Why the Cult of ‘Doing What You Love’ Is Losing Steam
In 2012, feminist activist Silvia Federici wrote to dismantle much of what we know and hold dear: “Nothing so effectively stifles our lives as the transformation into work of the activities and relations that satisfy our desires.”
It is a truth that is slowly coming to dawn on us that all aphorisms about work and passion are carefully engineered trappings of a capitalist system. Perhaps no saying has aged as poorly as this one: “if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” This is a world where productivity meets passion in a holy union; never once does the person worry about trading a “dream job” for a well-paying one. Good vibes and emotional rewards become acceptable currency.
The “labor of love” myth has had a good run — until now.
Doing what you love, or “passion work,” feels like an elusive reality. As the market economy appropriated wellness and happiness, there has been a collective desire to take “dream jobs” that align with individual values. This, coupled with the stigma of “selling out” for a better-paying job, of looking at professional choices from a mercenary lens, has created an anxiety pervasive and timeless: do you find a job that gives you meaning or a job that gives you enough money to find meaning elsewhere?
The pandemic, and the sense of fatigue, isolation, and financial insecurity that it has imbued our worlds with, reframe this lens drastically. How do we look at the “dream job,” or the very idea of “loving” your job, now that our realities, personal and professional, are forever changed? “Our desire for happiness at work is one that has been constructed for us, and the world that constructed that desire is falling apart around us,” as writer Sarah Jaffe put it.
For one, capitalism makes us believe work can be our greatest love; it is the dream that makes “dream jobs” and the fiery passion that adds value to our lives. If anything, passion becomes a commodity that is exploited; pushing people to always substantiate it by way of overworking or compromising personal needs. A 2019 study showed that organizations often use workers’ “passion” as an excuse to exploit them, pay them less, or allocate them menial jobs — a pattern that legitimizes a culture of apathy. Not to mention the inflated sense of pride people feel in partaking in the “hustle culture” that romanticizes overworking and unquestioning commitment to the job. Passion is the badge of honor that people would wear like martyrs.
Two the notion of selling out for a better-paying job feels more like a taboo than an act of subservience in devotion to the capitalistic economy. Favoring money over passion is not a “dark side,” purely because the practical realities of unemployment and health crises are coming to the fore. The pandemic and lockdown, in their curtailing ways, have managed to curtail the idealism and instead color our decisions with a sense of pragmatism. That, again, is not wrong: swapping a passion role for a less-interesting job with better pay and benefits very well makes sense in a world where everything from electricity to fuel prices is making survival a hard undertaking.
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“Reality can hit you with a brisk wind,” Anat Lechner, a clinical associate professor of management at New York University, told BBC Future. “It’s one thing to pursue beautiful ideals when one is a relatively free agent, and a whole different game to continue with that pursuit when you a have a couple of little ones needing to be fed.”
Moreover, changing workplace norms and relationships with the self has created a scenario of higher disillusionment among passion workers. Sure, every opportunity to find happiness at the workplace must be seized and made the most of. An office party, water-cooler conversations, bumping into people for random exchanges related or unrelated to work. People are coming to see “the limits of the feel-good emotions that their organizations can give them, particularly when working remotely,” said Catherine Shea, assistant professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University in the U.S. “A passion job may have been fun in an interactive office setting, which could have compensated for the lower pay. Now that everything is on Zoom, why not get paid more?”
This demand is not out of context. Unemployment has never been higher; mental health and burnout crises have grown to be a huge Jenga pile that is shaky and untenable; the healthcare crisis in itself continues to lay bare the inadequacies of a system that fails to secure well-being. This co-exists in a world where love itself has lost all meaning; personal life is an afterthought to a job well done.
The idea to be “happy” to work, even in a setting where one is deemed lucky if they have a job, feels wanting in its premise. “Capitalist society has transformed work into love, and love, conversely, into work. But we are beginning to change our minds about our priorities, whether capital likes it or not,” Jaffe added. Blinding devotion to our jobs leaves us exploited, exhausted, and lonely.
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The pandemic has acted as a catalyst in this long-drawn saga of disillusionment. Any time of uncertainty and anxiety creates a crisis of belonging, making people question their long-term goals. The beam is also cast rather harshly on the pursuit of meaning, and if we can ever find it. “Anxiety makes us worry about the future so that we can plan for scenarios. It increases our vigilance of our surroundings and engages the fight-or-flight response in case we need to defend ourselves physically,” said Amelia Aldao, a clinical psychologist. It makes instinctive sense to focus on the present in favor of a good life right now, not a future that feels ambiguous in its framing.
When our sense of agency is compromised, our priorities shift and we adapt. Comfort, security, and well-being may take precedence over passion and labor of love. “’I’m not selling my soul – I’m actually repositioning myself so I can have a better life,’” added Lechner, while explaining this rationale.
Are more people “selling out” during the pandemic? Not quite, but scattered surveys show people are increasingly prioritizing short working hours, free time, and emotional well-being over the desire for traditionally “important,” meaningful jobs. If anything, the pandemic has reframed money as something other than the “root of all evil”; but a real-life necessity that sustains careers and lives. There remains little room to romanticize a life where people would sacrifice their mental health and financial security for “dreams,” because the threshold of uncertainty itself remains quite high.
If work itself no longer works, people aren’t really selling their souls. Work has sucked for most of human history, before it was dressed in fancier robes and sold as the be-all and end-all of human existence. Passion is appropriated by it just like any system constructed around maximizing profit would. It is only when work is seen as work, even in all its misery, that people can truly start making demands around better conditions, social security, and most important of them all — reclaiming their time and energy.
This is not to say people aren’t chasing their dreams, or negotiating with themselves or the system for ways to find some value in labor. Yet, it helps to acknowledge that in a world that is pushing to tie work with passion, our relationship with what we love will forever change.