Why not ‘do what you love’?


“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.” (Steve Jobs)

Who could disagree with that? Who would object to the idea that we should seek to fill the inevitable hours that most of us spend working with something that we enjoy and feel passionate about? Surely that’s the better than the alternative?

Not so, says Miya Tokumitsu in an article published in January. She makes two main objections to the philosophy of ‘Do What You Love’ (DWYL). First, its elitism, which leads to the “dehumanization of the vast majority of laborers”. Second, its potential for enabling and justifying the exploitation of workers perceived to be working for love.

I think both these points offer important correctives or at least warnings to the principle of DWYL, and I would add another that Tokumitsu hints at – that love of one’s career shouldn’t crowd out all other loves. However, I do not think these caveats fundamentally undermine the soundness of the idea that those lucky enough to do so should (generally)try to find a career they love.

Tokumitsu’s first objection is that there is that DWYL can only be useful advice to a small privileged minority of society – most socially necessary work is dull, repetitive and not enjoyable. As for the rest: “labor that is done out of motives or needs other than love (which is, in fact, most labor) is not only demeaned but erased”. The philosophy of DWYL is essentially indvidualistic – “It absolves us of any obligation to or acknowledgment of the wider world”.

What follows from this? What should people do if they are not to follow Steve Jobs’ advice and do what they love? Tokumitsu speaks of

“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).”

But this gives DWYL too much credit – the philosophy did not create some jobs that are lovable, and some which are not. It is just a response to a society in which these inequalities exist.

One response is to maintain that in such an unequal society, doing what you love is an unconscionable luxury – an argument that I have made before.  Rather, people should follow Will MacAskill’s career advice and “do something [morally] valuable”. The overriding consideration in choosing a career should be its social impact.

However, this not appear to be Tokumitsu’s argument. Moreover, it seems a bit unfair to condemn those who are unwilling to take the potentially extreme and demanding step of dedicating their careers primarily to benefit others, and certainly to condemn them as harshly as Tokumitsu does.

Unless we think choosing a socially sub-optimal career is in itself morally blameworthy, I do not see why doing what you love necessarily entails demeaning those who do not, or being indifferent to their fate. As Andrew Smart says:

“Accepting the current social and economic system, DWYL is an ideological tool of capitalism and a despicable trick of the elite, but co-opted and brandished by the working masses it should be a powerful way to raise revolutionary consciousness”

Smart’s focus is on the working masses, but equally there is no necessary reason why DWYL should be seen as an entitlement, rather than a privilege, or as a personal attainment, rather than a goal for all of society. Particularly for those who have to struggle to get to a job which they love, you would hope that this would engender a sense of good fortune, humility and gratitude. Empirically, this may not be the case, but it is certainly not inconsistent with DWYL, and could well be folded into an amended DWYL philosophy.

Tokumitsu’s second point is that the ideology that work should be a matter of love lets employers off the hook in terms of compensating that work: “Because [for example]academic research should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all.” This explains the proliferation of poorly paid, insecure jobs in academia, and the increased dependence on unpaid internships in sectors like fashion and the media.

Again, we need to be clear what follows from this. From a social and political perspective, Tokumitsu offers a strong argument for challenging employers’ abuse of their power over their employees. But just because a system is exploitative doesn’t necessarily mean that workers are better off out of it. Tokumitsu is keen to stress that “emotionally satisfying work is still work, and acknowledging it as such doesn’t undermine it in any way”. Yet at the same time we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that emotionally satisfying work remains less like work than the alternative. Unless you believe the distinction between ‘lovable’ and ‘unlovable’ work to be entirely a work of ideological fiction, you have to admit that the former is preferable. It might have been less inspiring for Steve Jobs to tell people to ‘do what you love, though this might mean people take advantage of your passion’, but it would probably have been more true.

The bigger issue, as I see it, is that DWYL fails to recognise that sometimes these costs are not worth bearing, that sometimes doing what you love can involve too many sacrifices. Notice in the quote that starts this post that Steve Jobs claims “the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work” [my emphasis]. The ‘only’ is deeply problematic here because it diminishes all the other potential sources of satisfaction outside of work. And a natural development of this attitude is to focus on a career to the detriment of all other potential sources of fulfilment. This seems a strategy unlikely to benefit many people. However good it is to love what you do, jobs are only one of a number things that can and ought to be loved, and if they crowd out the rest they may well not be worth it. A plausible theory of DWYL must recognise that sometimes for some people, the career they are passionate about should be sacrificed – perhaps for family, perhaps for community, perhaps for other passions.

So what are we left with? The original injunction that we should ‘Do What We Love’ was clear and intuitive. The amended claim is that we should do what we love, BUT ONLY if it does not involve too great a conflict with out ethical commitments or too great a compromise on other sources of happiness. This certainly more defensible than Steve Jobs’ original advice, but it is a reasonable question whether it is too banal to be helpful.

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