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"Do What You Love" as a Weapon and Shield

A recent article in Slate had a critical take on the ideology of work as self-actualization:

There’s little doubt that “do what you love” (DWYL) is now the unofficial work mantra for our time. […]

DWYL is a secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation but is an act of love. […] Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.

DWYL ideology sweeps non-elite work under the carpet:

Think of the great variety of work that allowed [Steve] Jobs to spend even one day as CEO. His food harvested from fields, then transported across great distances. His company’s goods assembled, packaged, shipped. Apple advertisements scripted, cast, filmed. Lawsuits processed. Office wastebaskets emptied and ink cartridges filled. Job creation goes both ways. Yet with the vast majority of workers effectively invisible to elites busy in their lovable occupations, how can it be surprising that the heavy strains faced by today’s workers—abysmal wages, massive child care costs, etc.—barely register as political issues even among the liberal faction of the ruling class?

And it makes elite work more exploitative:

The reward for answering this higher calling is an academic employment marketplace in which about 41 percent of American faculty are adjunct professors—contract instructors who usually receive low pay, no benefits, no office, no job security, and no long-term stake in the schools where they work.

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.  [links theirs]

Robin Hanson had a simple explanation for the popularity of this ideology in a much earlier essay that refers to the same Steve Jobs commencement address:

Now notice: doing what you love, and never settling until you find it, is a costly signal of your career prospects. Since following this advice tends to go better for really capable people, they pay a smaller price for following it. So endorsing this strategy in a way that makes you more likely to follow it is a way to signal your status.

It sure feels good to tell people that you think it is important to “do what you love”; and doing so signals your status. You are in effect bragging. Don’t you think there might be some relation between these two facts?

Hanson also has this more recent post about status and advice:

We get status in part from the status of our associates, which is a credible signal of how others see us. Because of this, we prefer to associate with high status folks. But it looks bad to be overt about this. […] Since association seems a good thing in general […] we mainly need good excuses for pushing away those whose status has recently fallen. Such opportunistic rejection, just when our associates most need us, seems especially wrong and mean. So how do we manage it?

One robust strategy is to offer random specific advice. You acknowledge their problems, express sympathy, and then take extra time to “help” them by offering random specific advice about how to prevent or reverse their status fall. Especially advice that will sound good if quoted to others, but is hard for them to actually follow, and is unlikely to be the same as what other associates advise.

Then when your former friend fails to follow your advice, you get annoyed at them and present that (instead of their lowered status) to yourself and others as the reason why you’re not on such good terms with them anymore.

I think that advice can certainly play such a distancing role.  But I think Hanson’s explanation misses some of the things that make this mechanism complicated:  The proactive nature of advice, the loose coupling between the emotional drives behind status and actual status, and the way status-related drives aren’t isolated from other psychological drives (not by coincidence, that form makes hypocrisy more effective).

When a friend is worried that they will suffer a setback, people want to help them avoid that setback (both due to empathy and a desire to not be associated with failure).  They also want to create emotional distance so that the setback, if it happens, will hurt them less (pain caused both due to empathy and status-anxiety). Both of these motivations underlie a variety of biases in favor of advice-giving.

When offering advice, I’m tempted to overestimate the effectiveness of advice-giving for the following false reasons:

  1. When thinking about my own problems, my emotions cloud my judgment, but I see other people’s problem’s objectively.  Also, being outside of their psychology makes their problems easier to understand, even if those problems involve things like their emotions and goals.
  2. I recognize that my imperfect understanding of my own emotions and goals make my problems harder to solve, but I can solve this problem with second-order advice about what emotions or goals should be.
  3. An understanding of what worked (or would work) for me is generally applicable.
  4. I could solve my problems effectively through sheer intelligence if only I was better at “following my own advice”.  And maybe seeing someone else succeed based on my advice will motivate me!

I think all of those biases increase the tenacity of “do what you love”.

Reader Comments (2)

Ah, the market incentives for finding that perfect career. One need not toil only in academia to get low wages and little respect. I myself spent years swabbing decks before I finally earned enough sea time to sit for the Master Mariner license exam. I was paid, but not much.

By contrast, my friend at exactly the same time was fulfilling his passion, getting a pilot's license for small aircraft. No pay there. Here shelled out about six grand before he could call himself captain, and then only for fun. Charge money for giving someone a lift and you'll get in real trouble. I, by contrast, could and did charge oodles for boat rides.

And now I drive a terrestrial vehicle. Doing that is much easier, pays much more, but hardly gives one single solitary bragging right.

If it's cool, it's expensive. If it's perceived as drudgery, cha-ching. It's a scale from cool to drudge that is infinitely gray.

February 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeristaltor

Peristaltor: Sorry for taking so long to approve that comment, I seem to have missed the notification for it and it got lost in the queue.

April 20, 2014 | Registered CommenterSam

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