The problem with “do what you love”

Bored

I’ve been thinking about Miya Tokumitsu’s In the Name of Love for days now. Miya argues that the mantra “Do what you love” devalues work and hurts workers:

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. […]

“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.

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.

It’s a tough critique, and at first I was looking for reasons to dismiss the argument. But the more I think about it, the more sense it makes to me. The “do what you love” idea is related to another theme I often see on social networks. It’s some variation of the message “If you don’t want to go back to work after vacation, you should find a job that doesn’t make you want to go on vacation all the time.” This has always felt wrong to me. I love my job — I really do. But that doesn’t mean I can’t also enjoy spending several days with my family, hiking, climbing, and hopefully with my nose buried in a zombie book.

This doesn’t mean I’m lazy, it doesn’t mean my job isn’t meaningful, it doesn’t mean I don’t like the people I work with. I will just always find a different kind of enjoyment in actively doing nothing than I do when I work. And it turns out that leisure time — and in particular, being bored — is really good for us. Nicholas Carr says this in The web expands to fill all boredom:

We don’t like being bored because boredom is the absence of engaging stimulus, but boredom is valuable because it requires us to fill that absence out of our own resources, which is process of discovery, of doors opening. The pain of boredom is a spur to action, but because it’s pain we’re happy to avoid it. Gadgetry means never having to feel that pain, or that spur. The web expands to fill all boredom.1

So I just think that it’s ok to split up work and leisure. If we’re lucky we get to have jobs that we love doing — and we should absolutely work hard to accomplish that goal. But spending time away from work (or working on side projects) is important and healthy, and we shouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge that. It doesn’t diminish your job satisfaction or dedication if you enjoy being on vacation.

Anyway, I’ll have Miya have the last word:

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.


  1. Also see Joseph Epstein’s excellent essay on boredom called Duh, Bor-ing