Americans are nothing if not fond of cliches and buzzwords. You hear them all the time and they flow past so fast that, if they register at all, you often overlook the deeper meaning that could actually change your life.
There’s a couple I want to talk about today, because they really irritate me.
YOLO: You only live once
DWYL: Do what you love
Please STFU already.
How about this one? IIWFTWCIW: If it was fun, they wouldn’t call it work.
“You only live once” seems to be the rallying cry of the young & hip these days, usually right before they do something incredibly ill-advised. Back in my youth, we prefaced the same behavior with “Hold my beer” or “Does this look fatal to you?”
While it is indeed true that you only live once, the real message behind that sentiment shouldn’t be “let’s engage in this risky and/or dangerous behavior,” it should be that the best way to live is in the moment. Be where you are, be who you’re with, and – to introduce another buzzy term – engage. Stop wishing you were anywhere else doing anything else.
If you do it right, living once is enough.
Now let’s move on to “do what you love,” one of Steve Jobs’ favorite sayings.
Though he’s dead, so I can’t interview him for clarification, I can extrapolate from other things he said that what Jobs may have really meant here was “be passionate about what you do” – and there’s a difference between love and passion.
Passion makes you take chances. Passion makes you think outside the box. Passion drives innovation. Passion inspires leaps of faith.
Love gets the job done, day after day, no matter what. Love pays the bills. Love puts food on the table. Love clothes your children.
Being passionate about your work makes you want to go every day, to see what new adventures are in store. That coding problem you couldn’t figure out last night that you dreamed about? Passion solves that. Passion keeps you excited about your job, and that, my friends, is what DWYL really means. “Be passionate about your work” isn’t as catchy, though.
Throwing around “do what you love” actually belittles every person who isn’t passionate about their job. Every man or woman (or teenager) that slogs in a low-wage, low-expectation job because the rent’s got to get paid is diminished every time you utter DWYL. Every office worker that rides the train and changes shoes in the break room gets a slap in the face when you say DWYL. Every tech support agent you talk to on the phone that has a head full of knowledge and walks you through fixing your problem suffers a fresh humiliation when you chant DWYL.
There are millions of people in this world doing thankless, boring, mundane jobs. They do not love being farmers or construction workers or cab drivers – but they love their families. They get up every morning and go to work – back-breaking, mind-numbing work – so their children don’t go hungry, so their wives (or husbands) don’t go without shoes.
It’s tough to be passionate about doing the same thing for your entire career. It was easy for Steve Jobs to be passionate – he never had to do the same thing twice. He got to come up with groundbreaking ideas for cool new gadgets! If you thought up the iPod (and I’m not saying he did, himself, but you know what I mean), you’d be pretty goddam passionate about your job, too.
Put Jobs in a corn field and maybe he’s the same passionate dude, dreaming up a new reaper attachment that makes getting the crop in faster and easier. Maybe, though, he subordinates his dreams to the realities of life, of taking care of his family and making sure the lights come on when somebody flips the switch.
I’m unlucky in that what I’m truly passionate about – teaching – pays for shit in this country. For all the lip service thrown around about how education is important, the painful, simple fact is that education is as much a business as McDonald’s or Best Buy and the only way to make it successful is to reduce the overhead while increasing the numbers, which they do by driving down wages as far as possible and making classes larger every year. It’s smart from a business perspective.
However, I’m lucky in that I don’t have to rely on teaching for my living. I have a day job that pays the rent, puts food on the table, and provides health insurance benefits. Unlike many people in this world, I have the luxury of living indoors and being able to be passionate about my job.
Well, one of my jobs, anyway.
Here’s the bottom line, then: Stop saying “do what you love” and you’ll go a long way towards embracing the realities of this hard world. If you’re one of those people that’s truly passionate about what you do, then more power to you. Unlike Steve Jobs, for the vast majority of the world, our passions don’t translate into giant paychecks.