Do What You Love in work and Utopianism in planning

Miya Tokumitsu has an essay up over at Slate, which seems to have been adapted from Jacobin, about how people need to shut it about “Doing what you love” because that devalues the real nature of very difficult, largely manual, labor. My students have been discussing this idea on Fboo, and rightly noting that this author has hit upon a very important point about the connection between affluence, choice, and privilege in occupations. I dissented on a couple points.

First of all, it is undoubtedly true that do what you love is facile advice, particularly if you don’t think for yourself, and thinking for yourself is undervalued. My problem is a supposition that the writer makes, which I do not think is at all true, that the DWYL advice somehow translates to devaluing “real work.” I am very nervous about the idea that something as fluffy as DWYL devalues work that was paid scarcely minimum wage, or unpaid entirely when we are taking about caregiving work, long before Steve Jobs said ANYTHING about doing what you love. That is, please learn to recognize the difference between a cause and a symptom: the poor treatment of laborers, particularly in low status professions, happened long, long before we had creative class hipster types chatting on about fulfilling work and the people who hate them because they annoy.

Moreover, I think I have a unique perspective on the value of the “DWYL” advice because I was raised in an environment where people *never* said that. I wasn’t raised to enjoy work. I was raised to shut up and obey authority. I was raised to expect work to be a miserable grind. You weren’t supposed to be happy at work. You worked long, miserable hours only to have to come home to say to your kids “No, you can’t have that because we can’t afford that” and watch as teachers and other kids treat your kid like crap because you’ve outfitted them in mismatched stained clothing from Goodwill. This was the life my mother told me to expect for myself. The big, shining dream she had? I could maybe go to college and at best be an elementary school teacher. That was it. That was her entire dream for my life; it was the shiniest shiney thing she could imagine. So what if I hated kids and was terribly unsocial and could barely speak? I would have to deal with that misery because being a low-paid elementary school teacher was the most lavish life she could envision. Because those folks had health care and could buy their kids new shoes when they needed them. While town kids (like my cousins) had after school activities, poor farm kids like me were doing shitty, often soul-destroying work some of us hated (and some of us loved) on farms that were going bankrupt slowly in the 1980s.

Now, there is a great deal right with being an elementary school teacher if it is, like it is for my friend Jeff, what you want to do. It is not what I was born to do. I hated elementary school children even when I, myself, was in elementary school. My inside died every single time my mother prattled on about how awesome it would be to be a teacher. My family *deplored and attacked* any and all dreams I had that weren’t elementary school teaching. I wanted to be a writer. OMG. It was my mother’s mission in life to attack that dream. Shame on me for wanting to write. Being a writer meant I would expect her to pay my way my entire life, sit around like a lazy worthless slob, and that was not going to happen, nosireebob. “Writing is a lazy man’s profession” my mother would say, shooting me daggers. And I learned. I learned never to mention that dream around them.

Because you can not kill desire, I achieved that dream anyway, in a manner that allowed me to both pay my own rent and that allowed me to read and write for a living and NOT spend my time wiping noses and asses in an elementary school. I made my life slipping between and among the constraints that my beginning in life set up for me (ok, probably not going to rule a country, though I think I’d be good at that and I’d probably enjoy it; also nix on the NBA star/ballerina dream). But there were other things I did love and could find a way to pay my rent. I would have been a marvelous classicist, but the job market there was scary, and so I picked something else that also allowed me to optimize on my strengths and what was out there in the world as a feasible option the things allow me to do the things I love to do (write, read. Talk about things I’m writing and reading. etc).

By not accepting what was “realistic” for me, I exceeded my predicted lifetime income, not just by a little. A lot. And I love going to work. Yes, there are richer people than me monetarily, but I do not want what I haven’t got.

You will find, I think, that there is, indeed, a great deal of honor among people who do jobs that they hate, but they often do those jobs they hate because of love. They do them to survive and to try to give their kids or their siblings or a chance at something better. That’s still doing what you love; it’s just not related to the job. It’s service and sacrifice for what you love. Encouraging people to find what they love hardly devalues the honor and sacrifice of people who do work they don’t love for people they do love.

And there are also people who love to work with their hands and come home every day smelling like sweat and manure and who enjoy what they do, too.

I am not satisfied the idea that *only* creative types or Steve Jobs types or privileged people can have a worthy vocation. Figuring out what matters to you–what you love, iow, strikes me as the most important thing anybody of any socio-economic class can do over the course of the life they are dealt. Perhaps the nature of the work matters to you less than the people you work with; perhaps context matters more than the job. Perhaps the fact you can work from 6 until 3 so that you can be there when your kids are out of school defines what what you love. Doing what you love falls under all those choices, and I do not think that class privilege robs you of any and all of those choices. Lack of privilege may constrain those choices by a lot more than you want them constrained, but it shouldn’t rob you from thinking about what would make you happier.

Just like utopian plans are often silly and unworkable, they can sometimes help to shine the light on the things that we really want. I refuse to problematize desire even though desires are not uniformly realized.