There’s been a lot written lately about the danger of doing what you love (“DWYL”). Miya Tokumitsu floated the anti-DWYL thesis in Slate in January, noting that DWYL’s “real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.” DailyWorth picked up on the piece in an essay called “Why Doing What You Love Means Not Getting Paid.” Writer Terri Trespicio laments that “In the Faustian bargain of doing work for love or money, I thought love mattered more. And I paid dearly for it.”
I don’t disagree with the broad point, that whether you love your work or not, you should expect to be paid fairly for it. Assigning too much value to the love part can leave you up a creek without a retirement account.
Nonetheless, I think these either/or scenarios miss a lot. For starters, few people face an explicit trade-off between doing what they love and making money. Indeed, most people aren’t in jobs that are either massively remunerative OR crazy-fun-exciting. The labor market is neither perfectly transparent nor efficient. It’s hard to optimize on any dimension. Or to put it another way, if you don’t like your current job, it’s always possible you’ll like a better-paying one more!
Within any given job, there are also lots of ways to love it or hate it. It’s much like a relationship. If you put a lot of effort into a situation, seeking out new opportunities and forging connections, or negotiating work/life balance improvements, you can turn something ho-hum into something pretty great.
But even if you do what you love, the reality is that you can still be hard-nosed about money, rather than acting so grateful for the opportunity that you devalue your work. The first key principle is to be agnostic about the specifics, even as you are clear on what kind of work you want to do. If you’re in publishing, for instance, you can be willing to move between houses, or to an indy press, or to different kinds of books (fiction vs. non-fiction) for a better offer. You do what you love, but you’ve got a free agent mindset.
Second, you can use that free agent mindset to leverage even low-paying jobs into multiple sources of income. In 168 Hours, I wrote about Danny Kofke, a teacher who left teaching for a while because of concerns about supporting his family financially. He got a job in a high-end rug store and hated it. While, in theory, he could have made more from high-end rug commissions than he would have from teaching, when you don’t want to sell something, it’s hard to become a top sales person. So he went back to teaching, and then also figured out entrepreneurial things he could do on the side — like parlaying his family’s budgeting prowess into personal finance books and workshops, specifically pitched as surviving and thriving on a teacher’s salary. He’s doing work he loves, yet is making more money than he did before.
That’s how I’ve been trying to approach the business of writing (please see my post on The economics of writing — or how to write for a living and not starve). I write for lots of different people, and I write lots of different kinds of stuff. I love writing books, and I’m thrilled I get to do that. But I also recognize that some kinds of books (e.g. time management and productivity) are going to sell better than, say, books of seasonal poems, even if I might like to write those too. I can write those, I just don’t spend all my time on that sort of thing. These situations are more complex than a simple do-what-you-love vs. make money calculation.
Have you ever traded off income to DWYL? Or have you found a way to increase your income while DWYL?
Photo: Sometimes doing what you love means making a robot out of Valentine’s Day candy boxes.