do what you love

Feministing Reads: Miya Tokumitsu’s Do What You Love

I love Miya Tokumitsu’s book.

In a pithy 158 pages, Tokumitsu’s Do What You Love and Other Lies about Success and Happiness (Regan Arts) weaves together a range of examples of how encouraging workers to “do what they love” has actually become a tool for economic exploitation: the low wages or wage theft found in care work; the lack of livable wages across sectors; the absence of paid parental, sick and personal leave; the exploitation of free intern labor; the economic challenges of working as adjunct faculty; the list goes on and on.

And, she weaves these topics together in truly beautiful prose.

do what you loveThe book’s central focus is unraveling the tantalizing concept “do what you love” (DWYL). Why is it problematic to invoke love as a primary impetus for work, any work? While passion for our job is important and feels good, Tokumitsu writes, it is far from our sole driver. In fact, it is always ancillary: you can’t pay rent in enthusiasm. Tokumitsu sums it up when she writes “As long as our well-being depends on income, and income, for the most part, depends on work, love will always be secondary as a motivation for doing it. Encouraging workers to pretend otherwise is disingenuous and exploitative.”

A quick DWYL shrug too easily justifies the poor treatment of people in a range of poorly compensated jobs– including care workers, unpaid interns, academics. These sectors have cultivated threads of the same story: we shouldn’t mind busting ass in subpar working conditions if we are driven by love.

Tokumitsu writes that touting the idea of “love” as the driver of work ethic makes exploitation that much easier. She regularly raises care work as a preeminent example. Reproductive labor in particular — caring for children, your own or someone else’s — is supposed to be something that is driven by your humanity, your love for others. Economies (and cultures) throughout the world force this expectation upon women in particular — therefore reproductive labor is not only something women do out of love, it is an occupation that women must love.

Because we imagine people (read: women) will nurture out of instinct and love, care work has historically been deemed unworthy of economic compensation. Nannies and caregivers who work long hours for other families before going home to care for their home families have been excluded from basic labor protections for a very long time– in part because of this entanglement of their love of home and hearth with their basic economic wellbeing.

We’re finally seeing this as nonsense, and slowly, groups like the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance are revealing care work as labor worthy of economic compensation. Policy changes are coming about as a result. In some states, including California, Vermont, and Oregon, some people who care for their own family members can be compensated for doing so.

Tokumitsu also writes, “The market doesn’t just dangle well-paid, comfortable, apparently enjoyable work before the masses; it very carefully stokes and cultivates their hope.”

The dream internship — often unpaid, mind you — is a perfect example of this. An internship is often supposed to be the ticket to a well paid job but in actuality it is not. Our nation’s capital is teeming with unpaid interns. There is little incentive for bosses to cultivate career opportunities for so many interns when a new bunch will be eager to help out for free next year, Tokumitsu writes.

Academia suffers from the same problem. Academics are told they should find the area of study that they love and chase it — or that they should engage in certain work because doing so is an expression of their innate love of others — even if they may be unpaid, underpaid or working without benefits.  My friend Mike Massey is a professor of environmental science and earned his PhD from Stanford. He now works as a (tenure-track) professor, but, he says, he is one of the “lucky ones.”

“PhD students are sold on the dream of living the ‘life of the mind,’ pursuing their intellectual interests, and getting paid to do so,” he told me over coffee. “But once they finish, they discover intense competition for relatively few positions. For most, there is no pot of gold at end of rainbow. Many end up as adjuncts making slave wages; many end up disillusioned, whether they find employment in academia, industry, or elsewhere.”

The specific love of a particular field of study does not always translate into a job that pays, and yet people are still sold on the dream.

One of my favorite parts of Tokumitsu’s book is that the ultimate message is, correctly, hopeful. This economy has been constructed, very deliberately. A capitalist-driven work ethic, she writes, has not led to a more just world but actually contributed to economic disparities in which a relative few exploit the Earth and other human beings for profit.

But we can deconstruct this capitalist-driven work ethic. It’s time for a new ethic. Tokumitsu evokes thinkers who remind us of this. In her conclusion, she writes: “Both Virginia Woolf and Walt Whitman offer alternative ethics of freedom in its broadest sense — to live and think openly….Whitman, in his “Song of the Open Road,” espouses the endless fascination of sensing the world, interacting with its people, pausing, searching receiving, contemplating….the only prerequisites for enjoying the freedoms Woolf and Whitman describe are resources for basic personal care and time. These are things we can give one another, if we choose to.


Sheila is a former employment attorney who now writes about gender and economic justice. Her first book, Part of the Family, was released by Ig Publishing in 2014 and chronicles the U.S. domestic workers' movement.

Sheila Bapat is reviewing books related to gender, domestic work, and economic justice for Feministing.

Read more about Sheila

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