The “Do what you love” mantra took a broadside the other day, and it actually does serve to point out some areas where society has gotten things wrong.
No one is arguing that enjoyable work should be less so. But emotionally satisfying work is still work, and acknowledging it as such doesn’t undermine it in any way. Refusing to acknowledge it, on the other hand, opens the door to exploitation and harms all workers.… Nothing makes exploitation go down easier than convincing workers that they are doing what they love.
Anyone else get queasy thinking that the evident truth in those statements is a blow against doing what we love? But is it really? Can we draw a necessary conclusion from the disposition to do what we love to the fact of exploitation?
The criticism is that by loving what you do you invite exploitation. In other words, because we enjoy it, we’d probably be willing to work for less. While that may be true, the problem is not that people look at work as something they love but that this gets taken advantage of. Its blaming the victim rather than the culture of employment abuse. If there is a problem, its not with people doing what they love or them even referring to that as ‘non-work’.
Some people use the term ‘work’ in a pejorative sense because it often equates with drudgery. Aren’t they entitled to feel that way? What doesn’t follow from that is exploiting the people who believe this. If they are easy targets, then maybe what needs to change is how society treats these people rather than how they think about what they do.
The difficulty I have is that this attitude puts the blame for society’s inequities on the shoulders of the people who are being exploited. Loving what we do should have no bearing on sticking up for workers’ rights, in the same way as being young or poor doesn’t. In a culture where the poor are exploited for being willing to work for low wages just where do we point the blame? In cultures that don’t have child labor laws, where do we point the blame? At the victims of exploitation? I wonder……
It just seems like the author is describing a mugging, and finds fault with the victim who was innocently walking with their wallet in their back pocket. Do we blame the victim for not having left their wallet at home? Its putting a bull in a china shop and then blaming the china for being fragile…. How often is the victim of exploitation really responsible for their victimization? Is anything they did wrong actually worse than the exploitation itself? If there is an open door, its not always the people living inside who opened it. Folks looking to exploit ‘weakness’ will find a way regardless. They will barge in if you leave it cracked, but they will also break windows and pick locks. “Opening the door to exploitation” is simply an apology for the thieves of the world….
You can read the whole article here. If you’re like me it will be a disturbing read. Maybe that makes it even more important to read and be challenged by. Addressing such concerns means that hopefully we can find appropriate answers to these accusations.
The upshot of the article’s disparagement of the DWYL ethic is that “Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.” As if that were somehow wrong or would necessarily lead to the exploitation described above. But thinking otherwise also seems contrary to what much of art is about. The job of artists is breaking the rules more often than following them. Making art quite often means precisely doing what we want rather than what we are told. As Tony Clennell just said in his blog, “Everyone told me you can’t sell shino. Usually that’s all I need to hear. My mum told me not to play in the mud or with matches so I turned it into a life.”
We don’t often get into art because we are enamored of the marketplace. We don’t become artists because we dream of selling art. As professionals those dreams can trouble us, but its not why we started out. An artist’s relation to selling their work is not necessarily typical. Making art isn’t simply a job where we are looking over our shoulder at the marketplace. For many of us it seems something more.
And the interesting thing is that the art marketplace pushes artists in that direction. Artists who follow the market don’t often end up advancing the field very much. The art marketplace actually encourages artists to not simply play it safe with their expression. Perhaps once artists have established themselves that changes, but artists are always encouraged to find their own niche and express things that are uniquely their own rather than simply the values that the marketplace has handed down. The easiest way for artists to innovate is by doing things for their own purposes, because these are the things they dream. In a sense, to serve the marketplace artists must also serve themselves.
But maybe artists are a special case anyway. A doctor who charges $5 for major surgery has an impact on what other doctors can charge. Perhaps in fields with industry-wide standards there is a responsibility to not simply give things away. And sometimes even in art we can see that one potter selling mugs for $5 undercuts other potters’ work in their selling area. But the difference with much of art is that the idea of quality is not always universal or objective. How do we know one mug actually IS worth $90 and another $24? Because someone can actually get $90 doesn’t mean that this should be the new industry wide standard. But how do we tell the difference?
