Culture At Large

The problem with doing what you love

Jordan J. Ballor

A recent Slate article rightly exposes the half-truth that the phrase "do what you love" (DWYL) represents. When taken as a univocal axiom, doing what you love creates a kind of selfishness that turns our work into something that is all about us. "While DWYL seems harmless and precious, it is self-focused to the point of narcissism," writes Miya Tokumitsu.

Tokumitsu takes aim specifically at Steve Jobs, who embodied the DWYL ethic. But the criticism applies just as well to those who ignore market signals about the value of their labor, including those Tokumitsu singles out like unpaid interns and underpaid adjunct professors. Authentic work is about more than just what it subjectively does for the worker. That subjective element is only one part of the larger fabric of human labor.

It may be tempting to balance Tokumitsu's critique of DWYL by emphasizing the other-directedness of human labor. We work so that we may serve others, and this service lends meaningfulness to work. There's a great deal of truth to this as well, and the objective element of human service does help to mitigate the narcissism of DWYL. In this way, prices and profit help signal the value of our work for others. They pay us when what we do is useful to them in some way, and the level of compensation is indicative of the quality and timeliness of that service.

And yet even the extremes of selfishness and selflessness leave us with a truncated view of work. On the extreme end of selfishness is the one who pursues activities regardless of the effect on others. This error is not concerned with the usefulness of one's work for anyone else. The value of one's vocation is not measured in terms of productivity or utility. Subjective self-satisfaction and self-expression is what matters.

The extremes of selfishness and selflessness leave us with a truncated view of work.

The other error subsumes a person and his or her labor entirely to the interests of others. In its most extreme form, this is found in the institution of slavery. The slave simply becomes a unit of utility oriented to and determined entirely by the interests of another.

Other axioms, like that of Frederick Buechner, attempt to balance these two extremes: "The place where God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." Notice, however, the way in which Beuchner's axiom mitigates and reconciles the extremes of subjective selfishness and objective otherness. Buechner's insights into human vocation triangulate the basically horizontal concerns of the I-you relation upward, to include the primacy of divine calling. On Buechner's formulation, the agency lies firstly with God. God calls.

When we triangulate human work to include not only selfish concerns and the utility of our work for others but also the primacy of God's call, we have a perspective on work that liberates us from the conflict that inevitably follows the calculation of labor against capital, dog against dog, me against you. (This is the conflict that limits the remainder of Tokumitsu's analysis.)

From this geometric perspective, work is not solely concerned with compensation or self-fulfillment. It is concerned, rather, with a standard of faithfulness and responsible stewardship modeled perfectly by the one whom Christians are called to follow, Jesus Christ. Thus the apostle Paul advises us: "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters." No matter what you do and what you are paid, says Paul, "It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” In this way, Christians are to be concerned more with doing what God would have us do than with what anyone, including ourselves, might otherwise love.

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