Is it better to do something you love, or learn to love whatever job you do? Trick question! It doesn't even matter: More and more employers want you to exhibit glowing passion for your position, regardless of how you really feel.
It's not hard to understand why there's a premium on positive energy. Enthusiasm is infectious, and a passionate worker is presumed to be a more productive one. This may be true in some cases, and love of the game may be necessary for certain positions—but we also all probably know from experience that you can get many a job done without caring in the slightest about the company you're doing it for, or even the job itself. Self-motivation used to be the bare necessity to live, eat and survive; now you've got to really love your job, 37 pieces of flair and all.
Paul Jaskunas, a humanities professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art, wrote an op-ed this week at the New York Times called "The Tyranny of the Forced Smile," and it's a relatable lament about the disturbing trend that everyone demonstrate high enthusiasm at all times for their work. Jaskunas writes:
At work, an ambivalent disposition can be an obstacle. Employers want to see passion. If you don't love your job, you're expected to act as if you do, and every so often, in performance reviews and presentations, you are called upon to articulate unalloyed enthusiasm.
Ah yes, unalloyed enthusiasm. This is that thing where aspiring Starbucks workers must "demonstrate a genuine love of coffee" to get a job there, instead of, say, a genuine love of working for a living wage with benefits. (How does one demonstrate a genuine love of coffee, anyway? By mainlining it?) Enthusiasm is great if you've got it, but who's to say that loving what's in your cup is so deeply related to the efficiency with which you serve it? And people have been going to work for thousands of years motivated by something far more important than love, which is survival. It's strange, and almost shameful, to think that we've reached a point where we have to pretend that is no longer what employment is about.
But back to Jaskunas, who was passed over for a teaching job because he wasn't able to demonstrate his passion quickly or thoroughly enough. Later, he found a job he really enjoys, part of which requires him to interview applicants for a professor position. He writes:
Wary of lawsuits, the school has seen fit to train me and my colleagues on what the law permits us to ask applicants. All questions, H.R. has advised, should relate to three core concerns: Can the applicant do the work? Will the applicant fit in? Will the applicant love the job?
I was surprised to learn that love is now considered essential to the employment relationship. Some of us are lucky enough to have lovable jobs, but this strikes me as an extreme standard to apply with respect to most positions.
It's hard to know how an applicant might know he or she will love the job without ever having done that job, and of course, most jobs are absolutely not even lovable in the first place. Which isn't to say that any one person can't find something to love or at least tolerate in even the most mundane position, but to say that plenty of jobs deserve no affection—and any they get is something magical emanating from within the person by no act of the company.
I love what I do now, but it took a series of less than stellar employment to get here. I worked at a video store in college that sold mostly porn. I legitimately enjoyed the small satisfaction of laminating membership cards night after night for new customers, but passion? Eh. And yet, the employers asked us again and again to think of the business as our own. Yes, if this were my business, I would totally pay myself $4.25 an hour with no raises, only 30-minute breaks, and no holidays off. Sure thing.
In another job, I edited financial press releases at the staggering rate of 15 minutes a page, another job that came with with only 30-minute breaks. Things got so stressful and inhospitable at times that many of my twenty-something colleagues experienced the medical problems of senior citizens due to the stress and constant sitting. I was able to get into some kind of poetic copy editing zone, and I was actually great at the job. But I hated it. At review time, I was told to be "more bubbly."
None of the pressures applied to me were anywhere near as bad as the manic levels of enthusiasm required by, say, Disney World, whose cast members Jaskunas cites as a good example of extreme enthusiasm on the job gone overboard. On a recent visit, he watched one woman whose entire job it was to tell visitors over and over and over again that the restroom was to the left, with a huge grin that magically never abated.
He writes that Disney's fanaticism about customer service mirrors our own, as Americans. And that our deceptive ideas of pleasure as an inherent part of work mask the fact that most workers simply don't have the luxury to change or complain about their working conditions.
There's something a touch tyrannical about this condition. Our Protestant work ethic has blended with contemporary notions of self-actualization to create a situation in which we are all expected to whistle like Disney dwarfs.
Work has been an obligation since Adam and Eve found themselves east of Eden. We are still enchained by the dull necessity of earning our bread, yet we cheerfully insist, to ourselves and one another, that we labor freely.
Being simply pleasant—or really, simply not unpleasant—will get most jobs done fine. It's even perfectly debatable whether some careers like teaching should require passion, particularly when so many teachers clearly can't stand their jobs.
