The idea of getting paid to do what you love is a siren call… I would count the number of times I’ve said something like, “If only someone would pay me to read books / drink coffee and share ideas / sit by Lake Geneva with a beer and write…” since I started to think about job opportunities, but I’d lose count quite quickly. It probably happens at least every couple of weeks. And I’m pretty lucky - at some point or another in my life, including now, I have been paid to do these things as part of my education or my job. I have tended to think that it’s a good thing, to do what you love - or to try and make as much of your job as possible connect with the things that you’re passionate about or want to explore. There’s not enough time in the world to do all the things you want to do, my rationale runs, so why not try and elide that with your job? You’ll do better work if you’re passionate about it, won’t you? I know that I can be bad at switching off from my job, that it will slide over into the rest of my life - especially at times when it’s stressful - and I know that I can be bad at motivating myself when I don’t have a personal connection to or enthsusiasm for the thing I’m working on, so I say that it’s good for me to do what I love. But am I just sliding away from my failings of concentration and motivation, and taking advantage of the opportunities I have without thought of the way they interact with the rest of the system?
My friend Hannah posted this article on twitter last week - challenging this DWYL philosophy, and said: “RE my last tweet: I love my work. But it’s definitely work. I love time off better.” This interested me, because often when I think of Hannah, I tend think that she’s someone who is doing what she loves, and making it work, even though it’s quite insanely hard to do the stuff that she does. And then I thought, "Well, I love my job, probably at least 80% of the time, if not more, but I’d almost certainly still enjoy being sprawled out on the sofa reading exactly what I want more. So off I went to read the article.
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.
The violence of this erasure needs to be exposed. While “do what you love” sounds harmless and precious, it is ultimately self-focused to the point of narcissism.
It’s an interesting - and powerful - challenge, and perhaps especially for Christians (and me as a Christian), who generally has some understanding of calling - but also (one would hope) a desire not to be a narcissist and not to ignore the stresses and strains of those around them. And it’s a difficult set of issues to wrestle with: at the time of writing this sentence, I have spent the best part of two hours writing nearly 2000 rather disjointed words in response to this article, and I’m still not entirely sure which of the many things it throws up for me I want to hang my hat on in this post.
I have spent a fair bit of time contemplating calling. I’ve more than once been heard to say, ‘I wish I had a vocation. I bet life would be simpler if I had a vocation,’ - by which I mean, I know there would be one thing I’m supposed to do - which would at least cut out all the choosing between options, and maybe I’d love it more than 80% of the time (even though, rationally, I know that no one loves all of their job all of the time). I believe in calling: that I have skills and talents and passions that God can and will use. I believe that some of that will be in the workplace and some will not - and that I’m currently in a space where mine are at use in my workplace. But. I also believe that we validate and value some of these things as callings and vocations, and not others - in the same way that the DWYL philosophy validates certain work above others, and also that it encourages some of the negative consquences outlined in the article…
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 the most vicious exploitation and harms all workers.
I work somewhere that believes that it is healthy to have a balance between your work and non-work life - whether you think about it in terms of 9–5 work and the rest as, well, rest, or in terms of work and refreshment (which I find more helpful, personally) - the office is determinedly shut at set times, there are people who will raise their eyebrows and maybe even comment if they see I’ve sent them an email at 10pm or on a Saturday, but also somewhere that believes in calling and that we work where we work because we love what we do. And that is a really tricky line to walk. Sometimes, I worry, we fall onto the wrong side, taking something perilously close to advantage of that passion to see that all the things we want to get done get done. Mostly, I’m aware of the privilege it is to have a job I enjoy a remarkable 80% of the time, and the opportunities it brings, and if I get squeezed a bit round the edges maybe that’s a trade off. I generally feel like I have the space to make that choice without endangering my position. I know other people in other places, who probably also work in DWYL kind of jobs, who don’t feel that.
Having a vocation or a calling might look like it would lessen the problem of choosing what to do - but can increase the problem of how to do it, as work, in a healthy and sustainable fashion - for you and for your organisation. Plus this potentially has a knock-on wider impact, as the choice employees have to make around how to work restricts who will be able to take up this kind of work, whatever it is - and homogeneity leads to groupthink leads to… well, it’s not really a great destination, is it?
The problem, for me, is that I am in the position of being fortunate enough to fall into the DWYL zone and thus to be prey to its attendent dangers with regard to narcissism and failing to check my privilege - but also, as a member of it, being prey to its negative affects, individually and as part of a culture that suffers from them too.
I also have no idea how to talk about it well, without possibly becoming terribly patronising - it’s terribly easy to talk a lot of guff about valuing all work or human flourishing in all areas of life when you work in a job that gets valued and your life is mostly flourishing pretty well, thanks. I feel like I have a responsibility to recognise that all is not sunshine and flowers in the garden of twenty-first century work and also to sit on my own head and shut up, because honestly, self, you have it good (ok, clearly 1300 words in, I’m not doing that bit that well). And oh look, it's become about me again. Goody.
Is there a way out of the conundrum - for me? For how we do work?
Addendum: over at American Conservative, Leah Libresco has a really interesting take on this. Are tech companies the new company town?