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Do What You Love*

*If What You Love is Already Valued in the Marketplace and Four Other Quotes for Today’s Creative

Paige Vickers

Personally, I blame Steve Jobs.

Maybe that’s not totally fair, but you know what, he’s a dead multimillionaire genius who will forever be revered, so I think he can take this heat. Jobs’s 2005 commencement address at Stanford University — widely quoted, viewed millions of times on the TED website, and discussed at length in biographies — centered around one idea: do what you love.

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life,” Jobs said, “and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it.”

Since then, the phrase “Do what you love, love what you do” has become an urtext of the 21st-century creative meritocracy, a shibboleth that pops up everywhere from design industry networking events, to Instagram influencer accounts, to wooden plaques sold at big-box craft stores. In a time when we fetishize the frontiers of creativity, DWYL and its variants — “Do what you love and you’ll never have a problem with Mondays,” “Do more of what makes you happy,” “Do awesome stuff” — seem like harmless enough updates to 1980s-era “Hang In There!” posters of kittens in trees. The implication is that unfettered opportunity to do what you love is a necessary ingredient for doing something new — even if that new thing is a status-oriented reinvention of something that’s not actually new at all. (Looking at you, $400 juicing machine invented by a former juice bar owner with an “overwhelming” love of wellness.)

But with every new iteration, exhortations to “Do what you love” and “Love what you do” have come to seem like perky cheerleaders for a game in which the rules are frustratingly subjective and the outcomes rigged. Jobs’s inspirational trajectory, where loving what you do becomes doing great work, and doing great work becomes success and fulfillment, skips the biggest and perhaps most inconvenient step: who decides what heart-led work is great, worth supporting, worth funding? Who decides that greatness translates into value, and thus into success? And who benefits from the belief that work you love is the only work worth doing?

I’ve worked in creative fields for more than 25 years as, among other things, a printmaking studio assistant, a textile designer, a writer, editor, and illustrator, and the cofounder of a feminist media organization. I’ve watched along with friends, colleagues, and educators as “work” and “value” have become malleable terms in technological and economic frontier building, and as the neoliberal tenets of unregulated self-interest have been given friendly, hand-lettered makeovers. I’ve been heartened by seeing the means of production becoming ever more accessible (blogs! Social media! YouTube!) and simultaneously frustrated in realizing that the power of commodity gatekeepers — in the fine arts, publishing, design, Hollywood — becomes more consolidated as they’re stacked into multinational corporations like Russian dolls.

For years, the status-quo path along which creatives like Jobs found their unique passions may not have opened into the same glorious success. Perhaps the question now is whether that path still exists at all in a world that increasingly defines “value” as what you create for the least amount of money in the shortest amount of time to yield the largest profit margins for the people who employ you. If we were to be honest in the inspirational words we try to live by, they might sound a little more like this:

Do what you love (assuming that what you love has already been deemed valuable by others).

A writer pitching a screenplay today isn’t that different from a 15th-century artisan competing to design the doors of a cathedral. If you’re in the position to get in the room, someone with money, power, influence, or all three has already decided that you, and what you love, has value.

DWYL has its own ouroboros-like origins, making its early post-Jobs appearances in spaces known for sparking consumer trends — blogs like DesignSponge and Decor8 — that then trickled down to saturate consumer culture. Much like the earlier, equally inescapable repurposed slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On,” DWYL has since been letterpressed, calligraphy-brushed, and stamped into its own niche market. There are podcasts dedicated to DWYL, branding-focused business seminars, and inspirational listicles that collect quotable do-what-you-love-ers. A quick look at DWYL Etsy search results reveals that more than one person out in the world can honestly say, “I’m doing what I love, and what I love is making posters and necklaces and journals that say ‘Do What You Love.’”

Pop-culture lore loves to celebrate the stubborn oddballs who pushed their way into stodgy industries, but mass creative culture is more risk-averse than we’d like to believe (especially if you’re not a white man representing what’s considered the “universal” perspective). One person’s success — a TV show about a Mafia antihero, say, or some badly-written erotic fan fiction — can set a template for what’s valued in the following 5, 10, or 20 years. If what you love also happens to be antiheroes or erotica, that may work out well. The person who loves something less marketable — or whose identity suggests that they themselves aren’t marketable enough — may have to find something else to love if they also want to keep the lights on.

