What did you want to be when you grew up?
I had a few ideas: pastor, band director, and professor. As a fairly unimaginative kid, I cycled through those three moderately practical options until 20 years old. My mom tells a story about me preaching from the top of our backyard slide when I was just 6 or 7 years old. Although, I did go through a brief phase where I wanted to be a marine biologist.
While pastor, band director, and professor are distinctly different paths, they have quite a bit in common—speaking in front of groups, learning a lot, leadership, and generating some kind of creative project. So while I’m not a pastor, band director, or professor today, my work certainly falls into the same bucket.
These professions were based on what I loved: Jesus, music, and learning.
I’m just about 40 years old, and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t expect to “do what I love” for a living or when I didn’t associate occupation with identity. That said, culturally speaking, “doing what you love” for a living is a relatively new concept.
Doing what you love for a living is—in theory—a nice concept. If you’re going to spend 30, 40, 50, or more hours of your week doing something, then doing something that makes you happy seems a good plan. But how did we go from seeing a job (itself a recent invention) as a way to get what you need to live to the primary means of our self-discovery and personal fulfillment?
This article is going to cover some extensive territory. But it won’t provide a bunch of practical recommendations. Instead, it’s a crash course in critical thinking about why you do what you do for a living, which will help you make better practical decisions about how you run your business or navigate your career.
Let’s start with a brief history of doing what you love.
In this article:
This article is also available as Episode 388 of What Works.
Click here to find it on your favorite podcast player.
A History of Doing What You Love
Doing what you love for a living is a new concept. But just as with so many other aspects of our 21st-century economy, it feels like it’s always been the goal. That’s because our economic system is quite clever. It’s continually reinventing itself as capital finds new ways to profit. In the earliest days of the American colonies, hard work was seen as a godly endeavor—a sign of your predetermined salvation. This laid the groundwork for America’s unique brand of capitalism. By equating eternal salvation with financial accumulation, capitalists justified their endeavors, and workers gladly met industry’s needs.
In the early 20th century, the spirit of capitalism morphed to venerate the nuclear family and job loyalty. Fordism proclaimed middle-class success as the man on the assembly line 40 hours per week and the woman at home caring for children and home. Wage work was the primary means of supporting a household—the nature of the work itself wasn’t relevant as long as it provided a comfortable life.
Then, consumer culture started to reach a fever pitch.
More women began working outside of the home in the 70s and 80s. The spirit of capitalism evolved again to normalize dual-earner households—and all of the consumer goods those households could buy. More workers attuned themselves to careers that made money and supported lifestyles that were beyond comfortable. They worked longer and longer hours and often exposed themselves to more and more moral injury.
The 80s and 90s saw yet another shift as capitalism continued to accelerate. American society became even more individualistic, and “personal responsibility” was the calling card of both political parties. At the same time, employers demanded more and more of workers—while nonwage benefits rapidly declined. Even though the mid-to-late 90s saw a booming economy, workers saw no wage increases in relative terms.
This period set the stage for the rapid rise of the “Do What You Love” ideology.
Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello suggest that capitalism’s message toward work evolves to answer these three questions:
How will people secure a living for themselves and their families? How do they find enthusiasm for the process of accumulation, even if they are not going to pocket the profits? And how can they justify the system and defend it against accusations of injustice?(via Sarah Jaffe’s, Work Won’t Love You Back)
“Doing what you love” seems to serve as an answer to each question.
Since wages don’t seem to provide for workers or families today, “doing what you love” becomes a substitute for economic stability.
“Doing what you love” provides a basis for work passion and enthusiasm—even without the direct benefit of the work performed.
“Doing what you love” provides cover for the system’s injustices by putting an affective mask over exhaustion and even misery.
Sara Jaffe observes how workers’ demands in the second half of the 20th century were coopted by corporate initiatives as internal marketing. And then as recast popular wisdom in the 21st-century economy. She writes of workers, “They wanted democratic control over the firm; they got employee stock ownership plans. They wanted less work, a life less dominated by the demands of the boss; they got fewer jobs and work fragmented into gigs. … They wanted more interesting work; they got simply more work. They wanted authentic human connection; they got demands to love their jobs.”
