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“Do What You Love” Inspires Meaningful Work in a Meaningful Life

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In his famed 2005 Stanford University commencement address, the late Steve Jobs imparted valuable advice to the hopeful eyes staring up at him: “You’ve got to find what you love. . . . Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.” “Do what you love” is an inspiring message that has become commonplace in today’s discussions of career choice—a quick Amazon search will reveal dozens of self-help books centered on that very quip. However, an equally quick Google search will reveal an astounding catalogue of indignant critiques of the “do what you love” philosophy and its advocates.

Earlier this year, one such critic, Slate’s Miya Tokumitsu, argued that Jobs’ philosophy is the unofficial work mantra of our time for all the wrong reasons. In her critique, she explains, “[t]he problem with [‘do what you love’] . . . is that it leads not to salvation but to the devaluation of actual work—and more importantly, the dehumanization of the vast majority of laborers.” On Tokumitsu’s view, for those who believe we should do what we love, “[w]ork becomes divided into two opposing classes: that which is lovable (creative, intellectual, socially prestigious) and that which is not (repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished).” But does her view accurately capture the meaning and purpose of work?

Why do human beings need to work in the first place? At root, our life depends on our choice to produce the goods we need. A person cannot merely assume, without action on his own part, that nature will deliver food to his refrigerator or that others will care for his health when he falls ill. The division of labor in post-industrial society makes it too easy to lose sight of the importance of production, as the goods each person produces appear not to be directly related to our most basic needs. But whether we produce our own goods or trade with others, the essence of that endeavor runs back to the time of early man, to his choice to bend a branch to craft a bow for hunting, to fashion arrows, to seek out and acquire his meal, to properly prepare it for consumption. Unlike animals, we survive not by adapting to our environment but by reshaping it:  far from “dehumanizing” us, productive work is what makes human life distinctive.

To Tokumitsu, work is lovable only if it is immediately satisfying and fundamentally intellectual. Thus, the teacher who works to serve children, the artist who lives to paint and nothing more, the business owner who merely enjoys selling hats, are clear examples of people who love their work. All other work, she holds, is non-lovable and typically the burden of the less privileged. This will often mean low-wage jobs that consist in repetitive action or manual labor (janitors, truck drivers, construction workers, etc.).

But all work is—or can be—intellectual. Mere beasts would serve as poor trash-collectors, or janitors, or cargo-loaders, because even these kinds of jobs require a conceptual understanding of what the task is, and why it’s being performed. As Adam Smith points out in in The Wealth of Nations, because workers have the greatest interest in performing their work expediently, and must also give their undivided attention often to one task in particular, they are much more likely to discover more efficient methods of performing that task. No work needs to be menial: active-minded workers of any rank can challenge themselves and in doing so improve the production process.

Further, to refer to unglamorous labor (driving a truck, working construction, etc.) as “dehumanizing” is to say that it’s degrading, and therefore cannot be performed out of self-love. But self-love is the primary reason that laborers continue to work. They want to earn a paycheck and improve their lives. And the more a man applies his intellect to his job (whether by producing more efficiently or developing a more innovative method), the more value he tends to produce for his employer, and thus, receive in return.

Tokumitsu’s conception of the “inner life” of the laborer is particularly offensive. She writes: “If we believe that working as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur or a museum publicist or a think-tank acolyte is essential to being true to ourselves, what do we believe about the inner lives and hopes of those who clean hotel rooms and stock shelves at big-box stores? The answer is: nothing.” If anything, Tokumitsu speaks only for herself. Being a day laborer does not extinguish one’s inner fire—it allows one to keep that fire burning. All people have the capacity for hopes and dreams—and that’s precisely what “do what you love” recognizes. Productive work enables the underprivileged to live and work towards achieving an even more fulfilling position—and thus deserves respect.

And the value of work does not end with its capacity to sustain a person’s life on a physical level. The very act of engaging our minds and bodies in the task of rearranging reality to serve our purposes is also part of why we live. Productive work is a kind of living. It’s a source of pride to fight and win the battle to survive. The coal miner can revel in the power of his body to split and penetrate the earth, to achieve the purpose of his mind—the construction worker can appreciate his capacity to build and to repair by the efficacy of his motion and the thoughts directing it—the electrician can gain self-esteem from his ability to analyze and fix essential appliances. Each of these workers will finish his day tired, but to the worker who takes pleasure in his own ability, that fatigue will be the measure of his pride.

Because of her clear disdain for work and self-actualization, Tokumitsu fails to appreciate the true meaning of “do what you love.” In so doing, she insults the inner lives of day laborers, and dooms them to a hopeless existence. Rather than dismissing “do what you love” as insulting to the nation’s underprivileged, it needs to be thought of as an inspiring message for all those who seek the best possible lives for themselves: do what you love, and if you’re unable now, work to get there. As Steve Jobs said, “if you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”

Creative commons image from Pixabay user tpsdave

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