Friday, March 7, 2014

Be Who You Love, Don't 'Do What You Love'

This blog post took four years to write.

Not literally, of course. Literally, it's only taken about 45 minutes. Just enough time for my favorite writing prop - a steaming cup of black tea with sugar - to get cold.

But it has taken four years for me to finally be able to sum up in a headline my thoughts on being happy at work.

Fours years ago, at the age of 33, I went through mid-life crisis #1. (It's possible I'm going through mid-life crisis #2 this month, but that's another blog post.) During this time, I struggled heavily with the way I spent most of my twenties and early thirties, distractedly following the newest trends in do-gooder professions. I was a rookie reporter, an international editor, an intern at notable humanitarian organizations, a psychologist-in-training, an "educational content specialist" at a children's educational TV show, and managing editor for a website covering global development.

The problem is that by 33, the sad things of life start to accumulate -- death, sickness, sorrow over things you really can't control. And when these things accumulate, you need a reprieve from the daily grind. Not necessarily a vacation or traveling sabbatical, but creature comforts. A bed that's not a futon. A good meal. An apartment without mice or cockroaches. A pair of boots that keep your toes warm in the winter. Simple things.

But even simple things cost money. And none of the jobs I worked was paying me enough money to afford those things, at least not if I wanted to keep paying my rent. Added to these financial concerns was the problem any honest do-gooder will face when seeing friends and family fall under: What good is saving the world if I don't have the means to help the people I know? It's easy to give money to starving, faceless children in other countries, but that's really very ego-driven. The more honest do-gooder will help the people Fate stitched her heart to -- friends and family -- with equal devotion and convinction.

But it's nearly impossible to be generous towards your loved ones financially when working to "save the world" or "follow your passion." Really, it doesn't always pay off, at least not in the time frame to pay that next medical bill.

And that's the problem people who say "Do What You Love" don't want to admit. It's fundamentally a philosophy of the privileged. Miya Tokumitsu explains this beautifully on Slate.com, illustrating how Steve Jobs, the biggest straw man in the DWYL debate, was only able to do what he loved by exploiting the livelihoods of others, particularly Chinese factory workers. (Go ahead, read that article. It's really good. I'll wait.)

Moreover, Tokumitsu explains how "Under the DWYL credo, labor that is done out of motives or needs other than love—which is, in fact, most labor—is erased." Do you think a cleaning lady is doing what she loves? Probably not. But is it noble because it allows her to put food on her table and raise her kids and get out of an abusive relationship? Damn straight it is.

And that's the problem with Do What You Love -- we all simply don't have the luxury. Even less so as we age and the life initiates us into the Gang of Middle-Aged Survivors with the worst succession of beatings imaginable.

And the flip side is, money really does matter. It can buy happiness. An apartment without mice or roaches is pure heaven for some people. And it costs money.

Now it's true, there's a limit to how much happiness money can buy. It levels off after basic needs and a little comfort are met, as illustrated in a series of lovely post-it note graphs on Brain Pickings. (Go ahead and read that one, too.) But as the article also explains, while money can only buy you so much happiness, there's no end to how many opportunities to flourish it can buy you. More money means more opportunities to flourish. It's a straight line to self-actualization apparently.

So, should we all just work for money?

By no means, NO. Because you spend most of your waking hours at work, it matters very much. I know from personal experience that having a job you hate can suck the life out of you. Money without some fulfillment will leave you depleted and far from flourishing.

So, then, how do we balance the need for money and the need to having enjoyable work?

The answer, I believe, is to BE who we love.

But by being who we love, we chose to work in a way that makes us proud of ourselves. That means working diligently (but not obsessively). It means doing whatever work put in front of you with a sense of gratitude but also with the deep-seated knowledge that your importance is not defined by the importance of your work.

It also means, if you can, pursuing the skills that make you feel like you're flourishing. Don't worry if you want to be the next great American writer but are currently writing VHS manuals (I knew a writer who had. Really. Can you imagine anything worse?). Spend your time honing your skills, shaping your craft, so that when the opportunity comes to write something meaningful, you have the chops to rise to the occasion.

Or to take an example from the non-writing world, don't worry if your job is helping a company sell toilet paper. The world needs salesmen to sell great ideas, and eventually, if that's your goal and intention, you'll get an opportunity to put those toilet paper-selling skills to good use. The one thing I've learned is that excellence is a habit, not a performance. You don't knock it out of the park unless you show up for batting practice every day.

However, on the flip side, do worry if your company does something that goes against your own internal moral compass. This is where passion matters. Perhaps you're passionate about the environment, so selling diapers would be reprehensible. Or you're non-violent, so selling any type of weapon, even guns to cops, would be wrong for you.

Don't follow your passion blindly, but rather, let it inform how you acquire the skills you need to do something great in the world.

Also, be passionate about the skills you develop. If you hate selling, you'll hate your job even if you're selling love to lepers. If you hate writing, you'll hate your job, even if you're writing about do-gooders all day long.

Be Who You Love. Work diligently for pay, knowing the most menial jobs deserve respect. When possible, choose work that teaches you skills you want to know with a company that doesn't violate your moral code. Then look to see if you're happy. My bet is you will be.

4 comments:

TS said...

Totally Agree

Alexa Johnson said...

This totally spells out the harrowing decision many of us face as we seek balance and acceptance of personal and professional visions that get shaped by the financial realities of our lives. Great post, Minal!

spiced said...

True what you have to say but you also need to work a lot harder for making money and its more of striking a balance between the two.

Lucas Babinec said...

I enjoyed this post, but I get a very cynical tone from it. I like the "Be Who You Love" message. You paint a disturbing picture of what life as a 20-30 year old is like though. Thank you for acknowledging how excellence is a habit. That's a very powerful belief! I'm 22 and with that belief I'm going to make the next decade of my life fulfilling and successful.