This spring, I was having a conversation with a colleague about my career choices. I candidly shared with her how much I disliked what I’d been doing every day for several consecutive years. Her face decomposed to a frown as I spoke. She listened with quiet concern as I explained how little interest I had in my prospects for a new job. While I didn’t think I’d like any of them, I figured I’d end up taking one for the sake of maintaining an income. This upset her. With a look of pity in her eyes, she remarked, “Oh Jeff, you have to love what you do.” What an arrogant sentiment.
Most people in America and around the rest of the world don’t love what they do. I’d suggest roughly half don’t even like what they do. If anything, they’re grateful just to have the opportunity to have something to do in exchange for pay. The best most people can do is to hope to find something tolerable. Simply not hating a job is enough for many. Insisting people love their job is dismissive of the millions of Americans and billions of people worldwide who have no such opportunity to do what they really want to do.
This idea of loving what we do is a spoiled, middle-class American concept. Some of it stems from the years of having parents, teachers, and inspirational posters tell us to follow our dreams. The rest comes from a particular conception of what work is. Rather than a means to an end—a way to support one’s existence— some aspire to make it the end itself. For this somewhat elitist minority, work is a calling. It might be something they believe in or some attempt at personal accomplishment, but it becomes more than just work for them. It becomes what they do, not just what they do for a living. The truth is, decidedly few people have lives like this.
Finding a job to love assumes chasing dreams actually will result in something worthwhile. Sometimes this works. Stories circulate about it working. People get swept up in success stories. These are meant to inspire, but they’re significant because they’re rare. They’re the uncanny ammunition of motivational speakers. A person might dream of writing for a living until the reality of working tirelessly to earn maybe $5000 per year crushes that dream. The same goes for dozens of vocations people chase out of idealistic fantasy rather than practical need. How many people really fulfill their desire to do what they want to do? For that matter, how many people find work they even slightly enjoy doing? Yes, examples exist of those who do. The counter-examples are more plentiful, just less celebrated.
This insistence regarding self-fulfillment and vocational bliss is the arrogant part. People who enjoy their acquired stations often look down in not-so-quiet resentment at those who aren’t satisfied with their lot. A tendency to cast blame exists. Those who have found some kind of coveted occupational actualization might think people who aren’t happy should do something about their unhappiness. The dissatisfied should push to improve their situation and if they don’t, they only have themselves to blame.
Exerting effort isn’t always a recipe for success, though. Plenty of people work hard and make all the prescribed moves, but still fail to find satisfaction in their careers. It isn’t necessarily their fault. At the same time, a great many of those who are content with what they have actually lucked into their circumstances. Those who have what they want too often view what they have as an accomplishment rather than a windfall, just as often as those who do not tend to blame circumstance for their shortcomings.
Beyond ideological exchanges between haves and have-nots, there remains that insistence. Do people really need to enjoy their work? Is work about enjoyment? Isn’t it more about securing a living and supporting the balance of our endeavors? The goal seems like it should be finding something we’re able to do in exchange for pay, not necessarily something we love doing. Matching this with personality is a bonus. Matching it with lifelong aspirations is wishful thinking.
Certainly, spending too much of life working a detestable job would be bad for one’s health. If a distressing job detracts too much from quality of life, quit. No one owes so much to any endeavor to continue laboring for it in spite of personal wellbeing. A gulf lies between not liking work and actively hating it. Everyone is entitled to walk away if necessary.
Most jobs aren’t that bad, though. They might not be satisfying or meaningful, but they usually aren’t unbearable. We typically can go through the motions without much incident. Sure, doing something somewhat enjoyable would be preferred. But how much should we emphasize this in our search for work? What about those who lack the skills to do much more than the most menial jobs? Should they be held to this standard of having to hold a job they love? Can we expect that everyone will find something fulfilling to do?
The notion isn’t based on most people’s reality. It overemphasizes the fortunate individual and is part of a self-indulgence that is one of the least flattering aspects of people born since the mid-to-late 20th Century. Maybe people subscribing to this notion aren’t anymore at fault for doing so than those they criticize for not taking more initiative. I can’t help but think the people who embrace this fantasy are out-of-touch with how the majority of people live. The sentiment might not be arrogant. It might be naïve.