How “Do What You Love” Reflects Our False Identities

do-what-you-love“Do what you love.” This is now the stock advice given to young people seeking work. This advice encourages young people to not worry about what jobs are actually available, or what kind of income one can expect from a given field, but instead to focus only on seeking work that one will actually enjoy. On its face, of course, it seems like great advice–everyone would prefer to spend the 40 or 50 years they’ll be working doing something they enjoy rather than something they don’t. But the phrase is based on premises that often go un-analyzed. First off, as many have pointed out before, the freedom to “do what you love” is itself a privilege, and one that many simply don’t have. For those living paycheck-to-paycheck, one has to do what pays the bills, even if they hate it. The alternatives–eviction, hunger, cold–are sobering enough to discipline most people from any impulsive career decisions. Doing what you love is, in other words, something you can only do if you are either independently wealthy or supported by generous family members. It is the purview of upper-middle and upper-class dreamers alone.

This simple and obvious–yet often overlooked–fact reveals not only the privileges of the well-to-do, but also the fact that the vast majority of such well-to-do folks aren’t even aware of this privilege. The assumption is that everyone should–and could–simply do what they love; those who work dead-end or low-paying jobs, seen from this perspective, are just inexplicably choosing to not do what they love. This fact is taken as is by the do-what-you-love crowd, at face value, as a sad commentary on the failure of working-class people to self-actualize and live their truest selves. It never seems to enter into the minds of these folks that many people have no real choice; they do what they have to.

This disconnection between the well-heeled advocates of working only one’s passions and those who work jobs they hate out of fear of homelessness and hunger goes much deeper than job advice. The basic pattern of thought manifest here reveals a lot about the ways in which people of different classes construct and maintain their very identities. For people basically encultured into bourgeois social locations, one’s identity is based around one’s interior states: what makes me happy, what I feel passionate about, what interests me, etc. Such a person is likely to see themselves as more or less the master of his or her own destiny; to the extent that such a person does not achieve what they desire, they will likely look inward to make sense of this failure. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and the growing popularity of visualization and positive thinking are two good examples of this essentially bourgeois self-identity. The “I” is understood as a more or less stable entity, a subject who arranges the world of objects it finds around it so that they are best suited to its preferences.

Those raised in a more proletarian or working-class social location are likely to think in a fundamentally different way. They recognize themselves as largely, though not exclusively, defined by exterior circumstances: how much necessities cost, who is hiring, what natural and political forces act upon them, etc. Such a person is likely to recognize that they are very much not the master of their own destiny, that forces beyond their control will shape much of their lives. Their attitude towards work is likely to be straightforward and practical: they do whatever they can that makes the most money, because money is scarce and without it they will face real hardship. That’s not to say, of course, that such people take no pride in their work or don’t hope to enjoy it–but they tend to take pride in doing a good job with whatever work comes their way, and they seek to find ways of enjoying it, whatever it may be. In other words, they try to love what they (have to) do, but they are under no illusions that they can simply choose freely to do what they (already and for reasons of their own) love.

To point out that people of different class backgrounds think of themselves, their work, and their world in fundamentally different ways is to make not only an ontological point about society and social groups, but also to suggest something more fundamental–that the epistemic structures through which people think are actually quite diverse, and built on mutually exclusive assumptions. This may provide some clarity in making sense of the way in which people seem to so often completely misunderstand one another.

If one sees work as fundamentally something one chooses to do because of one’s own particular identity, as the outpouring of a passion and an interest, that may make it hard–or even impossible–to understand why anyone would remain in a job paying minimum wage. For someone with the bourgeois self-identity as outlined above, when thinking about those who work such jobs, one has a choice. One can either explain the minimum-wage worker through the terms of bourgeois social identity, or one can admit that perhaps this social phenomenon cannot be reduced to this explanatory framework. People rarely choose to have their way of perceiving and conceiving of reality changed. Much more often, we reduce confusing phenomena to factors we can understand, we homogenize what is different to make sense of it according to our own presumptions and values. Thus, many people raised within a bourgeois social location find themselves struggling to make sense of the minimum-wage worker, and resolve their confusion not by exploring what that worker would say for him- or herself, but according to the terms that make sense to the bourgeois thinker.

