Do Work, Be Happy, And Stop Trying To Monetize Your Joy

do what you love

I’ve spent most of my working life until now trying to figure out how I could make a living out of traveling. All I wanted to do was visit new countries, explore new cities, board a plane to somewhere, climb on a bus going somewhere, meet people, see things. Each day spent in front of my computer at my desk in my office building doing tedious work seemed like more and more of a waste—a wasting away. I didn’t want a work-life balance; I wanted “work” that didn’t seem like work.

Sigh, not this again.
Sigh, not this again.

This likely rings true for many of you reading this; after all, haven’t we spent a lot of our time in the past several years pinning “inspirational” quotes about living a life we love, etc., to our Pinterest boards?

In fact, we’ve become so obsessed with the idea of turning our most-loved activities into viable employment, author Miya Tokumitsu wrote this Slate article asking why our pleasure should be for profit, and the article went viral as people all over the internet either said, “Yes, finally!” or “Boo, why are you sucking the joy out of life?” More on this later.

Well, I never quite figured out how to make a living out of traveling, but I do seem to have figured out how to make a living and travel.

As of Jan. 1, 2014, I officially became a freelance writer and editor. I’m finally doing what I’ve been saying I wanted to do: Something that would allow me to make money and travel.

And I’m actually doing it. I’m making money by working from my laptop, and I’m currently sitting in a house in the south of Spain, listening to roosters crow and watching the sun creep up over the Sierra Nevadas. I spend most mornings either going for a run or cycling, and most afternoons and evenings doing my work. But sometimes I work through the morning instead so I can spend a few hours in the afternoon, when the sun is warmest, sitting at an outdoor tapas bar practicing my Spanish with locals.

So far? So good. I’m only a month and a half in. What I like about it, though, is that my time and my schedule are mine again—finally. I retweeted this a few weeks back because I really, really believe it’s true:

This is the crux of the work-life balance for me: being able to make my own schedule. This is the most important element because—and this part is important—I realize I’ll likely be doing work, in some form, until I’m ready to retire. I used to sort of believe in the “do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life” incantation, and I searched for a while for what that might be in my case:

  • Book editing: Reading books for a living? I love it!
  • Teaching English as a foreign language: Living abroad and speaking English with sweet kiddos for a living? I love it!
  • Photography: Taking pictures for a living? I love it!
Except that’s not actually true.

But the older I get, and the more I work, the more I realize this incantation is almost never true.

Take some of my photographer friends, for example. They are doing what they love—taking photographs—and getting paid for it. Totes fab, right?

But there are huge chunks of their responsibilities that lie outside of the “take photographs” part, like working to art directors’ finicky requests, editing on tight deadlines, spending several hours a week creating invoices and budgeting, taking redeye flights across the country or the continent, and missing important moments with friends and family like birthdays and holidays—not to mention the uncertainty of not always knowing exactly where your next paycheck is coming from. Even doing “what you love” means doing quite a few things you likely don’t love at all.

The Slate article looks at how the “do what you love” (DWYL) mantra is hurting laborers and “devaluing” “actual work:”

Superficially, DWYL is an uplifting piece of advice, urging us to ponder what it is we most enjoy doing and then turn that activity into a wage-generating enterprise. But why should our pleasure be for profit? And who is the audience for this dictum?

DWYL is a secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment.

Author Tokumitsu goes on:

“Do what you love” disguises the fact that being able to choose a career primarily for personal reward is a privilege, a sign of socioeconomic class. Even if a self-employed graphic designer had parents who could pay for art school and co-sign a lease for a slick Brooklyn apartment, she can bestow DWYL as career advice upon those covetous of her success.

The article highlights Steve Jobs and his 2005 graduation speech at Stanford. Jobs is known for suggesting, if not saying outright, that Apple has been such a successful company because Jobs loves the work he is doing. And, implicitly, if you are “true to yourself,” you do what you love, and you love what you do, you will do it better than you would anything else… thus leading to success and happiness, etc.

Tokumitsu points out, though, that not all work is equally lovable, and that doesn’t mean it’s not necessary. Think of all of the workers who enable Jobs to do what he loves:

His food harvested from fields, then transported across great distances. His company’s goods assembled, packaged, shipped. Apple advertisements scripted, cast, filmed. Lawsuits processed. Office wastebaskets emptied and ink cartridges filled.

Tokumitsu continues:

If we believe that working as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur or a museum publicist or a think-tank acolyte is essential to being true to ourselves, what do we believe about the inner lives and hopes of those who clean hotel rooms and stock shelves at big-box stores? The answer is: nothing.

