(Don’t) Do What You Love

Do What You Love

Do you consider the Jobsian phrase “do what you love” to be sage career advice? Would you give it to another stranger? Would you give it to your own child?

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.

At first glance, I thought this advice from Steve Jobs in a commencement address at Stanford University in 2005 was sound, albeit inspiring. I would repeat it often when younger minds asked me for my advice on their careers. I calculated that since so much of my own life would be spent working, that that time should be as enjoyable, and fulfilling, as possible. What I didn’t really consider at that time, however, was that at the root of that decision were the numerous options before. I had so many blessings in life in addition to natural gifts to call upon that I forgot it was privilege to have so many options from which to select. Rather than my risk in choice being one that left me hungry and homeless, my risk was picking one that was not as fulfilling as as the other. That’s a pretty nice problem to have!

But when did work become something that needed to be fulfilling? When did the value of work change from a way to earn a living, to a way to earn fulfillment?

This discusson arose in the open Facebook group called the Coffee House, which is “dedicated to sharing ideas as we once did in coffee houses”. One of the recent posts was an article in Slate: “In The Name of Love”, which asks if the “do what you love” mantra of the creative class devalues work and hurts workers.

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.

Ok, so I didn’t see that coming when I repeated the bumper-sticker worthy phrase “do what you want, the money will follow”. I never meant to offend! When this new perspective was introduced to me, I begin to realize how “do what you want” is probably some of the worst career advice I could give.

And from an entrepreneurial perspective, doing something you love doesn’t mean you are good at it. And if you aren’t good at it, the market may not be willing to pay for it. And if the market isn’t willing to pay for it, then you might not be able to sustain a living wage from it. When viewed from this perspective, “do what you love” may be terrible advice! The Onion’s “Ridiculous Small-Business Plan Encouraged By Friends” further captures the phrase it full, satirical glory:

In the past three weeks, Sabin has given out nearly 60 dog biscuits and sold almost twice that many, all to friends. By conservative estimates, unless she experiences a 4,000 percent increase in sales, Sabin will be forced out of business before the end of the year.

But she is doing what she loves, right? Perhaps, but she is also doing something that isn’t marketable or scalable. Doing what you love won’t feed, shelter, or cloth you, no matter how much passion you burn for it.

And the darker truth is this: “do what you love” may be repeated be entrepreneurs because it is a way to pay their workers less for a lot more effort and risk.

DWYL reinforces exploitation even within the so-called lovable professions, where off-the-clock, underpaid, or unpaid labor is the new norm: reporters required to do the work of their laid-off photographers, publicists expected to pin and tweet on weekends, the 46 percent of the workforce expected to check their work email on sick days. Nothing makes exploitation go down easier than convincing workers that they are doing what they love.

Many entrepreneurs I know state they are fueled off the passion for their work; that it is revolutionary and meaningful. That makes a lot of sense for them perhaps but what about their workers? You know, the people that are executing the dreams and passion of the business owner? The reality is that even in an insanely country like the U.S only 38% of American workers report being fulfilled by their work. Ouch.

Do American Value Their Jobs?
According to Salary.com’s survey, in 2012, about 48 percent of employees said they work extra hours just for sheer enjoyment—but that number fell to 19.5 percent this year.

What do you think? Is “do what you love” sound career advice for anyone or the ill-considered mantra of privileged elitism?


3 thoughts on “(Don’t) Do What You Love

  1. Regardless of whether it’s sound advice or not, I don’t think it’s a propaganda tool used by elites to keep their employees in line. I think it’s food for thought to find out what a persons’ strengths and weaknesses are; what they’re doing compared to what they are doing. Think of it in terms of someone who’s stuck in a “dead-end job”. Sure you might get those who are genuinely happy with what they’re doing, and those people probably won’t refer to their employment as a dead-end situation to begin with. But what about those people who do? What about the need to leave behind a bigger legacy than “Here lies Morty…He was a good worker…”? If you want to be all flag-wavy about it, what about the principles that this country was found upon; freedom, enterprise and all that? After all, what would be the alternative? Don’t do what you love and die unfulfilled and miserable? While I agree that certain catch phrases may be used as a weapon by some suspender and belt wearing cretin of middle management, I think it’s up to the listener to take it to heart or realize that the motivational speaker these guys hired are full of crap.

    At the end of the day, it is after all, just advice. Take it or leave it. Personally, I try not to subscribe to philosophy whose tenets are easily placed in the margins of a bumper sticker. But doing what you love is kind of hard to ignore. I mean, who wouldn’t rather be doing that? Does it mean that they’ll be successful at it? Of course not. But, that doesn’t mean they won’t either…

    What would be worse, living in fear that the privileged few may watch you fail, or not taking that chance at all?

    • Tony: Thanks for your comment. I don’t think the options are dichotomous. However, this advice seems to be the norm among the tech elite. I especially hear it a lot in the startup community; it seems that the younger generation responds positively to the idea that their work will provide fulfillment and meaning … even if that means their work is persuading others to buy a widget or service.

      There are other options, and degrees at that. In addition to “do what you love”, what about “be a good person,” “be a supportive parent,” “stay healthy”. I mean, the largest source of stress for modern man is associated with health — so perhaps advice that keeps this front and center at all times will make whatever career path that comes their way that much easier to incorporate?

      If you are seeking to “do what you love” — great! I’m glad you have been able to figure that out; most haven’t, nor do they have the support and environment to even provide that as an valid options. But if someone is touting that line to you, rethink their angle. Because they probably have one, and it has less to do with you love and far more to do with what they love.

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