A few years ago in an article in Slate, Miya Tokumitsu, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, pointed out the flaws and absurdity of the mantra “do what you love.” Dr. Tokumitsu traces the phrase’s origin from as far back as Confucius or currently with Oprah Winfrey, whichever you hold in higher esteem or whichever you consider to be a philosophical genius. It is your choice, whichever one makes you happy. I remember hearing that he loved his job from a truck driver, who unapologetically loved driving trucks, being on the road, seeing the landscape, meeting the people. I would have short conversations with this driver while he was driving and he was enviously happy doing his job, driving trucks. Somehow, Dr. Tokumitsu thinks that DWYL is a malicious lie of the bourgeoisie foisted upon a gullible proletariat in a desperate search for happiness.
Dr. Tokumitsu claims, “DWYL is a secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment.” I knew those elitist scoundrels had that secret handshake that only they shared, and now that I’m writing an essay critical of Tokumitsu, the odds of my getting it are nil, but I thank Tokumitsu for confirming what I suspected for years. By the way, do they teach you the secret handshake at the elitist universities or at the secret meetings that the elites attend, or do they do it when they get their key to the country club? As for work being for the “noble self-betterment” what politician in America would not claim that their hard work was “all for the American people?” It was Bill Clinton who announced to the American people that “I have never worked harder on anything before in my life,” while comedian Bill Maher, who spent some time at the Clinton White House said that Clinton had plenty of free time. I agree wholeheartedly with Tokumitsu that the privileged elites claim what they characterize as “hard work” is part of their noblesse oblige, when it is, in fact, little more than self-gratifying carousing with their fellow egocentric elites. Not to criticize country clubs too much, but I have known several mangers who claimed hours at the country club were work.
Tokumitsu continues: “Work becomes divided into two opposing classes: that which is lovable (creative, intellectual, socially prestigious) and that which is not (repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished). Those in the lovable-work camp are vastly more privileged in terms of wealth, social status, education, society’s racial biases, and political clout, while comprising a small minority of the workforce.” Aren’t physical exams kind of repetitive and undistinguished for doctors, but they probably still love healing people? Isn’t writing code for computers (a high-paying job) repetitive? I can honestly say giving the same lecture to students is repetitive, but I’m not bored by doing it. While giving lectures to students might be repetitive, I know people (anecdotal evidence here) that would never deliver a lecture and would greatly prefer digging a ditch to standing in front of a bunch of students spouting facts.
C’mon Tokumitsu, just call it the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, we know you want to. Many workers everywhere would love to be the boss and repeatedly say that they would run the show a lot differently if they were in charge, except that once they understand what it is to be in charge, they would be remarkably similar to their boss. Some of them don’t want to be the boss, I know, I’ve worked with them, and have been one of them. Some of them, not all, I freely admit, love doing what they’re doing, despite Dr. Tokumitsu’s assertion.
America has changed from a country led by wealthy well-heeled elites into a meritocracy where people with ordinary backgrounds, such as Barack Obama, who came from a divided family of meager means, can rise to the highest office in the land. Bill Clinton, also from a broken family with meager means attained the presidency as well. Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower were by no means from wealthy elitist families. The universal generalization that the wealthy elites have an absolute advantage over the rest of the American population is simply not true in twenty-first century America, and hasn’t been true for some time. John F. Kennedy was an Irish Catholic, who was also the first Catholic elected president. Unbeknownst to most people and rarely mentioned in American history books, the Irish in America were regularly discriminated against, given menial jobs and denied opportunities. While John F. Kennedy’s father was wealthy, his was not a family of generations of wealth, like, say, the Rockefellers.
The question as to whether the evolution of a country led by wealthy elites to the present meritocracy is beneficial remains to be seen; but judging by America’s recent decline in influence and wealth, a fact repeatedly harped upon by leaders such as Barack Obama, some would say it hasn’t turned out all that well. Barack Obama’s disparagement of American exceptionalism in numerous speeches belies the fact that he is himself a product of American exceptionalism and the meritocracy that it has progressed into. In societies too numerous to mention, Barack Obama would have never had a chance to make it to any executive position, let alone chief executive of a country. I’m guessing that’s why America still has people flocking from around the world to live here; at least in America you have a chance to do what you love. The swamp of specialized bureaucrats is still alive and flourishing in the branches of government that are not elected and are rarely held accountable for anything. What they love is their lack of productivity and generous pay and pensions paid for by normal, everyday taxpayers slaving away at things they hate doing.