I totally love Tokumitsu for saying all of this out loud. These ridiculous sayings have gone much too far.

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a woman looking at her reflection on a rear view mirror

Don’t get me wrong—it’s amazing to have the skills, resources, and freedom to find a career or job that you’re good at, have interest in, and provides you with some sense of self-fulfillment. After all, you’ll be spending a lot of hours of your life doing it. But—and this is one of Tokumitsu’s points—the line between the people who are able to do that, and the people who aren’t, is drawn almost exactly where class lines are drawn:

One consequence of this isolation is the division that DWYL creates among workers, largely along class lines. Work becomes divided into two opposing classes: that which is lovable (creative, intellectual, socially prestigious) and that which is not (repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished).

Yeah, just DWYL! That's it!
Or, work hard to create the life you want.

I enjoy writing (a.k.a., creating) much more than editing (a.k.a., repetitive fixing), but right now, I’m making 98% of my income from editing work. Do I wake up each morning REALLY EFFING PUMPED to read and edit stock market commentary written by analysts who may or may not be quite sure how to use an apostrophe? No. But for now, the hours a day I spend doing that allow me to spend the other hours and other days of my life doing things I really enjoy—like running, cycling, traveling, taking photographs, exploring new cities, spending time with friends and family, lying in the sun on the beach, reading, and all of those other things I love that aren’t—and will never be—income-producing for me.

Instead of “Do what you love,” I wish the saying was: “Work hard to create the life you want.”

At the beginning of this year, I was lucky enough to be able to realize a dream I’d had for a while: to start working as a freelancer, meaning I’m able to set my own schedule, working around the things I like doing, instead of vice versa. This lifestyle also gives me time to work on side projects I enjoy that might make me money one day, like travel writing. I feel quite fortunate to have been able to make this happen, and I’ve stopped thinking that one day I’ll find the “perfect” job for me, one that doesn’t ever make me feeeeel like I’m working.

Plus, because my work does actually feel like work, I have no problem closing down the laptop when it’s time for play. My work doesn’t creep into my family time or my vacations. I think people whose work still feels a bit like work are much better at relaxing, changing gears, and moving our minds to other things.

But what of those who do work 9 to 5 jobs in offices, the graveyard shift at factories, or evenings and weekends at restaurants? Where is their work-life balance? I believe the trend is moving—slowly—in the right direction even for people who aren’t able to make their own schedules. The company I left last year is constantly making headlines for having the best work-life balance in Washington, DC, which is not a surprise given that they offer unlimited vacation! More than a few of my friends work in offices that allow employees to bring their dogs in to work. My cousin’s company of 115 people caters lunch for the entire office once a week. I think more and more employers are realizing that adding benefits such as flexible work hours, better maternity and paternity leave, and more generous vacation policies makes for happier employees who are able to lead more fulfilling lives, and happier employees usually means less turnover, which is good for everyone.

It may be a slow trend, but I do think major corporations are catching on to what smaller and more creative agencies have known for several years: Everyone wants to have a life, and if you let them have one, they’ll feel more positively about working for you. They call that a win-win, folks.

Our generation has come into adulthood encountering both a tough reality of a constricted job market and fierce competition as well as lofty, idealized mantras like “do what you love,” which do little more than encourage unrealistic expectations of working life. I think Miya Tokumitsu has given voice to a needed point of view; one that will hopefully remind people that happiness is everyone’s own personal responsibility, not the responsibility of your employer, your manager, or whoever signs your paychecks. Work hard to create the life you want. Maybe your happiness means taking a job you’re “meh” about so you can live in a city you love. Maybe it means working a job you love, but living away from your family for a few years. Maybe your happiness is being able to walk to your office and be home by 5:15 p.m. every day to take your dog to the dog park. Maybe it’s running a business from your laptop in the Canary Islands.

It is possible to do work that feels like work and be happy. Sometimes we will hate it because it is work, and sometimes we will love it even though it is work, but—didn’t your mother ever tell you?—work builds character. And when you’re done for the day, walk away, and go play outside.

Adapted from this original post.

Photo by Abbie Redmon

View Comment (1)
  • Fantastic article. The other thing that never gets mentioned is that doing something you love for pay just turns it into work. The point of many of the things that you love is that you just do them for pleasure. If I have to do it to someone else’s specifications, on someone else’s timetable, it takes the pleasure out of it. My own strategy was to work hard for a number of years and then retire early. Admittedly, I lucked out with timing on buying and selling real estate in addition to having jobs that paid well.But I always went for the money, because if I have to work anyway, I figure I might as well get paid as much as possible while I’m doing it. Money is freedom.

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