As I pointed out in this recent post, the idea of quality in art aims at so many targets that it seems we often have to shoehorn different artists’ work to get a semblance of consistent pricing standards. A beginner aiming at not much of anything can still often sell a few pieces at prices experts wouldn’t scoff at. Sometimes they can do quite well for themselves, even. What does this tell us? And with some great dead artists commanding millions of dollars for their work, does that set the industry standard? Perhaps this is why so many artists are more concerned with branding than the actual quality of their work.…. Its perhaps a bit more complicated for artists.
Also, with artists having to negotiate prices on an individual basis there simply is no uniform standard to appeal to in the first place. And the further truth is that Art is so often seen as a luxury that society at large doesn’t value much of what we do, and sometimes can’t even understand why some of us get paid. Period. Throw into this equation that the culture of art donations preys on vulnerable artists to give their work away for free (in exchange for the supposed benefit of ‘exposure’) and we can see just how little control artists have over the situation. If things are bad for artists they certainly have help in making it that way…..
It is entirely possible that artists often simply see how difficult it is to scrape by even with low prices for their work and that if they are not doing it for intrinsic reasons they should probably be doing something else. In what sense does the production of art not start with serving the self, I wonder? If artists only served the marketplace there would be far fewer of us making art. Isn’t it our right to make art? And even if the world sometimes doesn’t want to pay much for it, isn’t it still important that there are practicing artists carrying out their creative visions? Does the marketplace come before the human need for art? Is the economy more valuable than human integrity and purpose? The truth seems to be that artists don’t get paid enough NOT to do what they love….
Another major problem I have with the article is that it seems to take types of labor as inherently joyful or joyless, or at least imputes that attitude to the “do what you love” crowd, making it an issue of the type of work rather than an issue of human psychology. The way things get divided out seem to reflect the author’s own biases rather than the potential for joy to be found in specific types of labor. She repeatedly presumes that specific jobs have nothing to offer the inner lives of those who do them.
Some jobs may be more difficult to find joy in, but joy is not always a reflection of what the work itself is as much as the surrounding contextual issues. If you have a rotten life you may not enjoy an otherwise fun job. The difference between a good boss and a bad one can be the difference between misery and bliss. And even who we work with or interact with on the job can make a huge difference. If we like our co-workers we end up feeling better about our work place. The job itself isn’t always the deciding factor.
Also, the “do what you love” mantra is less about finding a particular kind of work than finding the joy in what you do. The author seems to overlook this as a fundamental motivation. The truth seems to be that not everyone is cut out for the same jobs. We have to search for what things appeal to us. But even then our attitudes and opinions about what we are doing make a huge impact on whether we get any joy from our labors. The jobs themselves are not inherently joyful or joyless. So its also up to us to find what things are rewarding about them. That seems to be the larger message of the DWYL mantra.
Difficult jobs can be fulfilling and even joyful if they further our beliefs. Things that make the world a better place are often hard to do, but with the right attitude can be full of joy. And that goes for humble activities like serving customers, washing dishes, and cleaning floors as well. I’ve done all those things. And if society demeans activities like these its not the fault of people doing what they love, but a lack of respect for different paths in life. If its a problem with society lets call it that.
Shouldn’t we want to love what we are doing? Isn’t that a dream we are all entitled to? And if people have not found the joy in these activities its not always the fault of the job. If the message of this article is that we shouldn’t try to love what we do, then teaching people this will definitely obstruct it. But maybe also teaching ourselves that we can find fulfillment and joy is in fact conducive to that outcome as well. Is our lack of joy sometimes that we simply don’t know any better? That we believe, as the Puritans did, that work was not meant to be fun? Wasn’t that learned behavior? Reality made to conform to a message?
One psychological truth the article overlooks is that its not just that people tend to do what they love (when afforded the opportunity), but that we also often come to love what we do (provided we are open minded about the virtues it has to offer). One important truth the article ignores is that there seem to be no natural limits to what human beings can find joyful (sadly in some cases….). Doing what we love is often mostly about being open to the virtues that teach us where to find joy.
Doing what we love reflects more on the personal significance of activities than what those activities are. The author doesn’t seem to understand that. But the article is right in at least one sense: Work should be respected regardless of whether its something done for love or some other reason. If there is a failing to call out its our lack of mutual respect, not that some people want to do what they love…..
I hope that made a bit of sense…..