Books

Don't Feel Like a Failure for Not Loving Your Corporate Job Enough

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There’s a college in Chicago that gives out dream diplomas. Well, it doesn't give them out, exactly. It costs about $88,000 for a four-year bachelor’s degree, plus the price of living in Chicago. So while you scour the big city looking for a position requiring a concentration in animation or a BA in DJing, you might have to pick up an odd job to pay off some student loans.

But that’s okay. During your Clown and Physical Comedy class, you discovered a passion for the non-verbal communication of joy, which makes you a perfect candidate to nanny for a lawyer who lives on the Gold Coast. However you end up tackling your debt, you’ve at least learned the secret to competing in the modern market and living a full life: Do what you love. And if that doesn’t bear fruit, simply love what you do.

That’s the way a new generation of workers has been taught to think about work. What I wanted to be when I grew up was a major subject of conversation with adults before I turned five. I didn’t have a good answer, of course, but I knew that whatever I chose would have to be done with conviction and love. Making a career choice based on any other criteria seemed as foreign to me as arranged marriage.

“Today, one of the most powerfully appealing narratives about work is the one about the worker who performs work that he or she loves,” writes Miya Tokumitsu in her new book Do What You Love: And Other Lies About Success and Happiness in which she argues that this new ethic of labor-as-love is the opiate of the new working class. “These ideal workers become successful and wealthy precisely because they love their work.” It’s the story Steve Jobs told to the Stanford graduating class of 2005. “You've got to find what you love,” he advised. “And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers.”

If it worked for the former CEO of Apple Computers, maybe it is good advice for the privileged or lucky few who can afford it. But then, as Tokumitsu asks, who is going to fill the iPhone factories in Shenzhen, China? Who will perform the drab tasks that make it possible for the heroes of capitalism to live their dreams?

There’s a long history behind wealthy people failing to fully appreciate—or even admit the existence of—the dehumanizing labor of the “invisible workers” they build their fortunes on, but Tokumitsu argues that it wasn’t until the past couple of decades at most that “these figures of the ruling class felt compelled to express love for the tasks of their own labor and to hold this love aloft as the key to their legitimacy as society’s leaders.” The hard work Ben Franklin prescribed, for example, was a means to an end. The end was wealth, and the means was usually drudgery.

Compared to Franklin’s early-to-bed mantra, “do what you love” is pretty sexy. Neither piece of advice accounts for the fact that as long as the minimum wage is a poverty wage, a certain number of people will remain poor no matter how inspired or driven our society becomes. But "do what you love,” which Tokumitsu abbreviates to DWYL (hashtag much?), is perhaps more insidious because of what it does to the labor movement.

“DWYL exposes its adherents to exploitation,” writes Tokumitsu, “justifying unpaid or underpaid work by throwing workers’ motivations back at them; when passion becomes the socially accepted motivation for working, talk of wages or reasonable scheduling becomes crass.”

The rule applies to everyone from sound design majors to housekeepers. Tokumitsu cites a Craigslist ad seeking “a passionate individual” to join a maid-service team. In my own recent search for a job, I found an ad for an office-assistant position written in the second person: “You do ten things at once not because you have to but because that’s the only way you know how to do things.” Confronting your boss about workload becomes impossible when the official qualifications for the job include a natural affinity for punishment.

Perhaps DWYL would be encouraging if jobs were becoming more lovable and providing for all of the worker’s needs. Unfortunately, the opposite is happening, which may explain why DWYL is so enthusiastically promoted by those who depend on cheap labor. “Workers today are doing more for less,” Tokumitsu writes. She continues:

Real household income in the United States has stagnated or fallen for the overwhelming majority of Americans, even as they put in more hours on the job, or jobs, as is increasingly the case. Benefits are eroding rapidly, and workers are losing control over the conditions of their labor regarding everything from scheduling to safety regulations. Meanwhile, wealth continues to concentrate in the hands of a tiny few….Yet, while winner-take-all capitalism grows ever more ruthless, rhetorics of love, passion, and bliss regarding waged labor proliferate. Are we all just delusional?

Her answer to that last question is no. The rhetoric is not the result of a collective hallucination but an ethos handed down from the top with a “disciplinary function: to extract cheap work from a labor force that embraces its own exploitation.” Under the guise of liberation from work, employers are reviving the old traditions of the company-town days where employees were trapped in their employer’s world, paying in credit at the company store and living in company housing. To wit, the yoga outfitter Lululemon uses the DWYL myth to compensate its employees with memberships to expensive yoga studios, and some fashion companies pay their models in “trade,” i.e. products instead of money—as if models should care more about fashion than having an income.

