Is “Do What You Love” Elitist?

Thanks to JSully for pointing me--in the context of our discussions here of New Work--in the direction of the recent Slate article, "In the Name of Love," by Miya Tokumitsu.

Tokumitsu here describes the Steve-Jobsian commandment to "do what you love" as elitism, in that only the elite can afford such a luxury, and valuing only work done through love devalues the work actually done by most of the populace, work without which the elites could not pursue their passions. Such an attitude is Randian selfishness, and has disastrous social consequences:

...The 21st-century Jobsian view asks us to turn inward. It absolves us of any obligation to, or acknowledgment of, the wider world... Elevating certain types of professions to something worthy of love necessarily denigrates the labor of those who do unglamorous work that keeps society functioning, especially the crucial work of caregivers... Ironically, DWYL [Do-What-You-Love] reinforces exploitation even within the so-called lovable professions, where off-the-clock, underpaid, or unpaid labor is the new norm.

This may seem like a case where New Work is shown to be completely out of touch with reality, that Frithjof Bergmann's advice for young people not to compromise is part and parcel of Jobs's elitist idealism.

But what it demonstrates, again, is that New Work is a multi-pronged system, combining a few distinct insights and recommendations.

1) One of these is, yes, that work can be energizing, that it is in fact a human need, and that traditional jobs do not on the whole meet this need. We can use Steve Jobs and the many other lovers of their work as inspirational models (though personally, I don't find the corporate CEO who, even if he loves his job, has to do it 80 hrs+ per week to be my ideal), as examples of how alive people can be if they are successful in obtaining such a diet of fulfilling work. With this realization about human nature, we can see that contra J.Sully's comment, the demands of the market (what other people want that I can provide) simply can't morally override my own needs. This is why Ayn Rand is so inspirational to many, particularly to women raised on an ideal of self-sacrifice as virtue. Eudaimonia ("the good life" as thought about by all those ancient Greeks) requires a cultivation of the self, which contra Enlightenment thinkers does not come fully formed. Frithjof describes human nature as "frail," in that we are easily pushed around, and it requires a lot of educational build-up for us to get the gumption to assert ourselves. Even this phrase "assert ourselves" makes it sound like there's already a self there to assert that we just have to bring forward, but it's the profound and legitimate finding of a whole philosophical tradition starting with Hegel that we start off as literally self-less and need to be built up from there.

2) Once we recognize this need for self-development/-fulfillment and see exactly how poorly our current society meets that demand, we need to take social action to rectify this. Contra our current political discourse which thinks about social change as purely a matter for government to perform (which libertarians object to on philosophical grounds, and most everyone agrees just isn't going to happen in our current political climate anyway), New Work recommends movement on all fronts, particularly via voluntary associations and individual lifestyle choices. While both of these sound more like the purview of the rich (who can afford the time to enter into professional associations, volunteer opportunities, and entrepreneurial ventures), Bergmann's work has been largely with the very poor who have been shut out of traditional employment anyway, and so have the time and motivation to pursue projects of community production: urban gardening, local manufacturing, trading services with neighbors. "Do What You Love" to someone without a job means doing something meaningful, and supporting one's family when one couldn't do so before; this is about as meaningful as it gets, particularly when this is done in a self-providing/entrepreneurial/cooperative manner and not when you're working at crummy wages for a boss.

This insight points back to a refinement of point 1: "do what you love" is a less accurate prescription than "do what you find meaningful," and it's a fact that what people in general really, really want when they think about it is actually to be of service to others. Helping others is something that gives our lives meaning, and so there's a happy confluence of DWYL and actual service work. Work that actually makes a difference, that is of service, is of course a wholly different animal than "what I can get paid for," and the equation of useful work with work that the market rewards makes much of the very real work we do for our families and communities "invisible."

