In a recent article in Jacobin, art historian Mika Tokumsitu addresses one of the most popular mantras in Western culture today: Do what you love, love what you do. Tokumsitu argues that the attitude behind this little inspirational slogan is a Trojan horse – a set of assumptions quietly eroding our respect for work itself.
This is Tokumsitu’s contention: if we believe that personal fulfillment is really the ultimate purpose of labour, then who do we expect to do all the other jobs that are not so existentially fulfilling? After all, society depends on a great many people doing a multitude of messy, unpopular, and quite ‘unlovable’ tasks, day after day. Even more importantly, the self-actualized doer-of-what-thou-loves still depends on the janitorial staff, the electronics assembly line manufacturer, and the sewage line maintenance crew. You can only do what you love as long as someone else makes sure the toilet isn’t backing up. As an ethos, doing what you love invites us to ignore the importance of most real work, and re-labels everything else as a romantic pastime.
The idea that a person can arbitrarily select any activity or interest they ‘love’ and then expect to receive monetary compensation for pursuing it depends on several factors, not the least of which include social class and economic mobility. For instance, the mother whose immediate concern is buying groceries for her children is not in a position to contemplate how her job as a cashier is supposed to reinforce her transcendent sense of meaning. For her, work is work – not a mechanism to validate her theoretical and unique identity on the planet.
Tokumsitu’s conclusion: the message that our work ought to be emotionally gratifying and spiritually rewarding only deepens the trench between the working class and the intellectual class. Even though the rallying cry to do what you love seems to celebrate the importance of work and career on the surface, it is essentially elitist and anti work at its core. Practically speaking, society would altogether fail to function if everyone did nothing but the things they love, therefore the ‘option’ only exists for a small, select segment of the population.
I also wonder what the personal implications are for believing that our work must be the object of our love. In our insistence that every dimension of life should be loveable and edifying, do we consequently undermine our ability to truly love anything? If I truly love my work, in what sense then do I truly love my family? In our effort to find jobs that we love, do we inadvertently cheapen our love for everything else?
Maybe the point of work is to work. And maybe the more we respect work as work, the more we will appreciate our interdependence. And maybe, just maybe, if work is respected, then workers, too, might be appreciated as more than minion cogs in a vast machine, slavishly working to provide a handful of ‘creative’ people the opportunity to believe employment is only meaningful if it is also a passion.