Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Do What You Love

There is much in Steve Jobs' 2005 Stanford commencement speech that I applaud. For example, the importance of interdisciplinary study and collaboration was made apparent in his story about the influence of a calligraphy course on the Macintosh design. Implicit in this approach (whether Jobs demonstrated this in practice or not)[1] is a sense of intellectual humility. "None of us is an expert at everything," writes author and historian John Dickson. "...Despite the collective brilliance represented by my readers, what we don't know and can't do far exceeds what we do know and can do. A little humility, then, is hardly rocket science. It is common sense."[2] And while this advocates for lifelong, multifaceted learning, it also demonstrates the need for others with various backgrounds, skills, and experiences. It hits on some of the best aspects of both personal development and group collaboration. However, the advice in the video above to “do what you love,” though appealing, negates an important and inescapable feature of life: mundaneness. Writing in the leftist magazine Jacobin, Miya Tokumitsu explains, "There’s little doubt that “do what you love” (DWYL) is now the unofficial work mantra for our time. The problem is that it leads not to salvation, but to the devaluation of actual work, including the very work it pretends to elevate — and more importantly, the dehumanization of the vast majority of laborers." In essence, there is a contradiction between the humble, inclusive nature of Jobs’ interdisciplinary approach and the rather self-absorbed DWYL mantra. "By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness," continues Tokumitsu, "DWYL distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labor, whether or not they love it. It is the secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment…Under the DWYL credo, labor that is done out of motives or needs other than love (which is, in fact, most labor) is not only demeaned but erased." The DWYL mantra “is ultimately self-focused to the point of narcissism." The ability to “choose a career primarily for personal reward is an unmerited privilege, a sign of that person’s socioeconomic class."[3] 

A blog post at Harvard Business Review a couple years back actually argued against "doing what you love" for four other reasons:

  1. You love it--but you're not great at itIt’s hard to judge yourself accurately, so ask your friends and employer what your talents and weaknesses are, and then play to your strengths, even if they don’t lead you to what you would currently describe as your “perfect” job."
  2. You're skilled at your passion--but hate the work that surrounds it: "Many businesspeople are masters at their craft but drop the ball when it comes to everything else...It’s possible to learn these skills, but, for many, the process sucks the joy out of their chosen field."
  3. You're too emotionally attached: "Writers who get too close to their work and take criticism too personally never improve. Similarly, businesspeople need to look carefully at whether passion for their work is clouding their judgment. When you care deeply about a pet project, for example, it’s hard to make a rational decision about whether it should live or die."
  4. No one will pay for it: "You can turn a hobby into a job — but only if someone’s willing to pony up. Sometimes the market’s just too small...Sometimes the margins are too thin...And sometimes your company simply has other priorities."

"Doing what you love can inspire great dedication and a sense of meaning," the post concludes. "[B]ut sometimes, that passion can blind you to feedback (are you the only one who thinks it’s a good idea?), make you miserable (who knew launching the initiative would mean managing a dozen new staffers?), or harm your financial prospects." 

From my perspective, DWYL robs people of the chance to experience the Hasidic concept of avodah be-gashmiyut ("worship through corporeality"). Compare Jobs' 2005 commencement speech to that of the late David Foster Wallace. It was actually Wallace's "This Is Water" speech that first triggered my interest in finding the sacred in the mundane and it was a comment on a previous post dedicated to that speech that led to an eventual conference paper on the subject. Wallace notes that "whole, large parts of adult American life" are filled with "dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines..." Yet, "petty, frustrating crap like this" can be transformed from a "crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation" into something "not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down." This transformation comes from continual "attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day." Commenting on the Jacobin piece, philosopher Gordon Marino wrote in The New York Times,

My father didn’t do what he loved. He labored at a job he detested so that he could send his children to college...The universally recognized paragons of humanity — the Nelson Mandelas, Dietrich Bonhoeffers and Martin Luther Kings — did not organize their lives around self-fulfillment and bucket lists. They, no doubt, found a sense of meaning in their heroic acts of self-sacrifice, but they did not do what they were doing in order to achieve that sense of meaning. They did — like my father and some of those kids from town — what they felt they had to do...Our desires should not be the ultimate arbiters of vocation. Sometimes we should do what we hate, or what most needs doing, and do it as best we can.

"When you are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God" (Mosiah 2:17).

And now, in honor of the Jacobin article's title, some U2.


1. Jobs could be authoritarian, but had a collaborative side as well. See Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011).

2. John Dickson, Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), Kindle edition. "Ch. 3: Common Sense: The Logic of Humility."

3. I agree with much of Tokumitsu's analysis, though her socialist perspective is one I don't share. For example, she claims that "DWYL is, in fact, the perfect ideological tool of capitalism" because...adjunct professors, fashion interns, and the arts don't get paid enough. Industries that are "feminized" attempt to "extract female labor for little or no compensation." It seems to me that those who pursue these industries are part of the very privileged (which I don't view as inherently bad) Tokumitsu is blasting, thus making such options viable. I've written on the gender gap both here at The Slow Hunch and at Difficult Run. For those interested in an economic analysis of wages, see the article "Classical Economics vs. the Exploitation Theory" by economist George Reisman.

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