Why 'Do What You Love' Is About More Than You Might Think

"Do what you love" is not about a job, a passion, or the money, and it is not classist. Our industrial society may have trained us to think that way, but we can change that. DWYL is the right of every human being born on this planet.
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"If you do what you love, success is practically assured," says Oscar winner Nick Reed, co-producer of the award-winning short documentary The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life. Contrast that with a piece that Slate ran early this year in which Miya Tokumitsu critiques the oft-repeated mantra "Do what you love" (henceforth "DWYL") as classist. I agree with Reed and could not disagree more with Tokumitsu, but not for the reasons you might think.

After professional roles in business, journalism, academia, and the nonprofit sector, I now facilitate leadership development. One might say I chose this work so that I can help people DWYL. Based on my own 40-year professional career, here is what I know about DWYL.

First, DWYL is not about a job. DWYL is about a life journey. I love my present job. It involves ongoing learning and creativity and engages me in the empowerment and well-being of others. What I am doing now, however, is the current phase of a long journey. After two years of being adrift as a college undergraduate, I stopped and took time to listen deeply to what, up until then, I had really loved to do. As I looked back over my educational career, I realized that what I enjoyed most was writing. I went back to school, earned a B.A. in journalism, and got a job as a newspaper reporter. I could not believe someone was paying me for what I loved to do. That early experience led to invitations to do other things. Some of those I liked, and some I did not, but I can see that the whole journey was important to what I am doing now.

Second, the DWYL journey is not an external one but an internal one. It is a journey across a territory of self-awareness, particularly of one's values and goals. Every position I took in the past was consciously a win-win. I knew there was something in it for me as well as for my employer. More importantly, it was consistent with my self-image and driven by my values, and when it came to the point that it was not, I left. We are talking here about self-leadership.

Third, DWYL is not classist; industrial society is. We need to get to the root of the problem. I believe the DWYL movement is a cry for a shift away from a workplace culture steeped for centuries in values and practices that cripple the human spirit. I hear this cry all the time in my work.

It is important for this third point to recall the history. We humans initially survived through the work of hunting and gathering. The first big switch came with the development of agriculture. Yes, that technology fed more people, but it also started us on the road to an economy structured on accumulated wealth and taxation. Later shifts included the privatization of the commons, which forced people off the land and into the cities, and the industrial revolution, which assured that wage earnings would become the means by which most people could provide for themselves and their families. Finally, we got an industrial economy largely based on shopping. As a result, today we have people like Nigel Marsh saying in his Ted.com talk:

There are thousands and thousands of people out there leading lives of quiet, screaming desperation, where they work long, hard hours at jobs they hate to enable them to buy things they don't need to impress people they don't like.

As Ashoka Fellow Aaron Hurst observes, the solution may be in what DWYL points toward: a new shift from an industrial economy to a purpose-based economy requiring changes in education.

Fourth, DWYL is not about "finding your passion." After all, people are passionate about their sports team and chocolate. DWYL is about love. We need to be clear here about our definition. My favorite comes from the monk and spiritual author David Stendl Rast. In Belonging to the Universe he defines love as "saying 'yes' to belonging." How important is a sense of belonging to people? Jean Vanier, founder of the L'Arch communities, says in the documentary Belonging: The Search for Acceptance that the need to belong is foundational to personhood and even deeper than the need to be loved.

How does this relate to DWYL? In the language of human resources, a sense of belonging adds up to employee engagement. Here's the bad news: Seventy percent of U.S. workers are "not engaged" or "actively disengaged," according to Gallup's 2013 "State of the American Workplace" report. Gallup says this means that "they are emotionally disconnected from their workplace and are less likely to be productive." Even more startlingly, 41 percent of respondents at the executive level are disengaged, according to the 2013 BlessingWhite "Employee Engagement Research Report." The report lists the top two satisfaction drivers as more opportunities to do what one does best and career-development opportunities. The report also states that the "core needs of the 21st Century workforce are: community, authenticity, significance and excitement." Everyone getting to do what they love means changing our image of what it means to belong at work.

Fifth, DWYL is not about making massive amounts of money. DWYL is about human fulfillment. Take, for example, Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, who visited DePaul University on Feb. 19 for the Chicago premiere of the documentary film on her work, Sewing Hope. Sister Rosemary is a 2007 CNN hero for doing what she loves: caring for young girls brutalized and raped by Ugandan rebels. She is restoring the girls' hope and dignity by teaching them sewing and cooking skills and how to care for their children. More importantly, she is giving them a place to belong and a way to work themselves back into the community.

Yet there is a deeper lesson about DWYL in Sister Rosemary's story -- about the journey, about love, and about belonging. In the face of opposition, even death, Sister Rosemary made the inner journey, claimed her values, and said "yes" to the work that belongs to her. My story is not as dramatic, but on my own journey I found that while writing is my first love, I have other talents that were in need at various points. My journey has unfolded the way it has because at those moments I said "yes" to what belonged to me to do.

Lastly, if you are a leader who is disengaged, everyone on the journey with you is in deep trouble. Here are my tips for leaders and everyone else who wants to be doing what they love:

  1. Take time to listen to what you value and what seems right to you.

  • Listen to what doesn't seem right to you.
  • Try something that seems right, and listen again.
  • Find your people, the ones who value what you now know you value; they are your community of belonging.
  • Serve others; find out how what is right for you is a way to give back.
  • To summarize, DWYL is not about a job, a passion, or the money, and it is not classist. Our industrial society may have trained us to think that way, but we can change that. DWYL is the right of every human being born on this planet. To achieve that goal, we need to get our values right and create an economy focused on giving everyone -- every child and every adult -- the physical, psychological, social, intellectual, and spiritual nurturance, education, and skills needed to reach their full potential. Then everyone can do what they love, for the benefit of us all.

    I will close with these encouraging words for the journey from St. Vincent de Paul, our patron at DePaul University: "Love is inventive, even to infinity." We can do this. Love can do this.

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