In our current start up-obsessed moment, aspiring to have a job that already exists seems almost unfashionable. The true goal of meaningful employment, or so the aspirational entrepreneurial culture would have it, is to create your own job, distilling your utmost passions into a career that is enriching in both the soul and the wallet. Fulfillment! Salary! Material consumption! These are the inherent promises of doing what you love, or DWYL, a slogan-turned-ideology that recently received a smart takedown by Miya Tokumitsu in the leftist Jacobin magazine.
“Do what you love” is a commandment that appears on a poster in a lushly decorated, Pinterest-ready room. It seems to suggest that if only you were following your heart instead of enslaving yourself for a low salary, this room could be yours. That’s where Tokumitsu begins her argument that confusing passion for work and work for passion is actually a dangerous mistake. “Who, exactly, benefits from making work feel like nonwork?” she writes. “If we acknowledged all of our work as work, we could set appropriate limits for it, demanding fair compensation and humane schedules that allow for family and leisure time.”
Tokumitsu is critiquing a system where labor is redefined as personal, fulfilling creative work (the design curating hinted at by the hip apartment photo, or editing books at a publishing house, or pursuing liberal-arts academic study) and paid for as such—we’re taught to expect low compensation for our creative output, or perhaps if we’re not getting paid, it’s because “the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient,” Tokumitsu writes. If you can’t manage to turn what you love into a market-approved business, in other words, perhaps you only deserve to work in someone else’s shadow (enshrined in the similarly reductive maxim, if you’re not living your own dreams, you’re living someone else’s).
Art and creativity don’t need to be monetized—in fact, presuming the need to do so degrades their potential to be a source of joy for the creator, as any artist who has to follow the demands of an external market rather than their own sensibilities knows.
These slogans suggest that passion should be directly connected to paid labor, that you can’t possibly be pursuing your dream if you’re not getting paid for it. Conflating creative passion and capital, however, can be hazardous, as the economic situation of the arts in the United States in particular suggests.
Artists, broadly defined as those working in creative, cultural fields ranging from journalism to theater and music, are often more satisfied with their jobs than non-artists, as a 2013 study found. Creative workers in Europe reported a 7.7 out of 10 satisfaction rate while non-artists averaged 7.3.
Yet artists often pay for their satisfaction with low salaries and difficult living conditions. A 2012 survey found that those who studied visual and performing arts in college averaged a starting salary of just $33,800 (compared to $41,900 for history majors, and more than $70,000 for those in finance). “The arts industry, at all levels, is subsidized not just by the labor of artists, but by their quality of life,” wrote Paddy Johnson, a well-known art blogger, in a New York Times op-ed. The fact that art-making is a passion doesn’t necessarily make it profitable and it doesn’t mean that it’s a job. “It’s not just a trade; it's a particular way of communicating with the world,” Johnson wrote. Art is not a commodity to be capitalized, as DWYL might suggest, but a life that has to be lived.
When I started out in my career as a writer, I was a staff art critic. Visual art was what I had been passionate about since high school, and I loved having the opportunity to write about art all day, every day. Going to museums, visiting studios, looking at work—it was a privilege to make that my living. But over years of doing that, the energy that I once had for analyzing what I saw waned. I also realized that my hardworking colleagues in art criticism weren’t getting the support they deserved, and it didn’t look like they would be any time soon. Staff criticism jobs were constantly being eliminated and writers functioned more as underpaid publicists than critics.
It could be that I gave up on my passion, or that what I was passionate about changed course. I gradually moved away from writing about art and into other areas, taking what I had learned from my jobs in the art world and applying those lessons elsewhere, where I felt better supported and more effective. I still loved art, but the work needed to truly make a successful career in art criticism was exhausting and daunting.
Writing is still my job, but it’s as a freelancer covering too many different fields to mention, plus dabbling in non-journalism projects. In some ways I’m more independent than ever, and I’m free to pursue whatever I’m interested in, but in some ways it’s more constricting than freeing to be your own boss. I make sure forms are filled out and invoices come in on time. I make a lot more spreadsheets than I ever did as a staff writer. These are things I’m decidedly less-than-passionate about.
In the meantime, my full-time passion has become something of a hobby—and I like it that way. In between big writing projects, I’ve curated exhibitions at galleries, working with artists I’ve written about. I still find time to do a few reviews or articles about art, which I enjoy more now that it’s not my job to do them all the time.
What DWYL is missing is the possibility that what you love might make a better hobby than a career path. Hobbies have been shown to improve quality of life and accepting a passion as a hobby means that there’s no pressure to make it pay, which is not a bad thing. Art and creativity don’t need to be monetized—in fact, presuming the need to do so degrades their potential to be a source of joy for the creator, as any artist who has to follow the demands of an external market rather than their own sensibilities knows.
It’s a mistake to assume that a passion is only valid if it’s profitable. Rather than just charging forward under the Do What You Love flag, it’s important to think about what separates labor that deserves compensation from work that you do outside of the marketplace, for personal satisfaction.
If we have to come up with a snappy slogan to follow, perhaps it should be to make what you love pay. Of course, if you’re doing what you love for money, there’s always the risk that passion can turn into, well, plain old work.