I was surprised to learn that Abraham Maslow was among the first to propose work as the best tool for self-actualization. That’s Maslow like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I’d done some basic research on the hierarchy of needs for my book. But I hadn’t come across his influential work, titled initially Eupsychian Management, published in 1965. Eupsychian is a term Maslow invented to describe “having or moving toward a superior mind or soul.” Maslow came to believe that work was our best tool for achieving a superior mind or soul. By engaging in fulfilling and purposeful work, we could become better people. He even suggested that most people benefit more from purposeful work than from therapy.
Today, both work and consumption are positioned as our best means for self-actualization.
Enhancing my economic situation is a stand-in for improving my life.
You can even see consumption-as-self-actualization in Target ads:
Come in for workout gear, leave feeling empowered. Come in for snack time, leave more fulfilled.
It’s easy to let a commercial like that just float on by between segments of Good Mythical Morning, but if you pay attention? Well, I can’t imagine saying anything other than: What the hell?!
Doing What I Love is… Complicated
This subject of doing what you love is a complicated one for me. Right off the bat, it’s complicated by my privilege as a college-educated white woman. But it’s also complicated by growing up in a downwardly mobile, working-class family. With the help of hindsight, I know that the expectations I picked up on as a bright, promising child weren’t that I would exceed my parents’ station in life. The hope was that I could regain my grandparents’ station or even exceed it.
I remember the moment this started to click for me. I was already a senior in college, working in a sleepy jewelry store the size of a walk-in closet at a fancy hotel. My manager took an interest in me and fed my general curiosity by sharing everything she knew about the jewelry business—which was extensive. One day, she brought in some information she’d printed out about a grant for graduate students who were the first to graduate from college in their families. When she saw it, she thought of me. I don’t remember what she knew of my parents or their education level, but I remember telling her in response that I wasn’t the first to graduate from college in my family. My grandmother earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in the 1940s.
My parents did do work they enjoyed—my mother was a tailor, my father a cop.
But that’s not why they did those jobs. My mom sewed because that work allowed her to be at home with her kids. My dad was a cop because he was interested in criminal justice and because it’s one of the few working-class jobs that still includes full benefits and a pension.
I’ve often told the story of the breakdown that led me to quit grad school before I started. Dread consumed me as I prepared to leave for Syracuse: Would doing what I love ever lead to a stable life? I knew I could finish grad school—but then what? Would I be able to find a tenure-track professorship? Or would I be resigned to gig work as an adjunct for the rest of my life? Would I even be able to find a job as an adjunct?
Grief is the only way to describe what I wrestled with during those lonely weeks. I felt the profound loss of a future doing what I love, a future brightened by meaning and fulfillment. I grieved the missed opportunities and situational misunderstandings that left me with a 4-year degree and zero job prospects. By recognizing that what I love to do isn’t economically viable, I internalized my value to a society that measures everything in productivity. I felt worthless. Literally.
This was the first time the weight of adulthood and its disappointments bore down on me.
I’ve been clawing and scratching my way back to that life-defining moment for nearly twenty years now—trying to find a balance between doing what I love and meeting my needs. Trying to reclaim what felt like a birthright while simultaneously coming to terms with its sheer improbability. Trying to understand my self-worth in a culture that doesn’t know how to measure me.
This article is also available as Episode 388 of What Works.
Click here to find it on your favorite podcast player.
Show Me the Money
What would you do for a living if money wasn’t an issue?
I suppose that’s the grownup’s version of the “what do you want to be when you grow up?” question. And it’s just as fraught.
Money will always be an issue for all but a minuscule group of people. We are responsible for paying our way here in the US and the cost of living—literally—just keeps going up as we receive less support from our communities, employers, and the government.
My house earned more than I did last year. What can I say? It was a bad year for me and a great year for my house. In fact, according to a study by Zillow, houses earned more money than people did last year. The median value increase for a home was almost $53,000, while the median income for a full-time worker was only $50,000, notes Timothy Noah in The New Republic.
Noah goes on to make the case that, it turns out, “working” is a fool’s game. He means that we’ve been sold on this idea of full-time work as the path to financial independence and long-term stability. But really?
Asset ownership is the only way to make it in the 21st-century.
Dan Olsen, the filmmaker behind the viral video Line Goes Up, explains this phenomenon to Ezra Klein:
Basically, participation in the financial economy is the only possible method for really changing your station in life. If you want to move from working class to idle class, you’re never going to do that off of wages. Like, it’s mathematically impossible for you to work enough hours to get rich off of even, like, $25 an hour, $50 an hour, $80 an hour.
