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Why “do what you love” isn’t such a great idea

Marta Design | Shutterstock

Ideas don’t become generally popular unless they serve someone’s interests, and those interests are probably not yours.

There is no nonsense like the nonsense promoted by corporation and state. No words, no jargon, no jingles, so corrupting of human life. It is the language of institutions that want you for their own.

I use “nonsense” instead of the pungent and more accurate metaphor that would get me a lecture from the editors.

Do what you love

Look at the popular slogan “Do what you love.” Who could object to that? It seems to express the ideal life. As one 19th-century philosopher put it, we should be able to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to work in the morning and relax in the afternoon, do a different work in the evening, and then talk about books and ideas after dinner. We should do whatever we have a mind to do.

Sounds lovely. But “Do what you love” does not mean that in practice, except for a small elite. As the painter Timothy Jones remarked on my Facebook page, the slogan “is twisted into ‘love what you do, or else.’” Michael Fraley added, “It’s the corporate feel good-ism of getting your ‘eggs’ from ‘free range people.’”

To paraphrase a Dylan song, “I gave them my work but they wanted my soul.” Miya Tokumitsu has written Do What You Love and Other Lies About Success and Happiness. (The book appeared two years ago. A Facebook memory reminded me of the subject.) She says in an interview in The Atlantic:

Work is held up as something that is more revelatory about your character than the interests you have or the way you care about other people or care for other people. I feel like it comes from people who are earnest in their striving and want to do good things and want to be good people, but it leads to this culture where people are just working all the time.

And exploiting those under them. Tokumitsu mentions a Craigslist ad asking for a “passionate” house-cleaner. That strikes me as a kind of imperialistic narcissism. You pay the person to scrub your floors and clean your toilets, but you also demand they invest themselves in your life. You want them to squeal with delight because you will be using that now shining porcelain device.

They ought to be happy not because they’ve done a job well and earned money they can use for their own purposes, like feeding their families. They ought to be happy because they’ve made you happy, as if you were their child or spouse or friend. You don’t want to make them happy in the same way, of course.

Tokumitsu traces this idea to the effect of America’s extraordinary postwar prosperity on the Protestant work ethic. What she calls “the virtue strain of work” and the new “culture of self” “combined in the late 1970s and 1980s, and in a way pleasure-seeking became the virtue.” The idea is “not even that old. People have told me, ‘Yeah my grandmother thinks this idea is totally selfish and narcissistic.’ So if you go back one or two generations, it’s not an intuitive idea for people.” Had I said this as young man, my own father, born in 1930, would have scowled and said, “Get a job first.”

Corporations use this idea of happiness, Tokumitsu explains, though she stresses that they do often want their employees’ good, even if motivated by gain. “Employers are looking to harvest social interaction and worker authenticity for profit,” she says. “It’s all about opening the worker up, even your body and your interior thoughts, to potential monetization by the employer. They want you to stop smoking so you’ll stop taking cigarette breaks. They want you to lose weight so you’ll be more attractive as a salesperson.”

Don’t do what you love

I think we can take from this two lessons. First, to use the academic jargon, interrogate every popular idea and slogan before you use it. It will almost certainly have hidden ideological uses you will not see at first. Ideas don’t become generally popular unless they serve someone’s interests, and those interests are probably not yours, especially if you’re a Catholic.

Second, against this idea of the good life we should assert a counter-idea: Our life in Christ comes first. The slogan “Be with the One you love” might work. Authentic human life begins with God. In the famous words of Gaudium et spes, “Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.”

We do what we truly love when we become like Our Lord. That begins in the Mass and in the life of prayer and charity. It begins also in being honest about what we are doing and why. To put it simply: When you have to clean toilets, don’t squeal with delight.

By the way, that 19th-century philosopher I mentioned? That was Karl Marx.

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