There’s a story behind Tokumitsu’s book that’s worth telling. The book is an elaboration on an argument she made less than a year ago in Jacobin, a self-described socialist publication that emerged during the Occupy Wall Street movement. Tokumitsu’s article did phenomenally well for a thought piece on labor issues. It got a blurb in the New Yorker and was republished by Slate, where it was shared more than 200,000 times on Facebook. Actually, this last accolade caused some confusion, leading promoters and critics (including the book’s official publicist) to attribute the original article to Slate and not to Jacobin. Bhaskar Sunkara, Jacobin’s founding editor, told me the mix-up didn’t bother him since it deepened the article’s impact (and, I would add, probably helped seal the book deal). But I don’t think it’s an accident that the book’s own publisher avoids mentioning that it originated in a magazine more socialist than Bernie Sanders, and where Tokumitsu happens to be a contributing editor, not just a casual freelancer. More than a short-cut to give Tokumitsu marketable media cred, it is a tactic to bring her argument into the mainstream fold, to disarm it of its revolutionary devices and put it up for debate as if it were just another letter to the editor.

But Tokumitsu’s book is dangerous to the establishment, and not just because Tokumitsu is a lefty; plenty of radicals pen sterile pleas for change. Her critique of DWYL gives workers the language to talk back. She encourages freelance writers, yoga instructors, teachers, and passionate housekeepers who work for half the minimum wage to see themselves not as dream-pursuers but as workers, as part of the working class, and to make demands accordingly.

Tokumitsu’s solution may not be seductive, but it’s quite reasonable. After we rein in consumption and production and reduce the work-week with the help of modern production technology, we do the work that still needs to be done—whether or not it’s enjoyable—and compensate everyone fairly so they can pursue their interests in their free time. “Mantras like ‘Do what you love’ and ‘Follow your bliss’…could be quite emancipatory, even radical, if redirected away from work,” Tokumitsu writes. “A fortunate few may find the actual tasks of their work to be a source of love, but it is also everyone’s right to find love elsewhere.”

If Tokumitsu’s argument has a weakness, it’s that she underestimates how deeply the myth of passion and sacrifice is seeded in the artist’s breast in particular. She discourses on the labor of Michelangelo and sheet metal workers as if “work is work.” A more powerful statement would be that “a human is a human,” and that a sheet metal worker deserves no less time with his family or attention to his health than a painter does. The artist, however, has been thriving off some version of DWYL since before the first Zen poet refused a job on the farm.

Tokumitsu claims that, based on a frustrated letter he wrote to his friend, Michelangelo apparently hated painting. I believe that as much as I believe F. Scott hated Zelda. No economic reforms—not even revolution—will stop the struggling artist from struggling, and I believe it is often the artist who chooses to live a life of privation, with only enough money to pay rent and travel a bit, in defiance of the logic of the market, and not because his commencement speaker tricked him into it. The playwright Tennessee Williams sank into a depression when The Glass Menagerie brought him “security at last” in the form of a hotel room in Manhattan and a steady stream of royalty checks. For him, this was death. “The heart of man, his body and his brain,” Williams wrote, “are forged in a white-hot furnace for the purpose of conflict (the struggle of creation) and…with the conflict removed, the man is a sword cutting daisies.”

This is not to say that artists, like all workers, shouldn’t demand compensation and their basic needs met. Williams didn’t believe that artists should literally starve or have to leave a broken bone untreated for fear of incurring debt. The working artist’s motivations should be a private matter, no business of the employers. The genius of the DWYL myth, however, is to make this once-countercultural lifestyle into one of the pillars of the capitalist system, demanding an artist’s sacrifice from all workers, and propping up the class structure it ought to threaten.

What’s wrong with myths if they help us get through the work day? Time posed this question to Tokumitsu in a recent interview, and she answered that in a capitalist context, DWYL can only be exploitative. I would add that the answer was already contained in the interviewer’s question. Myths like the one monarchs used to tell about being ordained by God help us get through the day not by easing our pain, but by increasing our capacity for suffering. Any movement to emancipate those condemned to a life without free time has to begin with a deconstruction of the DWYL myth. Tokumitsu’s shattering glance not only deconstructs it, but ships the pieces back to the dealer.

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