As Frithjof points out, those of us who are not in poverty have more options than we think. By taking a good hard look at your consumerist habits, you may well be able to live a leaner life that gives you and your family just as much fulfillment but at less cost, which means more of your time can be taken up with doing what you love. Community Production is of course still an essential, largely missing piece here, but what you can already do with the Internet is a good indication of what we'll be able to do in the future: so many of our previous information-related needs can now be fulfilled at minimal expense; the next stage in this development is for material needs to be met by similarly high-tech solutions.

3) Much of Tokumitsu's complaint is about how focusing on DWYL makes the rest of work "invisible," and unrealistically paints "loved" work as not actually work, and so not deserving of a real wage, as is evident in the epidemic of poorly paid academic work. An essential third component of New Work, after finding your calling (point 1) and Community Production (point 2), is structuring socially necessary work so that it serves us instead of us sacrificing ourselves to it. While individual bosses can contribute a lot to this process, of the three, it requires the most high-level and likely even governmental coordination and support. The goal should be to facilitate a wide range of work schedules and environments and to remove economic incentives that push people into full-time employment if they could otherwise afford (through #2 Community Production, savings, etc.) to work fewer hours at a job and so more hours pursuing a calling. So decoupling health insurance from full-time employment is a key piece of this (already accomplished in part by the Affordable Care Act), as is public transportation (available in many communities). There should be incentives to encourage tele-commuting, flex-time, job sharing, and other arrangements of that sort. Though "flexible" arrangements can often devolve into check-your-work-email-24-hours-a-day arrangements as Tokumitsu points out, and good flexibility can again become yet another holding of the elite, this is by no means necessary.

4) While the previous three points capture I think the main centers for action in New Work, i.e. 1. "Pursue meaningful work," 2. Develop Community Production, and 3. Restructure existing work environments, I think we need another point here to capture the picture of economic development that particularly motivates New Work, which is that given increasing automation and other factors like globalization and the consequent destruction of local farming in the third world, the current job system is simply unsustainable. Already full-time, life-long work is no longer the norm, and no amount of pumping of the economic engine is going to bring back all the jobs lost to automation already. As bad as things are here in this respect, they are much worse in the third world, where worldwide agriculture has made the work of local farmers no longer profitable, and so there has been a mass migration from farms into cities, i.e. slums, and no amount of foreign corporations deigning to set up shop in such areas is going to employ anywhere near everyone. So Community Production has been developed by New Work not primarily as a way that we here can make our own gadgets with 3D printers and engage in low-time-commitment cooperative farming so that we ultimately can get by with much less money and so don't need full-time jobs (though it is that), but was instead developed as a way for whole communities in depressed areas to in effect create a local economy by using simple but innovative technologies to provide for themselves.

So instead of merely gritting our teeth in the face of economic catastrophe, New Work takes the challenges of increased automation (how many full-time jobs will we have left in the U.S. when self-driving cars and robot delivery and many comparable technologies are fully implemented?) as an opportunity for us to reassess what it is we really want to be doing as a society: chasing after the last scraps of jobs, or restructuring society so that jobs, and in effect money, become not so pervasive a part of our lives? ...So that "doing what you love" becomes not just a dream for the few, but (for instance) something that everyone has the opportunity to pursue in the 20 hrs. per week where they're not engaged in wage labor?

By laying out these elements of New Work I've tried to reveal individual points for agreement, rejection, or modification. There are many that focus solely on the economic analysis in #4 and look for ways to distribute income that don't rely solely on jobs, such as a guaranteed minimum income or a "shadow wage" people could receive for doing unpaid service work. One legislative half-solution would simply be to reduce the number of working hours, i.e. require overtime pay for anything more than 30 (or fewer!) hours per week. By themselves, such solutions might well simply increase the number of poor, or leave us with unstructured time that would be filled largely with more TV, or produce other undesirable results. This is why New Work as a philosophy is needed: to emphasize and explore the psychology involved and so help devise counseling and educational programs needed to help people develop themselves, i.e. figure out what they really, really want to do, what tasks (that again, would in most cases result in creation of economic value, but if not that, then still real value for real people and not purely selfish indulgence) they could try and develop and coordinate with others. Though income redistribution (even if politically feasible) might well address the economic crisis in the U.S., it wouldn't work in poorer countries where there simply isn't the tax base to provide a guaranteed minimum income or anything like it.

