Yes, you should do what you love

When I mentioned seeking out people who are intrinsically motivated to work with a few weeks ago, my friend Jason commented with a link to Miya Tokumitsu’s essay In the Name of Love in Jacobin magazine. It has since been picked up by Slate. Here’s her take on “Do What You Love”:

By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness, 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. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.

I agree that DWYL is not a valid policy prescription. If we could magically sort everyone so that they could earn a living wage pursuing the activity that they love most, we would not have a functioning society, much less a functioning economy. So we have to accept the reality that for many people, perhaps the large majority of people, a job is just a job.

Given that, we need labor policy that does not assume that work is its own reward. Work week regulations, paid vacations, parental leave, and other policies are all intended to provide respite to workers from exploitative employers. Minimum wage laws put some floor on how much you must pay workers, regardless of how much they love their jobs.

For those of us who are managers, it’s important not to exploit the fact that some people love their jobs and will work all the time if you let them. It’s important for people to keep a healthy schedule and take their vacation time, even if they would prefer not to. Not only is overwork unsustainable, but it creates a dynamic in which people who would prefer to maintain something resembling a balanced life wind up working too much because they’re afraid to fall behind in a perceived competition with their less restrained coworkers.

An enthusiastic manager who works 70 hours a week sends a message to even the least enthused person that working lots of hours is expected. This oblivious manager may just assume that everyone on the team is happy to work those hours, given that they’re doing so without even being asked.

As a matter of government or corporate policy, we’ve got to take these factors into account.

However, if I am talking to an individual, rather than talking policy, my advice will always to be to do what you love (or, do what you can’t not do) if you can get away with it. We spend at least 2,000 hours a year at work. If it’s up to me, I’ll spend that time doing work that I enjoy. I want other people to do work they enjoy as well. To the extent that I have influence over who I work with, I seek out people who also find joy and fulfillment in their day to day work.

It seems to me that a discussion of labor policy is ideally suited to analysis from behind John Rawls’ veil of ignorance. We should think about these matters from the perspective of someone who has no idea whether they will like their job or hate it, or whether it may be at a desk or in a coal mine or tomato field. At the same time, when you’re looking for a job, try to find one you’ll enjoy and find fulfilling, and be thankful if you manage to do so. It’s not that common.

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