Dr. Tokumitsu is dead-on correct saying: “Yet with the vast majority of workers effectively invisible to elites busy in their lovable occupations, how can it be surprising that the heavy strains faced by today’s workers—abysmal wages, massive child care costs, etc.—barely register as political issues even among the liberal faction of the ruling class?” There is no doubt that the political class, (aka ruling class) be they Republican or Democrat, are in the pockets of the wealthy elite, and have been for some time. That the political class of America can ignore their unhappy minimum-wage constituencies is a failure of American democracy, but it would be foolish to suggest that Americans can vote themselves high-paying jobs that they will love. The recently displaced millions of working-class Americans voted in Donald Trump because he was an outsider and they were sick of the political class who promised things that they never delivered.
We can’t make a nation, let alone a world, where everyone loves their job, but there is no harm in advising people to seek a job they love, or at least enjoy. I have had conversations with people who worked for McDonald’s, the epitome of low-paying service sector jobs that now dominate the American economy, that loved their jobs. Firms like Google and Apple and others are competing to be the best place to work, trying to acquire talent that they insist is becoming scarce. There are firms that want you to love your job, and there are citizens that love repetitive menial jobs, believe it or not. I realize my evidence is anecdotal; truck drivers and McDonald’s employees, but Tokumitsu offers no empirical evidence to support the disparagement of DWYL.
Dr. Tokumitsu continues: “Do what you love disguises the fact that being able to choose a career primarily for personal reward is a privilege, a sign of socioeconomic class.” While that is somewhat true, access to education for a career and a climb up the socioeconomic ladder in America has greatly expanded, and the American population is more educated now than it has ever been. Doing things for personal reward, like writing essays, doesn’t always result in wealth, but ideally, as Adam Smith said in The Wealth of Nations each of us seeking our best brings out the best in the economy. Many Americans have said that they aren’t rich but they’re happy, and you might want to ask some of the recent lottery winners if money is the secret to happiness.
Dr. Tokumitsu closes with: “In masking the very exploitative mechanisms of labor that it fuels, DWYL is, in fact, the most perfect ideological tool of capitalism. If we acknowledged all of our work as work, we could set appropriate limits for it, demanding fair compensation and humane schedules that allow for family and leisure time.” Finding something you love doing and making money doing it has become an insidious capitalist plot. Of course, it took someone from an elite Ivy-League school to tell us that, thank you very much. What’s next? Is the frequently-used expression “living the dream” going to be revealed as a motto foisted upon us by greedy, racially preferred, politically connected, egocentric elites of the upper socioeconomic order, you know, those people with secret handshakes and secret societies who care nothing about the working-class dogs whose sweat makes their lives so delightful? I’m pretty sure that the people who dreamed up DWYL didn’t intend for it to become a shibboleth for the ruthlessly exploited working class. I’m also pretty sure that extrapolating an innocuous phrase intended to help people search for meaning in their work into a socioeconomic war cry is classic Ivy-League rationalizing that we’ve all been, once again, duped by the capitalist conspirators who continuously exploit the working class. I must commend Dr. Tokumitsu for the exceptional ability to read more evil than found in a Tom Clancy novel into a four-word phrase.
I’m all for fair compensation and humane schedules. I just hope that as a society we don’t make schedules so humane that when we have a heart attack at 2 AM we don’t have anyone at a hospital who is willing to help us. Some people like working nights, and there are a lot of emergency room workers who love, even crave, the excitement and challenges. As for compensation, allowing boards of directors, rather than shareholders, to determine their pay has resulted in horrifically disproportionate corporate pay scales, and the boards who have been challenged by shareholders to stop this asked the regulators (that political/ruling class we spoke of) to stop the shareholders from restricting their compensation. There is an incredibly pervasive incestuous relationship between regulators and the socioeconomic elites that run corporate America, but disparaging DWYL is so far of the mark you might as well shoot for Saturn.
Capitalism never said that you must love your work, but all of the citizens free to pursue happiness is considerably better, and at least they have the chance to love their work, than the government telling us what we must do. Characterizing DWYL as a capitalist ideological tool makes the most off-the-wall conspiracy theorist look like a genius. I must admit that I am now doing something that I love, but I had to do a lot of things that I didn’t love to make it to this point. If I’m doing something I love, whether the capitalists are exploiting me or not is irrelevant. I suggest that Dr. Tokumitsu read Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmilalyi, who has scientifically examined the satisfaction and happiness of people who do everything from major surgery to collecting herbs from mountainsides, and they all share common characteristics that I won’t elaborate on here. Dr. Tokumitsu insists that only the wealthy elite love their jobs, or even have lovable jobs, and that is patently false, at least from my experience. Perhaps making allegations of a bourgeois conspiracy foisted upon the proletariat is what makes Dr. Tokumitsu happy. As for the job you’re sure that you’ll love, remember the French saying: “Be careful what you pray for, God might give it to you.”-