Likewise, some people might focus on point 2 and simply develop a do-it-yourself lifestyle as an alternative to jobs for its own sake. Certainly 3D printing and comparable innovations are exciting enough in themselves that one could be enthusiastic about those without any commitment to the wider New Work program, or one could approach Community Production as a strategy to revitalize poor areas like Detroit without thinking that there is need or application for it elsewhere. Those skeptical of the whole feasibility of Community Production might still recognize the ill fit between jobs and our psychological needs and so advocate for transformation of the workplace (point 3). Really none of 1-3 strictly requires a recognition of immanent economic catastrophe (point 4), though the necessity for change makes it of course much more likely that change will actually occur: a crisis makes it much more difficult to remain passive and conservative in the light of social injustice.

What I do hope to have illustrated is that simply focusing on one aspect (point 1) and not thinking it through properly (not widening "work that you love" to "work that is meaningful") or trying to devise economic, political or social solutions to the elitism identified, results in a poor analysis that denies the obvious truth of Jobs's claim: that a good life requires us not to simply be slaves serving market forces, but to take ownership of what we do, to identify with it, to find meaning and do something cool. If economic circumstances make this an impossible dream for most of us, then it's our job as a political entity to change these circumstances, not to extinguish the dream.

-Mark Linsenmayer


  1. Rey Rodriguez says

    Run for office Mark! Starting a national conversation like this is, in my opinion, the only way forward. Keep up the great work on New Work.

  2. Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says

    New Work:

    “Nicolas Gomez makes a violin with recycled materials at his home in the Cateura, a vast landfill outside Paraguay’s capital of Asuncion, Paraguay. Gomez, a trash picker and former carpenter, was asked by Favio Chavez, the creator of ‘The Orchestra of Instruments Recycled From Cateura,’ to make instruments out of materials from the dump to help keep the younger kids occupied. ‘I only studied until the fifth grade because I had to go work breaking rocks in the quarries,î said Gomez, 48.”

    –also on “60 minutes”

  3. mk says

    Isn’t there a tension between advocating for “individual lifestyle choices” in lieu of government-led social change, because you can’t count on the latter happening (#2), while conceding that none of this is possible without the latter happening (#3)?

    It seems dismissive/overwrought to insist that “everyone agrees” government can produce no constructive change, when of course it can and does, even in “the current political climate” (e.g. the ACA).

    (Apologies for all the scare quotes.)

    I understand the appeal of this for destitute or chronically underemployed communities, but I’m struggling to understand, in concrete terms, how an actual American working class family might transition from full-time jobs into a life of urban gardens and 3D printing.

    You’re not suggesting that Target checkout clerks work 40 hours a week only in order to sustain excessive consumerist habits, are you? Like, move from an iPhone to a flip phone, ditch cable, and you’re ready to pursue fulfillment? I’m pretty sure rent, health insurance, food, and so forth gobble up the lion’s share of those paychecks. Nevermind putting away a few dollars for your kids and/or your retirement.

    If you do make that lifestyle choice to opt out, how do you opt back in if it doesn’t work out the way you imagined? The longer you’re unemployed or partially employed, the harder it is to secure one of those old-fashioned soul-sucking jobs.

    And don’t we still have to save for retirement, even if we’re new-working?

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      My comments about what is or isn’t possible legislatively are peripheral to the endeavor itself. The point is to move forward on all fronts, and if federal legislation isn’t going to happen, then you push at other levels of government and other funding sources.

      I also don’t pretend to have a specific legislative policy agenda that if passed would bring about the desired changes. There are many things that would help, not none a cure-all and probably none in particular necessary for something like New Work to be enacted in a community.

