Sunday, June 01, 2014

In defense of "Do What You Love"

Yes, you "should"* do what you love, as your career and your profession. True, not everyone gets to do what they love, but that is a social failure, not a personal one. Marx's chief complaint against capitalism is that even when it's working "perfectly," it alienates workers from both the product and from the process of production. Both the product and the work are no longer valuable in their own right; they are just an instrument for the capitalist to accumulate more money, and for the worker to earn wages to consume. A communist society, as Marx declares in Gotha, can occur only after, among other things, "labor has become not only a means of life but life's prime want." The problem is not that the workers' sacrifice is not sufficiently rewarded, the problem is the sacrifice itself. Instead, We should strive for a society where everyone can do what they love. In the meantime, those who are privileged enough to actually be able to do what they love have no cause to feel guilty or ashamed for just doing so.

If you'll forgive using normative language to talk about just doing what you want.

Doing what you love is a positive privilege: it is something that everyone should have, but only a few actually do have. It is not a negative privilege: it is not something, such as the ability to break the law with impunity that no one should have but some do, such as the ability to break the law with impunity. Similarly it is not, at least in the ideal case, something, such as "leadership," that if a few have it, others are necessarily excluded. Doing what you love is like being able to go almost anywhere without fear: as a white man, I have this privilege; women and people of color do not. The way to correct this privilege is not to force everyone to live in fear, but to eliminate the fear that those without the privilege have to live with. The cure for any positive privilege is not to condemn the privilege, but to extend it to everyone.

Positive privilege becomes problematic when people attach other attitudes to it. I have been able to do what I love my whole life, and I have mostly been relatively well-paid for doing so. But I have not had this privilege because I am extraordinary or in any way better than anyone else; I was just lucky. My privilege is not evidence of my innate superiority, either of ability or character. I was born white, male, American; I was well-fed, well-educated, and socialized with middle-class manners; I had a talent and love for a field, computer programming, that for a long time was highly in demand.

Not everyone agrees. In In In the Name of Love, Miya Tokumitsu believes that doing what you love is selfish and exploitative. But Tokumitsu is long on condemnation and short on quality analysis. For example, she holds up Steve Jobs as an epitome of doing what you love. She quotes Jobs' 2005 Stanford graduation speech:
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.
According to Tokumitsu, this quotation indicates that Jobs was "portraying Apple as a labor of his individual love," which "elided the labor of untold thousands in Apple’s factories." But there's a lot of distance between Jobs' words and Tokumitsu's interpretation. Maybe other evidence shows that Jobs really does, as Tokumitsu puts it, violently erase the contributions of thousands of engineers, designers, and factory workers to making Jobs' love a reality, but there's no evidence that Jobs doing what he loved, or framing his own work as a labor of love, is the cause of that violent erasure.

Tokumitsu also assumes that only the elite's "creative, intellectual, socially prestigious" work can possibly be lovable. All else is "repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished." But this characterization only betrays Tokumitsu's ivory tower elitism. (Tokumitsu holds a Ph.D. in art history, but I'm unable to determine his or her own job; dollars to donuts it's neither repetitive nor unintellectual.) There's no intrinsic reason that any human labor must be repetitive or unintellectual, nor any intrinsic reason why creative, intellectual work should be valued more than any other: the "antithesis between mental and physical labor" (Gotha) is not, according to Marx, intrinsic, but an artifact of capitalism. I know construction workers who love construction, plumbers who love plumbing; I can even imagine factory work, properly constructed, can be rewarding and fulfilling. Perhaps there are some jobs that are unlovable (cleaning other people's toilets comes to mind), but those jobs should not be glorified; they should either be done by machines, shared democratically rather than economically, or at least paid extremely well. I would happily be a janitor for $100,000 per year, and I would clean toilets with love.

