On “do what you love”

A friend forwarded Miya Tokumitsu’s essay “In the Name of Love” pointing out the Steve Jobs quote and summarizing that it “challenges the notion of work at what you love.” I read it with some frustration, then decided I had to ask my friend what he saw in it. I was already into my reply when I tried to look up other works by the author and discovered the piece has been positively covered by a lot of sites I respect.

What follows is a slightly edited version of my email reply, but I’m publishing here because I’d like to hear from others about what I’m missing.

Does it really challenge the notion of “do what you love?” Or does it just reflect the author’s failure to imagine the real challenges of the jobs she calls “repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished”? Wasn’t it Michael Pollan who wrote about the huge cultural mistake we’ve made in dismissing the work of farmers, in “allowing the stupidest people to grow our food?”

The personal care aides named in the story probably face the same dilemma. If all the author imagines these people doing is changing diapers on the aged and infirm, then the job likely is as repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished as she says. The people who need the care, however, are real humans, and their care necessarily demands more engagement — including intellectual engagement — than the author admits. I’m not suggesting nurses and personal care aides are the same group, but I know the stories I’ve heard from nurses themselves suggest they’re far more challenged and engaged in their work than Tokumitsu would allow.

Huge aside: isn’t the more amazing story here one about how we’ve constructed a world which forces all members of the family into wage-earning work, and has left our homes and lives so vacant that we have to outsource the care of our elders?

Back to the point: If we remain culturally dismissive of these jobs, then it’s likely the people doing them will be dismissive of the work as well. Pay is part of this, but teachers seem to have always been poorly paid and yet we still honor them culturally.

I hated the book, but Jane McGonigal’s Reality Is Broken has some place here. The people receiving the benefit of the work, the people who organize the work, and the people who do the work are all participating in a game. The wages earned or paid are just one aspect of that challenge/reward mix.

Perhaps the author didn’t want to do another “death of the middle class” piece, but if there is a point in it, that’s where it is. Whether the ten dollar an hour personal care aide loves his or her job is irrelevant, no? That person can’t make a living at it any more than the unpaid interns who are presumed to be doing what they love. If the struggles for work-life balance, fair compensation, and finding time for family and avocational pursuits affects both people who love and hate their jobs, then what does “DWYL” have to do with any of it?

Maybe I’m just in a mood. I see this essay as angrily thrashing about, but not finding a point. I am scared by the socioeconomic changes I see — by the erosion of wealth and income opportunity among large portions of the population — but the hollow sound of “do what you love” is a symptom of that, not a sinister cause of it.

The opening set-piece of Tokumitsu's essay: Jessica Walsh's living room.

The opening set-piece of Tokumitsu’s essay: Jessica Walsh’s living room.