Stop Saying “Do What You Love, Love What You Do.” It Devalues Actual Work.

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Jan. 16 2014 4:59 PM

In the Name of Love

Elites embrace the “do what you love” mantra. But it devalues work and hurts workers.

Apartment of Jessica Walsh
The DWYL-inspired apartment of designer Jessica Walsh.

Photo courtesy Mario de Armas/design*sponge

“Do what you love. Love what you do.”

The command is framed and perched in a living room that can only be described as “well-curated.” A picture of this room appeared first on a popular design blog and has been pinned, tumbl’d, and liked thousands of times. Though it introduces exhortations to labor into a space of leisure, the “do what you love” living room is the place all those pinners and likers long to be.

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.

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Superficially, DWYL is an uplifting piece of advice, urging us to ponder what it is we most enjoy doing and then turn that activity into a wage-generating enterprise. But why should our pleasure be for profit? And who is the audience for this dictum?

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.

Aphorisms usually have numerous origins and reincarnations, but the nature of DWYL confounds precise attribution. Oxford Reference links the phrase and variants of it to Martina Navratilova and François Rabelais, among others. The Internet frequently attributes it to Confucius, locating it in a misty, orientalized past. Oprah Winfrey and other peddlers of positivity have included the notion in their repertoires for decades. Even the world of finance has gotten in on DWYL: “If you love what you do, it’s not ‘work,’” as the co-CEO of the private equity firm Carlyle Group put it to CNBC this week.

The most important recent evangelist of DWYL, however, was the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs. In his graduation speech to the Stanford University Class of 2005, Jobs recounted the creation of Apple and inserted this reflection:

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.

In these four sentences, the words “you” and “your” appear eight times. This focus on the individual isn’t surprising coming from Jobs, who cultivated a very specific image of himself as a worker: inspired, casual, passionate—all states agreeable with ideal romantic love. Jobs conflated his besotted worker-self with his company so effectively that his black turtleneck and jeans became metonyms for all of Apple and the labor that maintains it.

Steve Jobs
Do what you love. Wear what you love.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

But by portraying Apple as a labor of his individual love, Jobs elided the labor of untold thousands in Apple’s factories, hidden from sight on the other side of the planet—the very labor that allowed Jobs to actualize his love.

This erasure needs to be exposed. While DWYL seems harmless and precious, it is self-focused to the point of narcissism. Jobs’ formulation of DWYL is the depressing antithesis to Henry David Thoreau’s utopian vision of labor for all. In “Life Without Principle,” Thoreau wrote:

… it would be good economy for a town to pay its laborers so well that they would not feel that they were working for low ends, as for a livelihood merely, but for scientific, even moral ends. Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for the love of it. 

Admittedly, Thoreau had little feel for the proletariat. (It’s hard to imagine someone washing diapers for “scientific, even moral ends,” no matter how well paid.) But he nonetheless maintains that society has a stake in making work well compensated and meaningful. By contrast, the 21st-century Jobsian view asks us to turn inward. It absolves us of any obligation to, or acknowledgment of, the wider world.

One consequence of this isolation is 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). Those in the lovable-work camp are vastly more privileged in terms of wealth, social status, education, society’s racial biases, and political clout, while comprising a small minority of the workforce.

For those forced into unlovable work, it’s a different story. Under the DWYL credo, labor that is done out of motives or needs other than love—which is, in fact, most labor—is erased. As in Jobs’ Stanford speech, unlovable but socially necessary work is banished from our consciousness.

Think of the great variety of work that allowed Jobs to spend even one day as CEO. His food harvested from fields, then transported across great distances. His company’s goods assembled, packaged, shipped. Apple advertisements scripted, cast, filmed. Lawsuits processed. Office wastebaskets emptied and ink cartridges filled. Job creation goes both ways. Yet with the vast majority of workers effectively invisible to elites busy in their lovable occupations, how can it be surprising that the heavy strains faced by today’s workers—abysmal wages, massive child care costs, etc.—barely register as political issues even among the liberal faction of the ruling class?

In ignoring most work and reclassifying the rest as love, DWYL may be the most elegant anti-worker ideology around. Why should workers assemble and assert their class interests if there’s no such thing as work?

* * *

“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.

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