I remember walking along the edge of a suburban ditch, surrounded by heat-scorched grass, my mother at my side. We were discussing my discontent and scattered ambitions. I threw out the cock-eyed possibility of someday moving to Boston and becoming a writer. The idea seemed far-fetched, romantic even. I imagined cobble-stoned streets, warm coffee shops, and perhaps falling in love with something, someone on a chilly night in Fenway Park.
None of those things happened, and the realities of East Coast living are radically different than I envisioned. But I’m here. I’m an hour and a half from that impossibly far-away place. I’m writing and working, but mostly working. I’m doing something enjoyable and am a happier person.
All my external circumstances have worsened. I live in a shabby, overcrowded apartment. The weather is miserably cold. Middle school boys frustrate me to the point of exhortation daily. Yet, I feel confident, buoyant even, about my path.
Alas, there are haters.
Recently, a scathing article received widespread recognition for its oppositional stance towards the “Do What You Love” (DWYL) movement. Apart from the logical fallacies (hasty generalizations, straw man arguments, ad hominem attacks on Steve Jobs, and false dilemmas), the article’s portrayal of DWYLers as privileged and socially callous has motivated me to present a counter argument based on my own experiences. At worst, doing what you love is an innocuous, nebulous statement and at best, a transformative message.
1. Some people are miserable without meaning in their work.
A year ago, I returned from a perspective-altering trip to New Zealand. Abuzz with energy and a more broad, daring view of the world, I was ready to make things happen.
Except things didn’t happen. Not good things, at least.
This drive to seek the best was born of pure intentions and great naivety. I thought that moving towards greater financial security would positively transform me. Instead, it granted me a first-hand account of the soul-sucking corporate world. I interviewed for a shiny new job and expressed excitement to be part of the “dynamic” energy industry. I only meant it in a theoretical, strictly tangible sense. I had no deep-seated interest and passion, just a recognition of its societal stature.
In the office tower across the street, I see pacing lawyers and accountants. Printer to desk. Printer to desk. That was me. I sat in a windowless office, yearned for lunch. I walked through a labyrinth of tunnels depriving thousands of professionals of sunlight or noises emanating from anything other than cash registers and computer mice. I ate lunch. I walked, dissatisfied, back to that same lonely spot each day.
I want more than a job. I want a vocation. I want to be proud of who I am and be one with my job, interests, and personality. Success, judged by money, title, or power, is noise distracting from the deep, ignored truth that many are dying slow, painless deaths high up in towers across the US.
2. Money for lower-wage workers becomes more obtainable when privileged people opt out of high-paying, stable jobs.
If DWYL is truly an upper-class phenomenon, then those spots would necessarily be filled by a lower wage worker. Wouldn’t that create more opportunity?
3. The “DWYL” path requires hard work, sacrifice, and vulnerability.
I had never seen Hartford, CT, didn’t know a single person that had even visited the place, but I was confident something in that tiny city would change my life. After 27 hours on the road, I arrived in Hartford. Even though it was July, the sky was steel-grey and rainy. A depression settled in upon realization that I had no one to help me move and knew no one in the entire state.
I carried my possessions inside amid the rain and wind. I felt foreign and isolated. Eventually, I got my things inside and settled into a bare and uninspiring apartment. The furniture was sparse and nondescript, much like what I had seen so far of Hartford. My first day was wretched. The optimism I felt days earlier vanished. I entered my self-imposed purgatory. My voluntary exile would force me to come to grips with who I was, who I wanted to be.
Soon thereafter, I experienced the rigor of teaching. Put it this way: If a boss demanded that you prepare several hours of presentations each day, warned you of his propensity to get up and make strange sounds and occasionally disrespect you in front of the entire meeting, and then asked you to measure and evaluate his performance each day, you would quit on the spot. Teachers don’t.
Each day, time assails me. My afternoons dissipate, my hair ripples with a tornado current. Time knocks me out until I awake staggering back to the teacher’s offices wondering what in God’s name happened. Now I understand why young teachers are reticent to go out on Friday evenings, their brains cooked from overstimulation. Loud, inarticulate noises. The impossible stench of a prepubescent sans Old Spice. The constant movement. You have to be so damn vigilant.
I love it though.
I do miss home. I do miss my family and friends. Sometimes, I even miss the quiet office environment.
I don’t miss comfort. I don’t miss being insulated from change. I don’t miss wasting time at a job I could never grow to like. I don’t miss the days and nights that drove me to getting in a car and driving thousands of miles to a job paying pennies on the dollar.
4. For many, the philosophy entails helping others and performing services that benefit the same people Miya Tokumitsu claims doing what you love undermines.
I do not desire money or prestige. I just want to say I did something worthwhile.
Ever since I was a child, I’ve been inspired by the downtrodden. I remember my Dad’s annual Company Christmas Party. Each year they hosted the Harbor Light Choir, composed entirely of former inmates. The soul and gratefulness they brought to each song brought a tear to my eye every time. Seeing people in the lowest socioeconomic bracket impart optimism and hope to privileged businessmen left me awestruck.
For me, greatness is selfless dedication to the community. I’ll be making nearly nothing this year, working investment banker hours. Why? Because I will be proud of my accomplishments.
5. Life is not a binary system. Almost no one has a job consisting entirely of things they love.
Doing what you love is based on seeking an enjoyable vocation.
No, it won’t be perfect. And, yes, there are popular bastardizations of the idea. (Yes, Tim Ferriss, I’m looking at you.)
The DWYL movement is not prescribing a single love for all, just as the gay marriage movement does not denigrate heterosexuals marrying partners they deem unsuitable. As varied as people’s life partners are, a person’s career ambitions can be similarly varied. The beauty of the free-market is that there’s room for screw-ups, one-night stands (e.g. summer jobs) and even divorces. And, just as everybody can’t marry a supermodel or genius or doctor, everyone will not find a perfect fit. Still, there’s nothing wrong with encouraging others to search.
Tokumitsu’s argument leaves no room for nuanced wants and needs. Some will love jobs that others hate. Some will do a job they hate to have time for their passion.
Sure, I won’t be a full-time writer next year (or even a part-time one!), but I am confident I’m moving towards my vocation.
6. Waiting until you’re older and more stable is risky.
People will say, “That’s good you’re doing that while you’re young.” As if you must cease pursuing enjoyable employment upon reaching a certain age. Thereafter, you must attend to the serious business of being miserable day in and day out.
What will freedom mean to you the day you reach your arbitrary financial goal? Will your desire to be free be squashed by the familiarity and routine of oppression? Will your wings be clipped and your heart disconnected from the legs and arms that move you? Freedom stares you in the face. Go be somebody. Don’t wait for some fat guy in a pin-striped suit to cut you a check. Screw it. If you love clowns, work for the circus (besides, clown enthusiasts are creepy and have trouble finding gainful employment anyways), and if you love baseball, coach it.
Each minute you spend daydreaming about what you should or could be doing is a slap in the face of the old man (or woman, but I don’t believe in slapping old women) you’ll eventually become.
7. America was founded on people searching for a better life. Why should this stop upon reaching a certain socioeconomic status?
The greatest American triumph? The autonomy to determine your station in life.
Never settle for second-best. Never settle for a life you don’t want to wake up to. This is the premise our ancestors arrived with. That is what emancipation was about. That is what civil rights were about. That is what the GI bill was about.
I pray the freedom to pursue a better life never vanishes.