Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Doing What You Love or Loving What You Do

Jacobin magazine has an article by Miya Tokumitsu attacking the work philosophy of "do what you love". As with many a polemic, it strikes me as having some hits and some misses. Tokumitsu's basic claim is that by suggesting that people should view work as a form of personal fulfillment, the DWYL philosophy both ignores the work of the majority who have less-fulfilling jobs and also opens those who believe they love their jobs to exploitation by suggesting that we don't just do it for the money and thus there should be no limits.
“Do what you love” disguises the fact that being able to choose a career primarily for personal reward is an unmerited privilege, a sign of that person’s socioeconomic class. Even if a self-employed graphic designer had parents who could pay for art school and cosign a lease for a slick Brooklyn apartment, she can self-righteously bestow DWYL as career advice to 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 — in fact, to loving 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.
No one is arguing that enjoyable work should be less so. But emotionally satisfying work is still work, and acknowledging it as such doesn’t undermine it in any way. Refusing to acknowledge it, on the other hand, opens the door to the most vicious exploitation and harms all workers.

Ironically, 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.
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 non-work?” “Why should workers feel as if they aren’t working when they are?” Historian Mario Liverani reminds us that “ideology has the function of presenting exploitation in a favorable light to the exploited, as advantageous to the disadvantaged.”

In masking the very exploitative mechanisms of labor that it fuels, DWYL is, in fact, the most perfect ideological tool of capitalism. It shunts aside the labor of others and disguises our own labor to ourselves. It hides the fact that 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.
I'm not sure to what extent I buy the claim that the DWYL approach is what results in checking email when sick or working on weekends. I think that tends to be more a matter of how technology and productivity tools have changed the share of work. On the one hand, my employer puts into my hands a company paid device which lets me check my email, Facebook, and my favorite blogs during dull meetings or scraps of free time. On the other, this puts me on the hook to answer questions at odd moments when they come up. My answering emails even on "off" hours makes it easier for me to have hours off, and means that there's less need to extra backup people to know everything that I know. Sure, we can imagine a slower paced world in which questions that get asked at eight o'clock at night simply wait till the next day (or never get asked until then) but that would potentially be a somewhat less productive and lower paid world. And the fact is, I kind of like my pay the way it is. (And my company iPhone.)

However, I do think that the author captures an obvious point which people need to think about more in relation to the amount of free or low paid work which is wrung out of people who desperately want to get into some coveted profession.

I don't work in the high flying world of fashion (and when I interviewed at Apple some years back I decided it was not the place for me) but having spent ten years or more in Marketing at this point, one thing I can certainly attest to is that within the greater world of marketing everything wants the "creative" jobs and few people want the analytical ones. This means that the creative people (even if "creative" only means overseeing sports sponsorships and redesigning the colors on product packaging) are subject to longer work hours and constant turn-over, while those of us who are willing to do the math and stick to telling people how the business works have comparatively sane existences.

If I were going to give advice on how to pick a rewarding and successful career, it would be: find something you're good at that lots of people need and not many people want to do, and do that.

Part of the problem that the DWYL folks fall into, I think, is in defining "what you love" very narrowly. A few jobs back, someone else on the team at work was describing how she'd got there by saying, "I knew that what I wanted to do with my life was work in analytical marketing, and _______ Inc. is one of the legends in doing that well, so I'd been looking for a chance to get a job here."

This struck me, because -- although I quite enjoy my job and find it very interesting, and haven't exactly be casual in pushing my career over the years -- I'd never say that marketing analytics, or pricing specifically, is "what I want to do with my life". Some of this is because it seems to me kind of narrow to define one's life so much by one's profession. But the other reason is that it seems to me that it defines the profession itself rather narrowly. The reasons why I enjoy my work could be listed off as:
- I enjoy work where I need to understand some complex topic, draw conclusions, and then teach what I've learned to others
- I enjoy work where I can work on projects for a while and then get them done and work on something else
- I enjoy doing work that involve inquiry into how things works and fixing problems
- I enjoy getting to understand the problems that people having and coming up with ways to solve those problems

Those are all very general things, but they're what cause me to enjoy my job. That they are so general means that, while having done pricing for a number of years not it makes a lot of career sense to stick with it going forward since I'm something of an expert at what I do, there are honestly an awful lot of things I could do which would provide somewhat similar challenges and satisfactions.

Too often, I think people settle on one fairly exciting looking way of using their talents and providing a sense of satisfaction, and decide that doing that job is the only way for them to be really fulfilled. While if one takes a more general approach to "what am I good at" and "what gives me a sense of satisfaction" there are a lot of jobs that one could love.

The Steve Jobs quote which people often cite on this topic is:
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.
However I think there's a certain ambiguity there as to whether you need to figure out what you would love to "be" and go try to be that profession, or figure out what it is in your job that is loveable, and love it so that you will be motivated to do great work.

This also addresses Tokumitsu's point about unlovable work. There may be a lot of professions which few people want to do in some aspirational sense. But in just about any profession you can identify what it is that you are good at, and what it means to do great work, and focus on those things in order to provide yourself with the motivation to always do good work rather than just-get-by work.


Jenny said...

"Too often, I think people settle on one fairly exciting looking way of using their talents and providing a sense of satisfaction, and decide that doing that job is the only way for them to be really fulfilled."

I wonder how much of that attitude is based on ignorance about how to apply their talents to jobs other than the exciting job. You may know about the visible jobs, but never learn about the behind-the-scenes jobs and how they relate to a skillset.

bearing said...

The things you have listed that you enjoy about your job could have been written verbatim by my husband, who works as a process engineer for Big Food -- not at all the same field or kind of work that you have -- and yet in a way you are the "same kind of worker."

They are also things that I enjoy about my daily work -- and what am I? A homeschooling SAHM. Not at all the same. And yet, the same "kind" of things are appealing.

"Do what you love" competes with "do stuff the way that you are comfortable doing stuff." I think the latter is far more important for day to day pleasure in one's work.

RL said...

As you know, I love my work, but it was never on my radar until 5 years ago. I still wouldn't say it's a do what you love thing. I'm just blessed that I have a love what you do.

The reasons for which are largely what you called out too. Though I sort of consider it as still being a young lad doing adult things. I always loved figuring things out and fixing things. The beauty of that is there are always things to learn and fix, but not necessarily the same things.

Sarah said...

The DWYL also ignores the fact that relationships among co-workers, managers and staff, and the general "culture" can make you or break you. I've had an "easy" job that were nightmarish because of the hostile work environment created by 2 competing managers. I've also had "high stress" jobs that were sometimes fun because of the camaraderie we shared. There's a reason why the kind of people who say "DWYL" tend to have jobs in which the primary relationship is between you and the work itself (like the creative-type work you described).