I love the fact that there are people that follow their dreams and shoot for the moon. We would be bereft of innovation, art, and so on if everyone accepted a nice comfy cubicle. But I would expect most of the people who manage such feats to be the sorts of people who simply couldn’t do anything else. And if you can’t do anything else, you have to do what you can. Whenever I used to go to anime/sci-fi conventions, I would get irritated with writers on the peril would invariably open their panels saying how terrible it is to be a writer and that you should do something else. Better advice, in retrospect, was given by some in the form of “If you can do something else, then do something else. Writing is for people who are so overwhelmed by the need to write that they cannot do anything else.”

Beyond that, though, don’t follow your dreams. Screw your dreams. While you should do what you can do avoid what you hate – if for no other reason than that if you hate it, you won’t be good at it and if you won’t be good at it you probably won’t advance in it – the most important part of life, to me, is what you come home from the job to.

Further, the notion that you should love your work only works if you actually succeed in doing what it is you want to do. Sometimes you shoot for the moon and don’t make it, you can more easily end up in the deadly abyss in space instead of on the moon or another star. Or you can miss entirely, and plummeting back to earth in a stunning death. Okay, maybe I am taking the metaphor too far, but you get the idea. If you go into fashion design, you may become a fashion designer, or you may be relegated to something less pleasant than what you would be doing if you had simply signed on to a more conventional career track.

I have seen people become far less than they could be because they came to the conclusion that the decision not to follow your dreams would actually be a failure to follow your dreams, which is a mentality that is toxic. So it’s no surprise that I read favorably Miya Tokumitsu’s admonition against telling people to “doing what you love” (DWYL), which she considers to be classist and exploitive:

Superficially, DWYL is an uplifting piece of advice, urging us to ponder what it is we most enjoy doing and then turn that activity into a wage-generating enterprise. But why should our pleasure be for profit? And who is the audience for this dictum?

DWYL is a secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation but is an act of love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, presumably it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.

I don’t come at it from quite the lefty perspective as Tokumitsu, which leaves me less than concerned about the exploitation angle. There is a cost with everything, and with doing what you love it’s having to accept the concessions of being in a very competitive field. That’s why following your dreams is often a bad idea for a lot of people, but not why it’s a bad idea for society as a whole. The class element, though, is more significant.

Following your dreams is a fantastic idea if you have a trust fund. It’s also a fantastic idea if you have upper class social networks that can help you in your career or catch you if you fall. The belief that one should follow one’s dreams come-what-may is impossible to separate from a sense of security that a lot of people lack. When I look at my peers in the upper middle class, a differentiation between “follow your dreams” and “get a job” is a sense of financial vulnerability. While I myself come from a family where my father had a good government salary and a good salary, I was also born into a family where my parents were raised poor or lacked that economic security. I was raised with that insecurity and the belief that “No, just because you try your best and follow your own path does not mean things will work themselves out” even though, in retrospect, the odds that they would, for me, are better than they are for a lot of people.

James Joyner argues that even when people say that you should follow your dreams that they’re not saying that you’re a failure if you don’t, but the undercurrent is there. Not unlike how “We should encourage (almost) everyone to go to college” inadvertently signifies that people who didn’t go to college failed to go to college. If we associate the path to happiness with goals that so often rely on luck, social networking, and a money cushion, we’re defining goals upwards in a way that will be detrimental to more people than helpful. A stronger safety net can only help with one of the three. All of this is especially true when supply far outstrips demand for certain career paths.

Which brings us to the other bit that a lot of people (including Joyner and Lion) are criticizing, which is that somebody has to do the grunt work – which they are unlikely to love – so that Steve Jobs can live his dream. Especially poor people in China. This part resonates less with me than with others, however, because it touches on such cosmic injustices that the failure of a Chinese sweatshop worker to pursue their dreams is putting the First World Problem stamp on people with much greater problems. It leads us down a path most of us (excluding Jacobins, to be fair) are not seriously willing to go, to the point that the argument strikes me mostly as a distraction to the conversation between the people actually having the conversation with one another.