      The community aspect is what’s lacking and what, as you say, is probably not going to make the calculation work out for most people right now. I don’t think it’s helpful to try to dissect in particular the calculation for a hypothetical person; I know with the folks Frithjof has worked with (e.g. the workers at GM in Flint) there actually was a financial cushion, and the use of consumerism as a drug to fill the void of meaninglessness, such that reduction of waste helped make the calculation work out, but the New Work lifestyle is not supposed to be made possible simply through austerity.

      For one, there’s nothing to say that one’s calling can’t or won’t yield profit. Second, a community solution does need to address retirement, transportation, housing, etc., i.e. it does need to provide options for these; I know a great deal of thought has been put into these issues, and I’ll see if we can’t get a video out giving an overview of some possible solutions here.

      I’m very aware of the acute need for demonstrations here and will keep following this issue until I’ve got some good illustrations to put forward. So, e.g. even leaving everything else about one’s current job status and lifestyle in place, if it proves possible to get the majority of one’s food through community production, so that, say, you put in a couple of hours of work a week and get all the vegetables, fruit, and bread your family needs, that would be a significant demonstration. I’m simply not familiar enough at this point with this particular issue to say whether this is already happening, or possible, or on the horizon, or if I’m missing some key element in how food alternatives are best addressed. (Hint, it’s not this:

      • Fredbo says

        Hi Mark,

        It’s Fredbo here. I don’t know where to begin! While I think New Work is a worthwhile notion and may open people’s eyes to other lifestyle possibilities, I think there are some flaws in the concept as you have it laid out. I feel the need to write a serious essay concerning New Work and the Job System (and its eschewal) as I have experienced it because of this. This is a very important subject for me and I feel it necessary to put my thoughts in writing. I will forward them to you to use as you wish. Let me know if you’d be interested in this or not.


  4. s. wallerstein says

    It seems obvious that most people on this planet cannot do what they love, but that some people can do what they love does not seem to make that situation worse (or better).

    Thus, it seems puritanical to insist that those in a position to do what they love not do it because there are many who cannot. It’s like becrying the fact that some people enjoy their meals when others are starving.

  5. SlackerInc says

    I like this essay a lot, save for the implicit assumption that watching more TV is necessarily a bad thing. I don’t have cable or satellite, but I love my Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime subscriptions, and do not believe the “premium TV” I watch is rotting my brain.

    I expect the increasingly automated nature of the economy (“rise of the robots” if you will) to ultimately be a positive thing for civilisation; but in the near and possibly medium term, it may create a lot of turmoil–especially if the right wing and economically libertarian types stubbornly prevent governments from smoothing the way.

  6. Profile photo of Heather Christie says

    “Do what you love” seems like an overly simplistic and prescriptive way to describe meaningful fulfilling work. I’m not sure if feeling called to service is universal but it’s common, for sure, and it doesn’t seem to discriminate. It seems like the same shallow interpretation of “Follow your bliss” that always brings to mind some white male baby boomer like Steve Jobs following his bliss. It’s a problem when meaningful work is defined for anybody. It’s very individual and circumstance dependent. There are times when one person can be an excellent and tireless caregiver and feel like the work itself is its own reward and maybe another year the same person will notice her own capacity for ingenuity and feel more helpful doing something creative. Not that people have to operate at their full potential at all times but meaningful work usually will involve both a service component and an aspect of being at a certain place on the mastery curve where they feel they are growing and developing their talents. It seems common that people come to this realization about what work means to them out of hardships or being stuck in situations where their work doesn’t give them extrinsic rewards and they have to generate the intrinsic motivations. To a privileged person “do what you love” is framed completely differently. I think if someone is worried that a certain type of work is completely undesirable it’s because they’ve always been privileged enough to not do it. When you have no choice but to do something you find meaning in it and you understand the idea from a different angle.

  7. Dan McLaughlin says

    Hi all.

    This is a topic I’ve begun to nibble along the edge of and am glad for the article. I found Tokumitsu’s article previously through a link on the Nowtopia website, which has had a longstanding target of understanding how work functions and is valued in different places.