But instead of (or in tandem to) relieving this obligation, what would be really nice is making jobs something easier for most of us to be passionate about, which is oddly never part of the equation when anyone exhorts you to crank the passion meter. Why can't the employer and employee understand that they are two equal pieces in an equation that benefits us both? That is so rarely the case. Instead, it's more likely that the vibe is that you're lucky to have a job, so you simply have to suck it up, motivation be damned. And while you suck it up: Look alive!
Finding work you love is ideal, but not universally realistic. And of course, the demand of employers that you be passionate about your work has risen alongside the advice to young people to find work they are passionate about, so perhaps we are all to blame here. But passion for work not only has a downside, it also doesn't always work so simplistically. In a piece at the Harvard Business Review about the advice given to Gen Y'ers to follow their passion, Georgetown University professor Cal Newport writes:
When I studied people who love what they do for a living, I found that in most cases their passion developed slowly, often over unexpected and complicated paths. It's rare, for example, to find someone who loves their career before they've become very good at it — expertise generates many different engaging traits, such as respect, impact, autonomy — and the process of becoming good can be frustrating and take years.
The early stages of a fantastic career might not feel fantastic at all, a reality that clashes with the fantasy world implied by the advice to "follow your passion" — an alternate universe where there's a perfect job waiting for you, one that you'll love right away once you discover it. It shouldn't be surprising that members of Generation Y demand a lot from their working life right away and are frequently disappointed about what they experience instead.
Newport argues that a more nuanced conversation about finding work you love would better accommodate the complicated set of factors that go into this happy ending. Loving your work isn't possible all the time; it's okay to do a grinding job for a few years if it helps you build skills or realize where your talents really lie. Newport cites Steve Jobs' ubiquitous advice: Never settle for work you don't love. As a rule, it's not workable. It's advice for later in your career, or advice for certain people only—because if it isn't, we're all fucked right out of the gate.
Or maybe we're fucked regardless. Surveys find that people are less satisfied in their jobs than ever and feel less secure than ever in their work even as more emotional effort is required of them. One of the most amusing storylines in Broad City is the disparity between Abbi's middling enthusiasm about her job as a cleaner at a gym and the perk levels of the rest of the employees, who clearly live and breathe the fitness philosophy. In a recent episode, she's tasked with cleaning up vomit from a bouncy ball that then bounded down a few flights of stairs.
It's absurd, and yet, who among us has not answered an interview question about what makes us passionate about something that sort of makes us feel dead inside? Hmm, what makes me passionate about hostessing at Holiday Inn? Gee, hang on, let me think about it. But we answer these questions anyway, because we need a job and can't afford to be choosy, and the employers continue to hold all the cards; they are perfectly able to expect all applicants to demonstrate passion without ever having to demonstrate why they or the position are worthy of that passion. They can and do insist that you flatter them—and they rarely have to flatter you.
This is why most job seekers are advised during interviews not to focus on anything you'll get out of the job, but what you'll be doing for the employer, which is best demonstrated by showing you've researched the company, the product, and can talk about how great you think it is. And unless you're at a high level in your career, most people won't ever experience what it's like to be wooed or recruited anyway, so the idea of being sold on a position or a company itself is as likely as loving the shit out of your Holiday Inn hostessing gig. (And hey, if you are one of the people who does love the shit out of that gig, kudos.)
One of the most common interview questions is "Why do you want to work here?" In the world of employment blogs and recruiter advice, there's also a common insider lament from employers about how this question is too often answered: honestly. In a blog post on a recruiter website advising job seekers, Mary Hope writes:
"So why do you want this job?" Answering that question should be really easy! Often the answers are:
- Well, I want a job…
- I want to work…
- I want to pay the mortgage/rent….
- I want a promotion, it's a bigger job…
- I hate the job I'm in, I need to do something different…
- My family are moving so I need to change jobs…
- I got made redundant…
- I'm a bit bored…
- I like the sound of it…
I could go on.
The difficulty with all of those answers is that they may well be true and they may well explain why you have applied for a new job but they do not tell the interviewer any good reason why you should have the job.
I think needing a job, wanting to work, and having bills to pay is a pretty good indication that you will show up every day and perform the work that is required of you. But no, we wouldn't want people to be honest.
Remove the crushing pressure of today's economy (if only) or even just imagine that it's lifted slightly, and there's no abiding reason why employment has to be this way. Dating apps like Grindr and Tinder have cut through some of the courtship dance, matching people up with like-minded, no-romance-necessary counterparts. Couldn't employers and employees do the same thing, no lies about vomit cleanup necessary?
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.