Don’t do what you love. Do something useful instead.
From wild IPO documents to motivational marketing, WeWork sold us an impossible dream.
A couple of months ago, I saw a woman on the tube with a t-shirt emblazoned with the words do what you love.
Three things about this feel-good mantra irked me:
- Its seductive simplicity. So many people jump from job to job desperately trying to ‘find their passion’. But the dream job is an illusion. A purposeful career has ups and downs like any other. Do what you love sets people off on that wild goose chase.
- Its advertisement of privilege. Sadly, getting by is the best that many can hope for in life. Assuming that everyone is in a position to follow their dreams seems tone-deaf to me.
- Its self-centredness. If you are in a position to pursue more than just life’s practical necessities, how about using your advantage to craft a better society? Regardless of your own choices, urging other privileged folk to prioritise their own wellbeing over everything else is whack.
Do what you love is a slogan of WeWork, the co-working space business known for booze-on-tap, lush decor and insane growth: from 2 sites to 528 in fewer than 10 years. Last summer, Wired named it “the most hyped startup in the world”.
When I saw the woman in the t-shirt back in August, WeWork had a $47 billion valuation. Despite having never made a profit, it was one of the most valuable private companies in the world.
Then in September, things fell apart quite spectacularly.
CEO Adam Neumann was pushed out, his $60m private jet was put up for sale and the company’s much-maligned IPO was canned. Today, thousands of jobs at the company are at risk.
As WeWork geared up for the IPO that never was, its investment prospectus opened with “we dedicate this to the energy of we, greater than any one of us, but inside all of us.” As if their “do what you love” rallying cry was too pedestrian, the company’s mission had become “to elevate the world’s consciousness.”
It should be no surprise to us that this unique blend of maniacal ambition, faux-world changing language and Fyre Festival-levels of bravado led to such an utter shitstorm.
Knowing what we know now, let us be highly sceptical of the dictums that Neumann et al were selling us.
WeWork aren’t alone in pushing such vacuous motivational tripe. All over Instagram and in startup hubs IRL there are similar slogans, drawn from the worlds of mindfulness, self-care and wellness.
OK, so these principles and practices aren’t bad in themselves. They tell us that we should strive to love ourselves, discover our passions and seek enlightenment. All worthy things to pursue, undeniably.
But just like that damn t-shirt, they assume an audience that is at the very top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, building their pyramid just a little higher. And they say little about working in the service of others or challenging unjust systems.
In the absence of other counsel about how we should live our lives, these kinds of messages can lead us to self-centred thinking. Today, the idea of duty, for example, feels deeply unfashionable. The hard work mantra has been replaced by one of self-love. The notion of community — you help me fix my leaking roof today and I’ll look after your sick relative tomorrow — has been eroded by the rise of individualism. We are told that we’re gloriously unique and special.
The promotion of self-worth has been coopted to boost consumerism (“because you’re worth it!”) and even, as Ronald Purser also argues about the mindfulness industry, to pacify us into accepting the neoliberal hegemony.
It’s us millennials that are most intoxicated by the do what you love message and its friends. This brilliant article breaks down how today’s privileged twentysomethings are thus set up for disappointment. Our grandparents, grateful to have survived two world wars, wanted to give their offspring security. They encouraged them to work hard and build sensible careers. Their children (our parents) were the baby boomers. They lived through decades of unprecedented growth and, if they owned their own home, benefitted from a stratospheric boom in property prices. Buoyed by their own fortunate trajectories, our parents had even loftier goals for us. Security was a given; our generation should seek fulfilment.
It sometimes feels like we’re wilfully burying our heads in the sand while the planet accelerates towards disaster. Inequality is rampant. Mad populist racists have taken the helm of some of the world’s largest economies. Human extinction is a real possibility.
The do what you love mentality begets a selfishness that feels reckless and irresponsible in our turbulent times. I love going on holiday but I know that taking a flight is just about the most carbon-intensive thing I can do as an individual. Do what you love says: take the holiday, you deserve it, babe.
At this pivotal moment in human history, we are encouraged to be less angry, less political and less collaborative than we need to be to protect people and planet from existential catastrophe.
So how are we to live? The question remains.
If we’re not on a lifelong search for our one true passion, what are we up to? What do we advise the kids to whom we bequeath such a royally fucked up planet?
I don’t have a perfect answer but this would be my starting point:
- Do what you love, sure, but don’t be a dick. Your actions have consequences — something we learnt way too late.
- Be angry about the crap you’ve inherited but never collapse into apathy.
- Work with others, even those that have different views and values to you. Humble cooperation is sexier than heroism.
- Look after yourself but don’t swim in self-referential waters too long. Look outwards to people who are struggling.
- Do things because they are right not just because they feel good or make you look good.
- Do something useful, whatever you do.
Contributing to the progress of humanity, however you’re able, is necessary and urgent. What’s more, the science tells us that altruism makes us healthier and purpose makes us happier. So, even if society’s problems don’t stir you into action, do something useful because it’ll give you a better life. Can’t say fairer than that.
Having a crack at solving problems that matter is far more nourishing than the immediate gratification of anything WeWork can offer.
That Prosecco on tap? It’s snake oil.