Andrew Simmons makes a class argument when it comes to college:

My students are understandably preoccupied with money. They don’t have the privilege to not worry about it. They fantasize about what their future wealth will permit them to enjoy. They dream about specific models of cars in certain colors and gargantuan houses in particular neighborhoods and opulent meals at their favorite restaurants any time they wish. Many swoon over the East Coast liberal arts colleges they visit on the special trips that my school is thoughtful enough to arrange. Colleges like Swarthmore and Haverford fly students like Isabella out during college applications season. A few are accepted but most attend state schools, which, especially in California, can provide excellent educational opportunities. The irony, though, is that many of these students aspire to go to a liberal-arts school but don’t necessarily understand its significance. They’re drawn to sleepy quads, weathered brick, and cascading ivy, but they are resolutely pre-professional in spirit.

In contrast, at the private school I attended for the last two years of high school, my classmates thought about what they wanted to learn in college, not only what they wanted to become. Some knew medical or law school loomed in the future, but they thought about the work in a different way. My privileged classmates enjoyed money, from what I could tell. A few reveled in their cars and clothes, but most appeared to take it for granted. They didn’t talk about it. Instead, a future doctor talked about working at the CDC to fight public health epidemics. A future lawyer envisioned starting a defense firm to provide a service to the hometown community. Most of us wanted to do something special.

He seems to be treating his private school as the norm, rather than his economically insecure students. I would wager “college as getting ahead” is actually more commonplace than “want to do something special.”

The desire to follow one’s dreams, to do what you love, and to do something special, are typically luxuries of economic comfort and should be, in my mind, generally viewed as such. I think it’s great that he has a student that has an eye on the “economic security” ball and also wants to accomplish more. But if there’s one that should be strongly emphasized, it’s not doing something special. It’s taking care of your business and being in a position to take care of your family

The aspirational ideology is problematic because it designs success and failure in such a way that places a moral or spiritual value on aspects of life that they are particularly well-positioned to pursue. There is an implicit declaration of a shortcoming, or emptiness, on the part of those that are not afforded such luxuries. I would argue that there is far more honor in going in every day to a job that you don’t like than there is spiritual value in dedicating yourself to the ethereal career path, and in my personal hierarchy the starving artist is subordinate to the bored IT guy who jams on weekends.

The Onion, in its almighty wisdom, had it right: Find The Thing You’re Most Passionate About, Then Do It On Nights And Weekends For The Rest Of Your Life.

Category: Coffeehouse

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4 Responses to Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head

  1. fillyjonk says:

    I remember back when I was a teaching assistant, a student in one of my intro labs asked me one day, when we were staining bacteria, “Is this what a pathologist does for a living?” I said I wasn’t sure but perhaps it was part of their gig.

    Later on, I mentioned the exchange to a labmate and she pulled out an issue of US News and World Report or something, and showed me a list of the “Top 10 paying careers” or somesuch for different fields, including biology.

    The young woman in my class had apparently decided upon a career based on money alone, without even knowing for sure what it WAS. How can you want to go into a career where you don’t even know what the expectations are?

    I’m a college prof (as were my parents, so I knew what the gig entailed) and while I like it a lot of the time, there’s also stuff about it I don’t like. Not sure how the “DWYL” gurus deal with the concept that nearly every career (if not EVERY career) has parts that are tedious, annoying, or frustrating. I like teaching, I like running labs, I like collecting data, but I loathe confronting plagiarists when I catch them. And grading wears me down like little else can.

    • trumwill says:

      It’s a mistake to make a decision on the basis of a USNWR article, to be sure. It should sound like something that you think you wouldn’t be bored silly or insane doing.

      I remember when I was in college, I found out too late what kinds of opportunities there were in Industrial Distribution. Which sounds dreadful to many, though didn’t sound particularly worse than what I ended up majoring in (Computer Information Systems). But there was a reason that I didn’t follow my father and brother into scientific engineering, and it isn’t that I don’t think I could have done it.

  2. Mike Hunt Rice says:

    I see over at OT that I’m not the only one who read the new Scott Adams book.

    BTW, was OT down this morning? When I tried going on, there was a place-holder instead.

    • trumwill says:

      Yeah, there was an outage this morning. Combined with the caching system, it was a real pain (because people kept getting the placeholder after the site was fixed).

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