This basic cognitive and epistemic process may explain how so many people simply assume that minimum-wage workers must be lazy and unmotivated. Employing the logic that they have been encultured into, this is a perfectly reasonable conclusion: if people always have the freedom to make the choices that maximize their own happiness, and someone makes a choice that consistently makes them unhappy, they must be either stupid or lazy. If someone understands human identity and microeconomic decisions from the standpoint of the bourgeois subject, this conclusion is hard to avoid.

Such a person would have to be willing and able not only to imagine circumstances very different from their own in order to understand the logic that compels people to work jobs they hate, they would actually have to be able to think differently about self and labor. They would have to recognize that not only the minimum-wage worker, but they, the middle-class “do what you love” worker as well, is constrained and defined by the exterior social and economic forces of capital accumulation. That is to say: they would not only have to come to terms with some hard truths about the brutal way that capitalism treats the working poor, but also about how the same system of capitalism undercuts middle-class workers the agency and subjective freedom they value so highly and which, in fact, are essential to their own self-understanding.

Thus, to see the world the way that most working-people do can actually be traumatic for a well-to-do white-collar worker–personally traumatic, because it will displace their own cherished ideals, the ideals that are essential to his or her own self-image. They will find that the “I” they take to be the central reality of their existence is actually mostly, perhaps even entirely, the product of social and economic forces they neither comprehend nor approve of. They will be radically displaced, revealed to be something other than that which they dream to be. It should not be surprising that they will resist this realization, that they will fight tooth and nail to not achieve this consciousness, because it is painful on these two levels–the social level, in which they realize their world is more brutal to vulnerable people than they want to admit (it is much easier to blame the unfortunate for not engaging in enough positive thinking)–and also this latter personal level, in which their own sense of self is deconstructed. Recognizing the violence inherent in our existences is not pleasant. Of course we would rather see the world through rosier lenses.

It should go without saying that the basic phenomenological and sociological analysis laid out above applies to racism and sexism as well. For white people to truly recognize not only the violence inherent in their social realities, but also that their very identities as white people have been and are generated by this violence is incredibly difficult, even offensive, to accept. For modern people, steeped in the rhetoric of democracy and equality to accept that where they live, how they talk, and what they do have been shaped in fundamental ways by slavery, genocide, and rape is to accept a kind of existential death. Likewise, for men to recognize that much of what is understood as defining masculinity is built on violence and control, not only of women but of other men, is not something most men will want to admit. It means accepting that who we are will have to change if we care about justice. Who we are at a fundamental level, at the very core of our being, the very basis of our identities. Who would seek this out?

All of this should yield at least the following two conclusions: first, we should not be surprised at how often people in positions of relative privilege will cling to perspectives, logics, and modes of perception that seem clearly, ridiculously false upon rigorous inspection. It should not be surprising that people do not want to accept the wholesale displacement of their world- and self-views. Such a displacement is painful, traumatic, and indeed impossible to even imagine, by definition. It is a sort of dying.

But this must not for a moment lead to us thinking that speaking the truth about capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and the other systems of exploitation should somehow be toned-down to protect the feelings of the relatively privileged. Certainly, recognizing the potential for serious pain and trauma among the privileged may lead us to change tactics and rhetoric in our discussions. It may be necessary to build real trust and intimacy with people before we can challenge them to see the world more clearly. We may also want to stress to them that their feelings of resistance to this change in consciousness are normal, and that they should not pretend to not feel them, or be overly shamed by them. We can hopefully have a frank conversation about all of this, and build the possibility for both empathy and solidarity moving in both directions in these hard conversations. But we cannot allow the feelings of privileged people to be valued more than the lives, the incomes, and the personal safety of the vulnerable. (To stress this precedence of the objective and material circumstances of the poor and vulnerable over the feelings of the privileged is itself a reflection of the proletarian epistemology as outlined above, of course, and shows that there is no neutral ground, no Archimedean view-from-nowhere.) Above all, Christians truly concerned with social justice must hear what God has to say: “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” and “the truth will set you free.” (Amos 5:24 and John 8:32, respectively).


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