I have frequently been critical of the advice given by baby boomers to “do what you love and the money will follow”. After the hard experience of my generation and the ones following it, I think the word has gotten out how terrible that advice is, with books coming out with titles like Do What You Love and Other Lies. We are now at the point that Freddie deBoer can describe the critique of that advice as “endless”, and critique the critique:
There’s also the endless genre of “don’t do what you love” essays, which critique the omnipresent cultural assumption that you should do what you love. And yeah, that can be exploitative, as employers will often use that love as a means to be selfish with your pay and benefits. But what’s the alternative? Don’t try to get paid doing something you like? Do what you hate? I read Maya Tokomitsu’s book on this question, and like so much of what the socialist left publishes these days it was far more compelling as a critique of what exists than as an argument for a better alternative.
These are important questions, and I’m glad deBoer made them because I can see how the critique of the boomer advice could be misinterpreted – or given badly in the first place. (I haven’t read Tokomitsu’s book myself so I don’t know where it stands on this.)
Here’s the important clarification: As far as I can see, “do what you love”, by itself, is actually good advice. The blatant fabrication, the disastrous harm, comes in the second half of the advice I have typically received: “do what you love and the money will follow.” For most of us, it won’t. Ted Gioia has a depressing piece on the “disappearing middle-class musician”: to be a full-time musician these days typically requires that one inherit wealth, or marry someone who can provide one with a means of living. Around the time I realized I wasn’t going to have the academic career I’d trained for, I saw a friend who’d invested great time and money in a prestigious baking school to become a pastry chef – stuck working the baking section of Whole Foods grocery for $12 an hour. Right around that time, the heartbreak of my generation’s experience was expressed best by – of all people – “Weird Al” Yankovic, whose “Skipper Dan” tells the all-too-typical story of a promising actor now stuck working at Disney World. For anyone born after about 1960, “do what you love and the money will follow” has been a recipe for broken dreams.
Now so far I have done exactly what deBoer rightly objects to: providing “a critique of what exists” rather than “an argument for a better alternative.” I now want to turn to the alternative – by which I don’t mean a better socialist world, like the one Martin Hägglund describes that moves our free time from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom. I mean, sign me up for Hägglund’s world if we can figure out a way to get there, but Hägglund doesn’t give us such a way, and I have no idea how to get there either.
No, I want to do what I think deBoer is asking for and provide advice about how to live here and now, in the world as it exists. And that is why I think it’s important to say: by all means, do what you love. I think doing what you love is important if not essential for a good life, especially from a qualitative individualist perspective that values self-expression. It’s just that, in order to survive, you have to make money too – and the money will not follow.
And so, the advice I would give to young people is this: structure your life so that you have the time and money to do what you love. That’s not easy to do by any means, but it is a much more realistic goal. Making a living from doing what you love is the most obvious way to follow this advice, but in many cases it is not the best way. I congratulate deBoer on succeeding at it, yet I note even he closes another piece with “Don’t be a writer.”
In my own case, when my life was at a crossroads, I found life inspiration in a friend whose job, in his forties, was simply to deliver pizza. The pizza was not the inspiring part: what was inspiring was how clear it was that, for him, his job was not what his life was about. Rather, he wrote and ran a LARP in which, four times a year, a good hundred people would all come together telling a collective story in a post-apocalyptic setting. We would spend seventy dollars to spend the weekend in uncomfortable campsite beds just because his stories, and the shared experience of being a part of them, were so compelling. The experience of playing the LARP gave great joy to many people, including me, for years, though its staff made no money from it. I drew the lesson: this is a good way to live. You can do what you love as an avocation, neither career nor hobby.
And that is the path I have followed myself. I never grew up dreaming of being an educational technologist – I couldn’t have, since the career didn’t exist when I was a kid – but I’ve done well at it, getting promoted to management. It’s not my passion, but it is a job that I like and that I’m good at, which provides me a comfortable living, and I am happy with that. (Indeed I feel comfortable enough at it that I can admit it’s not my passion, which is not an option in many careers.) And it’s left me time to do the writing I love: not only to write this blog (for thirteen years now!) but to write some scholarly articles and, now, to write a book I’ll be sending to publishers.
Now for many people the trick with following my path, and that of my LARP-running friend, is that both of us decided not to have children. Rarely does a life leave time or energy for child-rearing, a paid job and a fulfilling avocation. So what if one does feel called to have children? Well, for many parents, raising children is doing what you love, and for many parents that is good enough. But I also think of another friend my age, a mother who has become a published writer of fantasy novels, with multiple trilogies selling well at an estabilshed press. In that, she’s probably the most successful fiction author I know – but as far as I know, even that is not enough to make a living off her writing, not with the high costs of living in metropolitan Boston. Rather, her husband has the job that pays the bills; she writes as an avocation while being a full-time mom. Her life is very different from mine. Yet we still found ways to do what we love – which in both cases was writing – while still following deBoer’s advice not to be a professional writer.