In A Life Beyond ‘Do What You Love’, Gordon Marino offers an explicitly Kantian critique. According to Marino, doing what we love is only one dimension in our thinking on our choice of work. Marino references Martin Luther King's metaphor of length, breadth and depth: our own desires, service to the community, and service to the "transcendent." It would be a mistake, argues Marino, to accept as "faith that my likes and dislikes or our sense of meaning alone should decide what I do [emphasis added]." But Marino's analysis doesn't work. First, "service to the community" is neither opposite nor orthogonal but part of doing what you love. We are inherently social; we are not social because of some external moral norm. I presently work as a writing tutor not because I love reading the work of unskilled writers, but because I love helping hundreds of writers every year become more skilled, more sophisticated, and more expressive. What I love is service to the community. And (with apologies to Dr. King) the notion of service to the "transcendent" is nonsensical. The only coherent, existent thing that can demand "obedience and the willingness to submerge and remold our desires" is the ruling class du jour.

Yes, it is possible to trivialize and coopt "do what you love." Capitalism is notable for trivializing and coopting everything. But just because capitalism has trivialized and coopted marriage and family, as Marx and Engels observe in the Communist Manifesto, does not mean that we should stop partnering and having children. It is notable that both Tokumitsu and Marino do not offer any evidence that popular culture actually trivializes the idea of doing what you love: it is the concept itself they charge is trivial hedonism.

But it is a mistake to interpret "do what you love" as mere hedonism, as just the expression of "likes and disklikes." The ethos is do what you love (and love what you do), not do what you like. To love something is to dedicate everything you have and more to it, and to do so because you want to. And love is to cherish everything, not just the pleasant bits. To love something requires the highest discipline. Love requires sacrifice, but it is the sacrifice of the lower to the higher. But it is your own higher and lower, not the judgment of some self-styled philosophical or theological authority.

Marino interprets (fairly, I think) Tokumitsu's essay as saying that "the 'do what you love' ethos . . . degrades work that is not done from love." But it's true: work, indeed anything, not done from love really is degrading. No, we should not ignore or erase those who cannot do what they love, but neither should we glorify doing what you hate. That some must do what they hate should shock our conscience, should arouse our righteous indignation. Yes, we must sometimes do things because they must be done, however much we may hate it, but that is a problem to be solved, not a condition to be excused, much less glorified. Whether man or nature enslaves you, to dedicate anything, much less everything, to what you hate is slavery.

We need to build a society where everyone can do what they love, a society where labor is "life's prime want." As much as capitalism tries to trivialize it, "do what you love" is fundamentally subversive, even revolutionary. It is the antithesis of Christian slave morality, work for God (i.e. His representatives in the ruling class); it is the antithesis of work to live. It is the highest ideal and the liberation of all humanity.


  1. That is exactly what I told my kids...determine what you love doing and make that your career. That way if you will not regret of hate any extra time you have to spend at work. I did this and it has work well for me.
    But I also added ..... and if you find yourself at job that you do not love then try to twist your point of view to make it at the least enjoyable. For example... My daughter was working for a special needs school where they rode horses & she was cleaning the hose schite from the barn, and singing a little song. One of the other girls asked how she could be so happy doing that job? And she answered that it was a necessary honest job which also supplied her with good exercise for the day. So one can always find something good about most jobs.

  2. Some people will always be able to do more than one thing that they love. Others will never find one thing to do, even if given the opportunity.

  3. Others will never find one thing to do, even if given the opportunity.

    I think that many people will not be able to do what they love. But this is a failure of our society, not the individual. Even those who, given the opportunity, fail to find something they love represents a social failure: why were they socialized so poorly?

    1. I do not have a general solution, but I have noted that almost everyone has more potential than they are aware and that we are all capable of doing more than we do. This does not account for happiness or doing what you love, but it is interesting to me that most people are unaware or unwilling to do greater things than they do.

      As far as socialization, religion, I think, does not help. It orients people's goals tangentially to useful hobbies like exercise or art or science. And what would help is to provide citizens with a cohesive picture of how their perceived 'small role' in society is actually very important (or, at least, can be). But this education has to come with opportunities, which need to be, at least in principle, equal and fairly distributed.


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