If you want to move from working class to idle class, you need to find something that’s going to give you 1,000 times, 10,000 times, 100,000 times return. You need to participate in these investment schemes. And so there’s this frustration that the average person has been denied the opportunity to win this very specific type of lottery.
But let’s not even talk about moving from the working class to the idle class. What about the prospect of working to live a life free from constant anxiety that an unexpected bill could topple everything you’re worked for?
Freedom from constant anxiety about an unexpected bill isn’t merely a question of how much money you make, although earning more certainly helps. Freedom from financial anxiety isn’t something any of us can genuinely accomplish individually. Making more money every year doesn’t significantly impact the potential for it to all go up in smoke in an emergency. Relief requires a network of support and resources. It’s a community project—because the more one person in a community is vulnerable, the more vulnerable any of us are as individuals.
However, this isn’t what’s being sold to us today.
What’s being sold—literally—is the spectacle of personal enrichment.
Philosopher and theorist Guy Debord took this on in The Society Of The Spectacle in 1967. He observed that post-industrial societies tend to focus less and less on material reality and more on the “immense accumulation of spectacles.” He notes how life becomes more of a performance and that our experiences are “replaced with [their] representation in the form of images.”
Sounds like influencer marketing. Sounds like Instagram. Sounds like fancy websites and photoshoots rather than sound business systems.
They tell us to do what we love, build a business, and enjoy financial freedom. Be an owner, not a worker, they say*.* But if there’s anything I’ve learned from studying small businesses over the last decade-plus, it’s that there’s the truth, and then there’s the marketing message. There’s the facade of glamor, success, and luxury—and then the reality of daily life and work.
And the confusion between the image the reality can do a lot of harm.
Imagine a 7-figure online business that sells an online course and a high-end mastermind program. Most of the time, that business is spending tens of thousands of dollars each month on Facebook ads, paying out just as much to affiliate marketers, and supporting a small staff. The owner might take home $200k. That’s nothing to sneeze at, of course! But there are far easier ways to earn $200k. The spectacle of the 7-figure online course business makes that the preferred path for many. Imagine the images that kind of business provides you with!
Buying the Passion Paradigm
Given the hours and energy we trade for the potential of achieving this spectacle, I’ve been thinking a lot about who benefits from this arrangement. Who benefits from the spectacle of success? Who wins when so many of us feel “unemployable” by virtue of our hopes and dreams?
Who benefits when a significant segment of the middle class is compelled to become micro capitalists because all of the other options have dried up? Does this arrangement create more economic opportunity or simply new ways to exploit and be exploited?
It’s true that, in many ways, my life has gotten easier since becoming a business owner. I can earn a good living from interests that would never pay as well in the labor market. My schedule is more flexible. I spend more time doing things I’m excited about than not. But in many ways, my life is still more precarious than it was 15 years ago. Health insurance, retirement, disability insurance—those are all squarely on me and the good graces of companies that don’t particularly like to do business with individuals. Worker’s compensation and unemployment insurance? Forget about it. And when I bought my house seven years ago, I had to hurdle through so many hoops just to get my mortgage approved without W-2s—even though my income to home price ratio was significantly under-leveraged.
And listener? I have it easy. I have both a house and a job. Others have to clear much more significant obstacles to stability.
Many jobs simply don’t pay enough.
They have no benefits, no security, not even a regular schedule. We know this. There is no way to work yourself into upward mobility today for all but a lucky few. What’s more, The Passion Paradigm, as sociologist Lindsay DePalma dubbed it, has convinced us that work passion is more important than compensation.
Why would we trade doing what we love for letting our needs go unmet?
DePalma suggests that we pursue work passion as a form of necessitated self-care, a way to alleviate some of the stress from work expanding into every corner of our lives and making up a core part of our identities. Working in the 21st-century will take its toll on you—whether you’re in business for yourself or working for someone else. So loving your work is one way to mitigate the harm. The passion paradigm flips the hierarchy of needs on its head. Love your work, first. And maybe one day, you’ll have some money in a savings account.
The passion paradigm is pervasive.
