Do what you love: the perfect con

‘Do what you love’ is the siren call of the twenty-first century. But it could be the perfect con.

“Do what you love”, says Marc Anthony, “and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Of course, it’s good for Marc Anthony to suggest so; he’s the top selling tropical salsa artist of all time, a two-time Grammy and five-time Latin Grammy winner. Winners are great at encouraging others to win at life.

But I’m being a little unfair, because Anthony grew up in East Harlem, also known as Spanish Harlem, the youngest of eight surviving children of immigrant parents. And the world, most particularly Americans, love stories like Anthony’s – of someone who succeeds “despite the odds”.

“Despite the odds” reinforces the status quo. Because it’s not the system that’s the problem – it’s the lack of pluck and determination that others from Anthony’s circumstances didn’t exercise.

Who gets to choose?

Who chooses to ‘do what you love’ are those who can – those whose existence is, first, not a hand-to-mouth one, and second, have the freedom to choose a career for personal reward rather than other factors including familial pressure and expectation, dire economic circumstances, market and geographical dictates.

We love the “despite the odds” stories of success because they put human endeavor and all the virtues we are proud to share – including determination, persistence, hard work, and creativity – above the very real but oftentimes complex, interwoven, nuanced, obscure and sometimes-invisible systemic causes that are outside our control. These include our education, the culture in which we grew up, and the particular nuances and bias within our upbringing.

It’s easy to point to virtues and ignore insidious influences – it’s simple, it’s encouraging, it’s empowering. And it’s also an incomplete story.

The poster child of ‘do what you love’ is Oprah. Oprah’s biography has been presented, managed, reframed, edited, examined and dissected over her last 30 years in the spotlight. Her journey from poor little girl in rural Mississippi to billionaire sage with fans the world over is the perfect “despite the odds” morality story.

Simply put, the ‘do what your love’ maxim suggests that external conditions are far less significant than personal choices. Digging deeper, positive thinking will determine outcomes, so complaining, railing, protesting or resisting circumstances, events or systems is counterproductive. Doing your best is not only an imperative but a moral, and, some might suggest, spiritual directive.

Who does the ‘other’ work?

‘Do what you love’ makes work either covetable, which includes creative, intellectual, glamorous or socially prestigious, and disagreeable, which covers unintellectual, messy, highly physical, repetitive, unglamorous work. Disagreeable work is devalued.

The problem is, disagreeable work – such as garbage collection, data entry, and construction – is the most plentiful as well as highly necessary. It’s a stretch to imagine a garbage collector bounding out of bed at 3am, grateful that he does what he loves and loves what he does. The work is necessary; he gets paid; end of story.

It’s also difficult to escape the fact that those who are most keen on the ‘do what you love’ maxim can oftentimes be employed or self-employed in endeavours which aren’t necessary while relying on others to do the necessary, unglamorous work.

Love and passion and exploitation

Industries that are most coveted are often rife with exploitation – think fashion, media, the arts, higher education, yoga. There’s nothing like passion and enthusiasm to yield a ready workforce of un-paid or under-paid interns.

When love and passion and the opportunity to ‘live the dream’ are present, there’s no end of privileged people ready to work. Someone has to pay, of course, likely parents, a partner, an inheritance or a trust fund.

Moving ‘the other’ further away

Personal inspection on our talents, passions, and uniqueness is dressed up as noble self-betterment. It is self-focused and self-referring. Sometimes, as in the case of Oprah, there’s call to ‘serve’ and ‘be of service’ to others but in plenty of other circumstances, the call to ‘pursue your passion’ and ‘do what you love’ is for personal reasons only.

This search for meaning in our existence can become relentless, all-consuming, and expensive. It’s time-consuming and costly and makes us feel occupied and important – like we’re working ‘at’ something and using our gifts and talents to create and derive meaning.

With so much public attention and personal introspection, we move ‘the other’ further away. We have essentially made the farmer, the miner, the mechanic, distant and abstract. Immersed in introspection, we’re excused from being concerned with the wider world. We’re busy with the important work of finding our true purpose.

The collective drive to realise our dreams makes little or no reference to the world around us. Oprah implores us to adopt ourselves to our circumstances rather than change the system that lead to the circumstances. We demand little or nothing from the system of powerful people and institutions. We strive to “make something of ourselves” and to achieve “despite the odds”.

The vast majority of workers, both within our geography and internationally, are further away from our experience, attention and thoughts, with a commensurate effect on our empathy. This enables our collusion with businesses and politics that we know are exploiting workers, paying barely-minimum wages, or have atrocious environmental records.

With so much investment in the continuing introspection of pinpointing ‘what we love’, we have little left over for the ‘other’, who exists as an increasingly abstract reality. As such, it’s increasingly unlikely that the elite will agitate or support calls for raising minimum wage or improving workers’ conditions. By devaluing actual work that isn’t creative, glamorous, intellectual or socially prestigious, we’re dehumanizing workers whose livelihood doesn’t fit the ideal. The hypocrisy is mostly lost on people, particularly those who coach others to raise their prices by outsourcing large swathes of work to workers in the third world.

We are creating the depoliticised, complacent subjects who don’t challenge the status quo and point to the likes of Oprah or Marc Anthony to illustrate how systems don’t need changing, people do.

Upward mobility continues to be a myth. The status quo is reinforced. Inequality is widening. But it’s all in the name of love, so it’s all good, bro.

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