Lately I’ve been finding the idea that your work should be your passion about as oppressive as the idea that work should be boring well-paid drudgery or that you should pick your career based on what your father and his father and his father’s father did for a living.
I’m not even talking about the fact that only certain fortunate people even have the privilege of being able to choose to do something they love, although that’s also something that the Do What You Love crowd ignores.
I’m talking about the fact that when we accept the idea of your work being your passion, we accept unfair treatment of workers as a reasonable price to pay.
Whenever I mention (in some relevant context) that my field is underpaid, the response is often, “But at least you get to do What You Really Love!” They’ll sigh, and add, “I wish my work actually made a real difference. Instead I just sit in an office and move people’s money around.”
When I talk about the difficulties of living on a low salary and the lack of institutional support for the self-care our employers all patronizingly insist we prioritize, they say, “Well, that’s a small price to pay for getting to Follow Your Passion.”
(Actually, my work isn’t my passion. My passion is reading books and spending time with people I love, but nobody’s monetized that yet.)
I do love and enjoy my work, but I also really get a kick out of being able to pay off my student loan debt, take the occasional vacation, be allowed adequate time off to do all those Adult Things that can only be done during business hours, have my own apartment, and not worry about money all the time. That would really be fulfilling. You could almost say I have a passion for it.
The idea that Your Work Should Be Your Passion seems empowering on the surface. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone could get paid to do something they really love? How great would it be if you could spend most of your day actively making the world a better place, or whatever it is you care about most?
But if your work is your passion, then it won’t matter so much that it doesn’t pay that well…right? If your work is your passion, you might want to miss your kid’s sports game or musical performance so that you could stay a few hours late and keep working. And if you want to, surely it’s not too much to expect you to.
If your work is your passion, but suddenly you’re asking to work remotely or part-time because you just had a baby, maybe you’re just not that into your work anymore and your job should go to someone who’s more passionate.
If your work is your passion, then “attitude” matters more than actual competence. “Passionate” people are more fun to work with and we assume that they’ll be more dedicated to their job, so we hire people who are “a good fit for the company” rather than people who have a proven record of getting shit done.
Which leads into the other way that this emphasis on passion becomes counterproductive and ultimately harmful: the idea that “passion” is ultimately the reason people succeed.
Erik Devaney breaks this myth down in his article about passion and work:
Ultimately, the role passion plays in a person’s success depends on the context of that person’s unique situation.
For some folks, the road to success is smooth and straight, and being smart and hardworking and passionate can help those folks travel down that smooth and straight road even faster.
For others, the road to success is full of hurdles and potholes, and even if they’re just as smart and hardworking and passionate as the folks on the other road, they’ll never be able to catch up.
Life, as we all know, isn’t fair. But that doesn’t mean that the folks with the unfair advantages get to decide how everyone else thinks and feels.
Besides the fact that people with relatively little privilege face roadblocks that no amount of passion can overcome, this idea that passion is what makes for success also masks the often massive amount of practice and skill-building involved. And that, ironically, is easier to do than to force yourself to feel passionate about something you’re just not passionate about. Changing behavior tends to be easier than changing feelings, and pretending that your feelings are other than what they are can be counterproductive. Ferrett writes:
“Look,” I said. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to stay in better touch with your friends. But what you’re doing is this fucked-up equation where you go I miss my friends == I need to use the Internet == I want to use the Internet. And because you think the only way to do something is to be the sort of person who wants to do it, you’re psyching yourself up to be something you’re not.”
“…this is like the way you hate exercise, isn’t it?”
“Fucking loathe it. Went for a hard twenty-minute workout on the elliptical this morning. Hated it every step of the way. I realize I hate exercise so much I literally have to do it right after I wake up, because if I hold off until my brain comes online I’ll manufacture good excuses why I don’t have to work out all day. I can only get exercise because I’ve acknowledged that I fucking hate doing it.”
You can, in fact, do things you’re not passionate about–even things you dislike–in order to achieve something you do really care about. You may not be passionate about playing scales on the piano for hours, but you’re passionate about the beautiful music you’ll create as a result. There’s no point in obscuring the fact that becoming a talented pianist requires more than just PASSION, but also a lot of rather boring hard work.
Many people would argue that if you don’t enjoy doing something, you shouldn’t choose it as your job. But that comes from the idea that Work = Passion and that things you’re not passionate about can never be things you’re good at and would be satisfied doing for money so that you can spend that money doing the things you are passionate about. In fact, the entire concept of being satisfied with your job rather than LOVING your job seems all wrong.
But it’s not. I know people who have pretty boring but acceptable jobs, who then go home and enjoy not worrying about putting food on the table. Instead, they do their hobbies, take vacations, spend time with their families, and donate to causes they care about.
The problems endemic in our approach to work were not caused by the idea that passion is mandatory, nor will they be fixed by taking a more reasonable view on passion’s role. (And they won’t be entirely fixed by better vacation policies or workplace discrimination laws, either.) Unfortunately, it’s a lot more complicated than that.
However, it pains me to see progressive folks perpetuating the myth that passion should be central to work. That makes it too easy to disregard unfair, exploitative, or even abusive working conditions. It asks people to accept receiving less than a living wage because getting to do What They Love ought to somehow make up the difference.
Loving my job doesn’t pay the rent. Loving my job won’t help when my job has taken over my life to such an extent that I can’t care for myself. Even if I love my job, it’s not the only thing in the world that I love.
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