Somebody, somewhere, once said, “choose a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life,” and it was neither Mark Twain nor Confucius, as many have claimed.
As untruisms go, it’s a popular one. Bloggers and school valedictorians alike can’t resist sharing this platitude, perhaps for the convenient message it offers: With enough raw passion, you too can be saved from lifelong toil.
The problem isn’t just that a saying like this is off-base, but that it points to a harmful paradigm shift that has occurred around our understanding of labor. As meaningful as any given job may be, we generally attend to the daily grind because we need the money, not because it’s fun. If work is perceived less as a transaction and more as a love affair, we’re inviting disappointment and exhaustion.
We ought to remember why we work in the first place, and save our devotion for other things, like life.
Labor journalist Sarah Jaffe’s recent book Work Won’t Love You Back is about this very thing, which she refers to as the “labor of love” trap. Tracing this notion back to the supposed rewards of unpaid domestic labor and the myth of the starving, devoted genius, Jaffe argues that the expectation to feel passion for one’s job actually causes harm. “If work is supposed to be pleasurable or fulfilling, people are expected to be self-sacrificing for their work,” she tells me.
The idea that people ought to pursue their passions for a career is a recent development, Jaffe says. If we buy into the notion that work is its own reward, why should we expect better working conditions or higher wages?
We generally attend to the daily grind because we need the money.
In the past year, “essential workers” — grocery store cashiers, meat packers, and medical staff — were cast as “heroes,” brave warriors in our battle against a deadly pandemic. No one questions their bravery, but let’s not pretend they want to die for the cause any more than the rest of us do.
As for the idea that “choosing a job you love” is some kernel of ancient wisdom passed down through the ages, the earliest known reference is in a 1982 Princeton alumni magazine.
Confucius never said anything of the kind. And Mark Twain’s belief system decidedly valued leisure time above work: “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do day after tomorrow just as well.”
This article is featured in the May/June 2021 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
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