. This isn’t limited to hippies doing creative work in loft offices with pinball machines. People doing seemingly mundane jobs that many of us don’t see are doing work they regard as meaningful and fulfilling work.

Tokumitsu’s suggestion that a people cleaning your home, working on your car or cleaning up rubbish in your street are doomed to miserable existences is not necessarily the case. It may be a common experience but I believe that there are people out there doing jobs that don’t make it to Twitter and who go home at the end of a long day feeling they have done something meaningful and fulfilling that day. They make a real contribution to the people they come across.

Work you despise is soul-destroying. The most common sign you are doing work that doesn’t quite fulfil you is that experience of waking up on a Sunday morning and experiencing that icy dread when you realise Monday morning is less than 12 short hours away. I remember that feeling from my last job. I worked at a large law firm where I was stressed, constantly anxious and largely unhappy. The firm is an ideal environment for many attorneys who do exciting work there but it wasn’t the place for me. I dreaded Monday mornings and didn’t do great work there, certainly not what I know I am capable of.

When I left in 2005 and started my own firm, I stopped feeling that Sunday morning dread and have only felt it twice since then when times have been particularly stressful. I love the work I do now and, at the same time, the last 8 and a half years have been some of the most stressful years of my life. I have worked harder than I ever had at times and I’ve done all I could to keep it all together more times than I can count but the work I do is meaningful to me.

Doing the work you love shouldn’t be an expectation of you designed to disguise the fact you are just being shafted by The Man. Doing the work you love is not inherently incompatible with being paid an amount that reflects your effort, time and contribution. Believing that loving your work and being rewarded for it are incompatible is immature. When you do the work you love, you give yourself an opportunity to do truly great work that rises above the crap we accept as the norm. That sort of work has more value and when you contribute something that has more value, you should be rewarded appropriately.

There are times when you may work for little or no pay because what you receive in return has more value for you. Tokumitsu takes issue with unpaid internships in some creative industries:

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. Excluded from these opportunities, of course, is the overwhelming majority of the population: those who need to work for wages.

She seems fixated on “social currency” being the only reward for this unpaid labour and ignores a more important consideration. These interns may earn valuable experience doing that work and that gives them an opportunity to lift themselves up by their metaphorical bootstraps later.

Why should we limit ourselves to soulless, utilitarian work because that may describe most people’s experience of their work? When we strive for something more meaningful, we show others a different path to a more meaningful life and if that is also serves capitalism, so what?

As Gibran said –

Always you have been told that work is a curse and labour a misfortune.

But I say to you that when you work you fulfil a part of earth’s furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was born,

And in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life …


2 responses to “Doing the work you love is a path to meaning and fulfilment

  1. Nathan Jeffery avatar

    Great post. Thanks for bringing in the quotes from Kahlil Gibran, I have heard of him but have not read his work yet – seems I need to.

    Everyday, I am shown why it is important to love what you do. If you don’t you’ll only be mediocre at your tasks and deliver a poor quality product/service and probably end up frustrating those around you(who do love their work).

    The alternative is being really good at your work, but being unhappy, which is no way to live.

    I personally want a team of happy people, doing what we love and adding enormous amounts of value to the people and businesses we work with.

    I feel loving what we do is very important. We’re all given a limited amount of time here and I feel we need to achieve as much as we can and be as happy as we can while doing it.

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