    I have a pre-existing condition that favors the ascetic which I battle against all the time, but it’s not out of order to recognize that in this culture the way we’re encouraged to enjoy what’s derived from a sugar cane is through an ornate, 7-tiered wedding cake.

    At the same time we need to reconceptualize what is a valuable service to render to a community, described as work, we need at the same time to be ready for how we will value (if this feature becomes a part of the solution) those who don’t. As mentioned above, technology is constantly making us more productive, which should open up time for non-work. But all it does is increase the redundancy of human labor forces if the same employment structure remain in place. So can we get our head around not laboring, is an important question.

    André Gorz offered careful considerations on the topic of work and leisure in Capitalism, Socialism, Ecology, in a section entitled “The Crisis of ‘Work'”. As a tradesman I often see my co-workers clamouring to escape back to work from time off, going crazy with “nothing to do.” Mark’s point about “devis[ing] counseling and educational programs needed to help people develop themselves” is an important aspect of what needs to be a next step, and one which of necessity lands us in the social/political soup.

    Can we make our way back to seeing ourselves as citizens with common problems to tackle, and move away from an identity as individual consumers with isolated issues to shopsolve? New Work might be a route to this.

    Thanks for the discussion.

  8. Profile photo of Billie Pritchett says

    I wouldn’t be too put off by the Slate article. It never establishes its conclusion, which looks to be the following. “The problem with DWYL [‘do what you love’]… is that it leads not to salvation but to the devaluation of actual work–and more important, the dehumanization of the vast majority of laborers,” Tokumitsu writes. It’s like chastising anti-slavery advocates whose motto is “Everyone deserves to be free” for calling attention to the slaves and how demeaning their labor is to them. Which is to say, I think as you say, Mark, that ‘Do what you love’ is more a maxim that people be entitled to do meaningful work, the work they would feel inclined spending the better part of their lives doing. Of course there are other problems, like what to do about all the work that people don’t want to do but must necessarily be done. If nobody wants to do that work, then it could be compensated with more money or if all else fails shared. There’s a future where either would be possible.

  9. Profile photo of alan says

    I’ve always liked how Aesop Rock puts it: “We the American working population hate the fact that eight hours a day is wasted on chasing the dream of someone that isn’t us. And we may not hate our jobs, but we hate jobs in general that don’t have to do with fighting our own causes. We the American working population hate the nine to five, day in day out while we’d rather be supporting ourselves by being paid to perfect the pastimes that we have harbored based solely on the fact that it makes us smile if it sounds dope.”

    But I suppose that is focusing solely on the “Do what you love” aspect.

  10. Doug Pinkard says

    A little late in the day to begin worrying about this, wouldn’t you say? I mean, my barber raising questions about one life-choice being more or less elitist than another is one thing, but for graduate students in philosophy (even former ones) to be wringing hands over the subject at this late date is, well, curious, to say the least.

    That said, the answer to the question is: god, let’s hope so!

  11. burl says

    Do-gooders and political idealogues that want to rattle things up can be overly successful. Great insights are ripe for the picking on a walk down memory lane in the women’s liberation movement. It definitely shows us that people make something meaningful for themselves (by its adaption or negation) when they see it being values by others.

    Traditional single-income homes of past days had homemakers that clearly handled more important responsinilities than the vast majority of those paid jobs of their spouses. Nuture and care of family and neighborhood community activities were done using spouse’s money. But somehow, the idea that this was enslavement was the new desirable paradigm.

    The results have been profound, but one of the more immediate ramifications was that as homemakers (what today is referred to as stay at home moms/dads) took paying jobs, more income producers in workforce caused prices to rise to the point that the former homemaker enslaved to the job of nurturing now had to nuture AND be a slave to an income-producing job. House costs skyrocketed, and overall living costs could no longer be met w/ one modest salary.

    More can be gleaned looking at family structre, divorce, and schools, as well. The unintended economic result of being convinced by others that what you value is low quality is sufficient for this thread.


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