DePalma studied a group of engineers, graphic designers, and nurses as a sample of the professional workforce. She found that 77% of respondents felt that passion should be a higher priority than pay or talent when it comes to one’s job. 92% believed that college-educated workers should be passionate about their work—and the vast majority of that group felt that professionals had it within their own control to find work they’re passionate about. And, 78% of all respondents believed that everyone has the power to do work they’re passionate about—a number that shocked both DePalma and me.
But let’s go back to that first number—77% of respondents felt that passion should be prioritized above pay or talent. I was undoubtedly fed that line throughout my education and early career. And today, under ideal circumstances, I might align myself with that belief. But today’s circumstances aren’t ideal.
Work is ubiquitous in our lives today.
Whether you respond to emails after hours or merely scroll through the Gram while you’re watching TV, there are few times that our brains aren’t exposed to some aspect of our work. Gender and political theorist Kathi Weeks argues that the desire to love your work results directly from how work takes over our lives. Do What You Love ideology romanticizes work to allow us to overlook the system’s flaws, the same way that romantic love allows you to ignore the way your beloved chews their food or leaves their damp towel on the floor.
And what is the Do What You Love ideology?
Do What You Love ideology is a set of beliefs and moral judgments about how “workers can find meaningful delight in their jobs.” It’s a cultural standard that insists on loving your work and being happy on the job as the preferred approach to livelihood. Of course, getting paid to do work you love isn’t the problem. The concern with this ideology is how it’s used to extract more time, effort, and will from workers. Weeks writes:
The familiar cultural tropes of love and happiness are posed both as the way to tap into what is imagined as a vast reservoir of will and energy, and as the handle that employers can use to leverage that energy into productive activity.
If you’re expected to love what you do, then employers will expect you to give and give and give because of that affection.
Of course, we play out the same script in our businesses. We willingly go above and beyond with our time and attention—and why not? We love what we do! Right? …right?
To dig into this mindset a bit more, I asked Lou Blaser what prompted her to turn her back on a highly successful corporate career and do her own thing. Today, Lou produces the Midlife Cues newsletter, which aims to take a fresh look at what we want from middle age, and the Second Breaks podcast.
Lou told me that her decision wasn’t the result of some burning desire to become a business owner. Instead, “it was more about chasing autonomy and proving something to myself.” She didn’t know what she would do exactly, so examining what she loved to do seemed like “an obvious starting point.” She also felt that doing what she loved was a more credible reason for leaving her corporate life behind. For Lou, doing what she loved was its own calculation—separate from considerations about the market, business structure, or sustainability.
I didn’t ask myself those questions to be candid. Sometimes you have to dive in and drink a little bit of water before you realize that maybe you like diving and swimming to the end of the pool, but not so much the sweating and the staying afloat part of swimming.
Do What You Love ideology also reconfigures our relationship to work.
Instead of something we do, work is who we are. Weeks explains that the borders between working and not working have broken down. We can work from anywhere, so we work from everywhere. Any communication can be marketing, so all communication is marketing. Any relationship can be a business relationship, so every relationship is a business relationship. Doing what you love might make it an easier pill to swallow—but it’s a bitter one.
While Maslow posited that work was the best tool for self-actualization, we can see how viewing work-as-self-actualization sets us up to circumvent material needs. Self-actualization is now positioned, for many, as the most basic need. Doing meaningful work is recognized as a more fundamental requirement than housing, food, or healthcare. You can see this in just about any Help Wanted poster for a retail store or restaurant right now. They advertise a fun and creative work environment where you can “fuel your purpose” or “follow your passion.” Meanwhile, they sweep under the rug that your working hours are never stable, and the pay rate is less than $12 per hour.
You can also see this in how online business courses are sold and the ways gig platforms are marketed. As an empowered business owner, you can “create a life you love.” You can “build a business you don’t want to escape from.” You can see yourself as a rockstar, an influencer, or a creator. You can hustle your way to your best life.
But so much of this is just a spectacle.
These messages lead to the performance of passion and lifestyle. The inescapable image of work passion becomes the model for how we understand ourselves and our way of life.
When I talk to business owners who have bought into the spectacle, we often discover that their actual material, creative, and psychological needs are not being met. Further, we often find that their business is not even built to meet those needs.
Or, as Lou Blaser put it:
I think that it’s good to remember that doing something for the love of doing it and doing something for a living are two different things. And the moment that you add the economic angle to an activity. Yeah, it becomes a totally different thing.
The difference between doing something because you love it and doing something you love for a living is key. As Lou said, that economic angle puts a whole different spin on things.
