“Do something you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” It’s there on my Instagram feed (underscored with the praying hands emoji and an exhortation to “Love the hustle”), this proclamation that has shifted from the walls of career advisors to the sunset meme-ery of Inspo-grammers who repost it as a guiding mantra. Steve Jobs is tagged in this instance, but over the years a wide range of philosophers, business leaders, and entertainers have been blamed—sorry, credited—as the source of this truism.
With a bit of digging it turns out this apocryphal mantra didn’t come from anyone in particular, but its pervasive reuse maps on to wider cultural ideas about identity, the purpose of life, and the place of work in defining a person’s vocation—or, what it means to be human.
At the core of “do something you love,” the notion of “work” is framed as something to be avoided. To be clear it’s not the job, or activity that must be shunned, but the idea of toil, the feeling of working hard and not particularly enjoying it. “Do something you love” paints a picture of a fulfilled life as one where our passions guide us into a productive career that parallels and amplifies those passions—requiring no effort from us beyond that which we would gladly give even if we weren’t being paid.
In an article for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson tracks the modern roots of this desire to use our mode of work as an institution of meaning and identity creation:
The economists of the early 20th century did not foresee that work might evolve from a means of material production to a means of identity production. They failed to anticipate that, for the poor and middle class, work would remain a necessity; but for the college-educated elite, it would morph into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community. Call it workism… the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose.
Thompson points to a dark side to this separation between “fulfilling” work and “work” work. After all, there are many jobs and functions of our society that may not inspire the passions or loves of any person, but still must be done—and we are all grateful someone is paid to do them. Our understanding of “worthwhile” work cannot begin and end with the fulfilment of personal passion, as this devalues work that doesn’t fit cultural expectations of success—and by extension, the lives of the workers themselves.
This perspective has been given full expression in any number of film and TV plotlines that feature passionate protagonists who “just want to dance/go to college/replace my mermaid tail with legs to pursue a boy” and face opposition from loved ones who insist that they “work in the mines/stay in this small town/remain underwater with a singing crab for company.”
The inevitably freeing and inspiring finales in these narratives tell us to follow our dreams and we’ll never go wrong, even if our families and communities might not understand or support us. We’ve learned that small town life, and working an ordinary—usually blue collar— job is fine for people who have no creativity, passion, or smarts of their own, but not for someone who’s going to make something of themselves. An authentic and fulfilling life involves casting off dull expectations and responsibilities, and achieving self-actualisation through pursuit of passions that bubble up from inside. “Listen to your heart,” it surely can’t steer you wrong.
What’s usually missing from these stories is the reality that every person has multiple sources of meaning in their life. We are not mere vessels of a single talent or dream that must be expressed in order to be satisfied. We are each of us unique, and uniquely situated in a context of relationships, responsibilities, opportunities, and cultural norms that offer us meaning and identity. While we might see parental or cultural expectations as unduly oppressive, friends from Pacific and other indigenous cultures speak about the honour and pride of fulfilling your role within your family and culture, and the security of having purpose and identity given to you. These individual stories are for each person a complex balance of love and duty, gifts and expectations that are not always easy to navigate.
Prioritising the cultivation of one element of our lives as the “essential self” that must be expressed can isolate us from the requirements and the rewards of these broader networks of meaning. This imbalance is particularly apparent when our job takes over as the definition of our life’s vocation. Paid work is an easy avenue for personal fulfilment, as there are immediate rewards and inbuilt measures of individual success. Targets, tasks, promotions, and pay increases offer us identifiable, measurable goals. But too much of a push towards “the hustle” of commercial activity, where the value of our human efforts are quantifiable with a dollar figure, serves to diminish the importance of non-commercial spheres of activity and authority in our lives.
Roles of caring and participation in family, community, and civic life are not remunerated—there is no quantifiable “bonus” for being a good father, or helping a friend. But these “whole of life” activities are just as much a part of our vocation, and are arguably much stronger contributors towards our life’s long-term goodness, satisfaction, and meaning.
As with employment, our commitments to these vocational bonds of family, community, and society will sometimes ask more of us than we feel like giving, and require us to do things we don’t feel like doing in the moment. This discomfort is not a sign that we aren’t doing something we love. On the contrary, investing in relationships, skills, causes, and things we value requires giving up our time, effort, and competing opportunities. These are meaningful acts, often boring, repetitive disciplines that demonstrate the commitment that is the necessary hallmark of love. Interestingly, these are the parts of the story that are usually dramatically wished away onscreen with a judicious use of montage or magic, but they are an essential part of the fully human experience.
Vocation sits at the intersection of our duties and our desires; it is the full embodiment of our humanity, involving who we are and who we are becoming. Living this out in its fullness is to live a life where we can command our passions, talents, time, and energy for the good of others and ourselves. In this vision of life, our paid work is taken off the pedestal, to occupy a proportionate space within the full range of roles, joys, and responsibilities that make up our vocation.
This balancing act used to be easier. Thompson identifies that the rise of “workism” has coincided with the decline in the influence of religious institutions in our lives, pointing to the way they acted as a third pillar—alongside home and work—of authority and meaning in our lives. Besides leaving aside one’s personal belief in a higher authority than a spouse or boss, even the regular festivals of the religious calendar would cut into our working lives, forcing all commercial activity to stop in favour of time spent with neighbours, friends and family. Further back in history, the natural world enforced rhythms of work and rest; with night, day, weather and the seasonal cycles of growth, harvest, and fallow having a much greater influence on workers who lacked well lit, air conditioned offices.
We need to relish the moments of communal holiday and rest. Times when commercial activity is shut down push back against the need for consumption, and allow us to enjoy the other parts of our lives. Working in a mall for six years, I remember how much I loved the “hard stop” statutory holidays, days when I knew my manager couldn’t roster me on and I was guaranteed to have the same time off as everyone else. As someone who worked most weekends, these days of rest with my family and friends were precious time.
These opportunities to recharge and grow through rest and recreation are important, because vocation isn’t just about what we do, it’s about who we are as we do it. This means that for people who don’t work in a role they love, their vocation is to see their work as part of the broader responsibilities they fulfil with love, and to get creative and express their passions in the other spheres of life. For those who are lucky enough to be paid to do what they love, there is an equal challenge: to make sure the heightened meaning and worth of their work doesn’t drown out the rest of their loves and responsibilities.
After getting off Instagram, I decided to check out what Steve Jobs actually did say about all of this.
“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”
The great work of our life’s vocation is accept the challenge of love—what it offers us, and what it requires of us. The ultimate goal is not to do something we love, it is to be someone who loves, and loves well.