Love what you do (assuming your passion is company-approved).

I’m old enough to remember a time when no one expected creative people to be passionate about their paid work. Fine-art majors were encouraged to become graphic designers; writers spent their days doing dry legal proofreading; musicians worked at Kinkos and slipped their friends the copy machine keys so they could make show flyers. Work was work; passion was what you did after clocking out.

The contemporary culture of cultivating ardent employees, wherein corporations write “passion statements” as well as ones for mission and vision, is predicated on the idea that simply showing up, putting your head down, and hitting your marks just isn’t enough — that you cannot create value for a company without the emotional performance of passion. In a 2014 Jacobinpiece, Miya Tokumitsu described the love-what-you-do imperative as the “perfect ideological tool of capitalism.” Owners and industries, not workers, benefit from reframing labor as a passionate calling, allowing them to reverse systemic problems back onto workers. (So what if you don’t get paid for updating your company’s Instagram on the weekend? If you were passionate enough, you’d be happy to do it!) Per Tokumitsu, DWYL/LWYD culture’s “real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.”

Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life (unless you count all the necessary side gigs).

When Steve Jobs exhorted those Stanford graduates to find what they love and to do it, he definitely wasn’t thinking of the millions of workers who have experienced environmental and health hazards at factories where Apple products are assembled. Likewise, it’s hard to look at a rustic wooden “Be Great Today” plaque in Target without picturing the underpaid person tasked with getting its swooping letters just right. When you know how the sausage gets made, it’s harder to buy the promises on its packaging.

These days, a contingent workforce of freelancers and contractors across most industries has increased starkly in a short amount of time, and skilled work that could once be counted on for a measure of longevity — say, teaching at a college or university — has become chronically insecure. (One recent survey, for instance, found that 31 percent of adjunct faculty live at or below the federal poverty line.) A cultural valuation of professional-class careers persists even as those jobs are contracted out and whittled down, and the reality is at odds with the image.

The question of what has value, and for whom, is one that’s hard and often demoralizing to answer. Independent artists see their work copied by behemoth corporations and have little recourse to stop it. Writers find their freelance rates being lowballed because there’s always someone young and hungry enough to work for “exposure.” Products that “disrupt” cooking or dry cleaning or gyms command millions in venture capital, but do so on the backs of the workers their innovations displace.

The sociologist Zygmunt Baumann wrote that, “People are cast in the underclass because they are seen as totally useless … In a society of consumers — a world that evaluates anyone and anything by their commodity value — they are people with no market value.” Or, as one person I know put it, “No one wants to know that their literature professor or the person who designed their wedding dress drives a Lyft all weekend.”

Don’t settle for less than what you love (but maybe rethink your definition of “settling”).

Recently a story from Toronto Life circulated throughout Twitter. The real-life protagonist was a self-described “foodie with a day job,” who loved cooking so much that one day, he decided that the best next step was to open a restaurant. Putting aside the obvious flaws in this plan (opening a restaurant is costly and monumentally failure-prone, plus it leaves very little time to actually cook), I found it notable — and, perhaps, germane to DWYL culture — that he described going from home cook to restaurant owner as a totally sensible trajectory. In a culture that has endless advice about monetizing and optimizing, you can imagine why he thought that “just” cooking for himself wasn’t going to feed his passion.

“I love this, therefore I should do it for a living” is a message that for decades has driven people into disastrous business ventures, unhealthy working conditions, and debt. DWYL simply cosigns it — a fact that business experts have cited when advising people against “following their passions.” Maybe it’s worth considering that DWYL culture has become so persistent, so omnipresent, and so aspirational, because in a churn of contract positions and gig-economy proselytizing, it offers a clear goal and a framework of autonomy. That you might not be able to control your worth, but you can control your narrative, is somewhat of a tantalizing myth.

“Don’t settle,” said Jobs, but ditch-it-and-keep-moving advice is an awfully zero-sum approach to finding your number-one, top-banana passion in a marketplace of opportunities and options. You can also love something, but simultaneously know what your limits with that thing are. The “what” in DWYL doesn’t have to be singular. And if we believe that the value of home cooks, hobbyists, and weekend artists can be equal to the value of critical acclaim and widespread recognition, maybe we don’t need to “settle” at all.