Writer Seymour Krim put it this way in the opening lines of his celebrated essay, “To My Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business:”
We are all victims of the imagination in this country. The American Dream may sometimes seem like a dirty joke these days, but it was internalized long ago by our fevered little minds and it remains to haunt us as we fumble with the unglamorous pennies of life during the illusionless middle years.
It’s those unglamorous pennies that I’m most interested in right now.
I feel not only the ongoing reality check that’s been at my side throughout my adulthood but also deep concern for my own brothers and sisters in the failure business. What choices will we make, how will we stand up for each other, and what will we demand for ourselves as we realize that work has neither provided us with self-actualization nor the basics?
It might seem gauche to consider the unglamorous pennies first—but we must. My imagination might continue to feed my dreams, but it won’t feed me in retirement.
How To Meet Your Needs
I don’t think it’s an assumption to say that if you’ve started a business or work for yourself in some capacity…
…you decided to do it because there was a need—or many needs—that wasn’t being met by traditional employment.
For me, it was the psychological, intellectual, and financial needs that weren’t being met by my retail job. For others, it might be family needs or health needs. For still others, the problem might be creative needs.
If this weren’t the case, why take the risk? Why go through the hassle?
Yet I can’t help but notice that many business owners are pursuing ideals of success or strategies for growth that continue to leave their needs unmet. I have fallen into this over the years, and it’s taken a lot of work to right the ship.
Now, of course, I don’t know what the state of your business or your needs are. I hope you love what you do and that your needs are comfortably met.
And I also know that there’s a distinct possibility that you’re feeling overwhelmed and overworked trying to build a business based on your passion, doing work you love. You may find yourself working longer and longer hours doing anything but the work you love for the privilege of announcing to the world that you love your work. You may find yourself in a circle of others who have been forced out of traditional work relationships—selling endlessly to each other just to stay afloat.
So, where do all go from here? I have some thoughts.
First, think critically about whether your business meets your needs or not. Is it doing what it’s supposed to be doing for you? Ask this question regularly—weekly or monthly if you have to. With a tsunami of messaging washing out your priorities and replacing them with The Passion Paradigm, we all have to be diligent about ensuring that our businesses meet our needs and that the choices we make about the future keep us on that same path.
Second, consider where you see the Do What You Love ideology playing out around you. Again, the point isn’t to stop doing work you love or to tell your kid that they should major in something with excellent job prospects. The point is to interrogate the systems we all live in. Needs meeting is a community affair. Who around you isn’t getting their needs met because their employer or coach convinced them that trading steady income or health insurance is a good trade-off for working in a fun environment or following your passion?
Similarly, recognize how we’re not separate from other workers as business owners, freelancers, and independent workers. Their challenges are our challenges. Our challenges are their challenges. We must foster solidarity with all people who aren’t having their needs met today. We haven’t escaped from the assembly line or from cubicle nation. We’ve only orchestrated a change of scenery.
Third, use your imagination. More work doesn’t have to be the answer to our biggest questions today. Performing work passion doesn’t have to be a sad stand-in for stability and security. Endless consumption doesn’t have to be the salve for our economic wounds.
Personally, I’d love to see a 21st-century version of the Works Progress Administration. Through FDR’s WPA, the federal government paid 10,000 artists, writers, and designers to create works of art, broadly defined, across the country. If you were guaranteed a median income for doing what you love to benefit our diverse culture in some way, what would you do? How would you contribute? Instead of each of us staking a claim for an audience that will pay us directly for what we create while creating more valuable data, we could leverage the commons to support a new era of cultural innovation and meaning-making.
Now, imagination is not my strong suit. I find comfort in looking at history to understand the present. And I’m easily trapped by the realism of our current structures and systems. But I’m hoping that this episode has sparked some ideas for you.
What are your imaginative solutions to our current economic situation?
Do What You Love ideology convinces us to put up with less in exchange for the privilege of saying we love what we do. Meanwhile, the companies profiting from the Do What You Love ideology—TikTok, Etsy, Instagram, or multi-million dollar online business companies—keep giving us more work to do that we don’t love.
If you’re frustrated by the endless hustle to do what you love, you’re not alone. You haven’t failed. This is a structural problem. And the only way we can start to restructure things is by ensuring that we’re meeting our own needs and cooperating with others as they meet their own.