“Everybody has to work, right? I have to help my mother. Well, I’m just like all these people in here who have to do something to get by. But that doesn’t tell you who these people truly are.”
-Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon, Daytripper
“There’s little doubt that “do what you love” (DWYL) is now the unofficial work mantra for our time. The problem with DWYL, however, is that it leads not to salvation but to the devaluation of actual work—and more importantly, the dehumanization of the vast majority of laborers.”
-Miya Tokumitsu, “In The Name Of Love,” Slate
When I think about my career, about what work I’m doing now and what work I’ll do next year, I think about what’s fulfilling, what I enjoy, what I think will help the world. And, of course, I think about money. Those are good questions, but I think the fact that I get to ask them shows my privilege. As Daytripper comments, work, for lots of people, is what “you have to do to get by.”
Tokumitsu points to Steve Jobs as one of the big “do what you love” icons, and then points out that his branding of Apple as his own playful, brilliant child ‘elides’ the work of literal thousands. (An elision is an omitted sound while speaking, like the center syllable in “family,” and in this case it’s the best metaphor I’ve heard in a long time). Sure, he started the company in his garage, but how long until he pushed production overseas, to factories filled with real people who were doing what they had to to get by? How many others contributed design ideas and programming, not because they were gurus of self-fulfillment business, but because they working? That’s just in his company. What about the people who grew his food, made his socks, and collected his trash? The fact that Jobs got to live that way doesn’t mean everyone can. In fact, it might mean he was relying on a whole bunch of people who didn’t.
I’m way out of my depth, here. There are a lot of different voices echoing in my head, commenting in different ways on my experience. Lots of my own work is boring. Some of it is truly inspiring. While I’m in California planning new, playful lessons, other employees at my school are replacing flood-soaked insulation. Are they doing that for the love of it? When my students ask me about work, do I tell them to find what they love and follow it into a career–or do I tell them that the insulation needed to be changed if we didn’t want mold in our walls?
The Japanese concept ikigai, often translated as “reason for being,” is the intersection of 1) what you love doing, 2) what you’re good at, 3) what you can make a living doing, and 4) what the world needs. That reminds me of a Buddhist friend, who talks about how every labor (brushing your teeth, scrubbing the toilet, etc) can be transformed into a meditation if you approach it with mindfulness. That same friend says that Americans like “Buddhism-light:” all of the self-affirmation with none of the hard work, none of the realization that your desires are not the most important thing around. Thinking back to my friend’s comment, DWYL looks a lot like ikigai (a concept that goes back hundreds of years) if you cut off everything that has to do with other people, and just kept the part that’s about you.
I admire Steve Jobs. I believe that one person’s dedicated vision can change the way we talk to each other, the way we learn, the way we build. At the same time, one person’s dedicated vision usually includes a whole lot of other people, day after day, putting the pieces together. Some people get to show us who they are by the work they do; some people show who they are by the conversations they have while working. Some people show who they are through weekend art, and some people are so pushed upon, so pressured, that they’re struggling to show who they are in the other world of their own minds. In writing this, I’m asking how I should think about my own work. I’m also asking how we can look at work in a way that lets us see more of the people–and the world–around us.