Did you read Miya Tokumitsu’s “In the Name of Love” this week? I bet you did. It seems like everyone in the circles I run in (probably the same circles you run in, if you’re reading this) read her meditation on the damage done by the creed of “do what you love, love what you do.” The article hit me where it hurts (as the best writing does) in making me realize that even after I publicly admitted the damage DWYL did to my psyche, it’s an idea I still cling to. And why?
In the abbreviated version of the story of my leaving the tenure track, two important people with interesting takes on DWYL got left out. The first person was my dad. I grew up in a house where DWYL was not, at least for my parents, an idea that had a lot of credence. For one, my parents started working and parenting before they were in their twenties, and DWYL wasn’t a luxury that two newly-marrieds trying to raise a baby (and then two) on a single income could afford. For another, my dad knew what it was to be forced to turn what he loved into a career (souping up cars stops being so fun when you work with cars all day), and see that love transformed into the plain old slog of work. I had a friend when I was a teenager who also loved cars, and I vividly remember my dad telling him to do anything but work with cars. Keep it a hobby and keep the love, he said. If I got the same advice from my dad, I don’t remember. Or I wasn’t listening. But whatever he did or didn’t say to me, I’ll tell you this. I did an English PhD because language is what I love, and while my parents didn’t have the luxury of choosing to DWYL, they made sure that I did. Speaking of love, I can finally use the present tense again, because for a long time, language was not what I loved. It was what made me feel anxious and scared and like a big ol’ failure. Now that reading and writing about books is not what I do for a living, I’m far more attuned to that love than I was when I was supposedly doing what I loved as a job. Dad was totally right.
Nowadays, I share my life with someone is totally anti-DWYL, although for different reasons, and his perspective was incredibly important in my journey to quitting the path to the tenure track. My partner reasons that if what you want to do is make the world a better place, and you don’t believe that work is the best place to do that (and/or you recognize that a job with world-changing potential is a luxury most people aren’t afforded), here’s what you do: get a job that pays the bills, and do what you love, and your world-shaping work, in your off time. As Tokumitsu so devastatingly argues,
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.
Ouch, and I hate to admit it, kinda’ true. My partner’s firm “my job is not who I am” stance is pretty much the opposite of the DWYL “non-love labour is meaningless” ethos, and that unhooking of identity and employment was, at first, a bit of a shock. “What do you mean, you don’t believe in DWYL?,” I remember thinking. Why wouldn’t you want to pursue what you’re passionate about full-time? I’ve definitely had to ask him to explain his stance to me more than once. Once I understood where he was coming from, it forced me to rethink what I was doing in academia, what Tokumitsu calls the ultimate land of DWYL:
Nowhere has the DWYL mantra been more devastating to its adherents than in academia … There are many factors that keep Ph.D.s providing such high-skilled labor for such low wages, including path dependency and the sunk costs of earning a Ph.D., but one of the strongest is how pervasively the DWYL doctrine is embedded in academia. Few other professions fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output. Because academic research should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all.
I’m not actually sure that academia is the place that DWYL has done the most damage. I’d argue that it’s far more pernicious in current “mommy” culture (the one that expects motherhood to be sunshine and roses and a labour of love without exception) and that DWYL is one of the major factors behind the failure to recognize parenting as legitimate labour worthy of significant recompense. But unquestionably, the doctrine of “do what you love” has done a lot of harm in academe, particularly with regards to issues of labour conditions and fair compensation. In my case, as is true for many academics, the harm was done when the doctrine of DWYL reinforced, over and over, the total alignment of self and occupation under the guise of self-actualization. And when I started realizing that the professoriate was maybe not for me, and falling into the consequent “If I’m not an academic, who am I?” trap, my partner’s critical distance was a balm. There was another way to think about who I am, one that didn’t depend on what I did. And that alternative perspective was in large part what let me finally let go of academe, unhook my identity from my job, and move on.
But still. I find myself in my current role, one I genuinely do like a lot and find fulfilling, falling into the trap of DWYL. “Do I love this?,” I ask myself as I try to wrangle a gaggle of senior faculty into setting up a scholarship adjudication meeting. “Am I living up to my full potential?,” I wonder as I place a catering order for a student event. “Why did I relinquish control over my workday?” I question as I sit in a meeting and watch other people add item upon item to my to-do list. But then I remember: what I do isn’t who I am. Research Officer is my title, not my identity. Unlike when I was a full-time PhD student, work ends at 4:30 and the rest of my time is my own. I am fairly compensated, I have job security, and I belong to a good union that ensures its members are treated fairly. And for the first time in a very long time, I have the luxury to actually do what I love–read, write, think, cook, craft, spend time with the people and felines I love, do absolutely nothing–on my own terms.
What about you, dear readers? Do you also fall into the DWYL trap? What’s your philosophy about the relationship between work and love?