Recently, Sally showed me Gordon Marino’s NY Times article, “A Life Beyond ‘Do What You Love”. The gist: the oft-repeated 21st century American mantra of following your true passions — instead of dull but reliable career paths — is misguided. 

There’s a hint of naïve entitlement to making “Do What You Love” the be-all-end-all answer to the workday blues, just as suggesting “Just move!” when a friend’s neighborhood turns dangerous comes across as simplistic and dismissive. Sometimes, you just can’t. At the heart of the matter is devaluing other forms of dedication, labor, work. Must we passionately love everything that we give attention to? Why?

Marino writes of the “Do What You Love” ethic:

…it degrades work that is not done from love…It also ignores the idea that work itself possesses an inherent value, and most importantly, severs the traditional connection between work, talent and duty.

He goes on to talk about his own father––a man who worked every day of his life and detested every second of it, to build a strong life for his family.

It’s clear that “doing what you love” is much more difficult for certain strata of society, not only those below the poverty line, but rather, a wide range of the middle class who are firmly entrenched in their lifestyle with no major complaints, yet always entertain that “what if?” What if I went back to med school at age 60? What if I quit my 9-to-5 job and spent my days surfing in Hawaii? What if the jewelry I make as stress relief on the weekends could be a viable brand?

Suk & Myung Choi, author's parents, circa 1980s.
Suk & Myung Choi, my parents, circa 1980s.

Marino’s personal aside about his family really struck home with me. I am a child of Korean immigrants who made the journey to California in the 70’s with no money and no possessions other than a busted-up Volkswagen Dasher, and subsequently built a design business lucrative enough to send me to the school of my dreams.

Miscellaneous zinc plate etchings from Suk's student days
Miscellaneous zinc plate etchings from Suk Choi’s student days

My father loves the routine of his work and finds immense satisfaction in reaping the rewards of a job painstakingly done — even as he expresses the occasional wistful remark that he gave up his printmaking, illustration, and interest-in-pure-mathematics to dedicate his energy to this thriving business. Sometimes, I’ll ask him to give me a doodle or one of the flipbooks he’s so fond of making (see gif below), a gesture I consider to be a gift for him disguised as a gift for me. But most of the time, I give him his space and respect the choices he’s made. He chose work. He chose labor. He chose family.

Suk Choi

On the flipside, I’m a first-generation Korean-American arts graduate, teacher, glassblower, New Yorker, writer and currently a working independent artist. It is a lifestyle catalyzed by the hard work of my parents, and realized through my own creative willpower and willingness to balance my arts practice with work. I make money by working odd jobs or teaching, not by selling my work, but I still make time to paint, create glass work and draw. It’s difficult. Some days feels impossible. But it’s rewarding. And it needs practice, just like cultivating any other habit.

Side projects I've worked on through the years
Side projects I’ve worked on through the years, while working as a cashier/maid/mailroom clerk….

I believe that self-expression and daily experimentation are vital––however you make it happen, and however small the action. There is immense value in pursuing the things you love, be it creative expression or simply following a line of curiosity. There is also a huge value in homemaking, there is value in persisting at your job, there is value in putting the needs of others before yours, there is value in prioritizing pragmatically. They each offer a different kind of happiness, a different kind of satisfaction.

If you’re lucky or driven enough to make your passion your business, then that’s fabulous. But if shifting your entire life to focus on a hobby, a craft or a personal interest isn’t in the cards for you right now, that doesn’t mean your creative productivity has to come to a halt. Set aside some time every day to do what you love, even if it’s only ten minutes, and remember these artists whose studio practices merged with their daily lives….

…Like Richard Serra, world-famous sculptor, who maintained his furniture-moving business while working on massive metal pieces which gained huge traction in the art world:

Gagosian Gallery
Gagosian Gallery

…Or William Carlos Williams, the celebrated poet who never flagged at his day job as a physician:

…And T.S. Eliot, who worked as a banker in London while he published such seminal works as The Waste Land, even though fellow poets including Ezra Pound pleaded with him to quit:

…Or finally Philip Glass, the minimalist composer best known for creating the gorgeous soundtrack to Koyaanisqatsi, who continued to work as a taxi driver and a plumber even as he gained critical recognition for his music (more on that in another post):

So! Give yourself a little time each day. Stare at a blank piece of watercolor paper and let it scare you at first…you’ll make a mark sooner or later. Spend time picking out the perfect yarns for your next knitting project and let the project take all summer. Tend to your garden of succulents. Write half a poem every sitting. Do a quick self-portrait before you catch your morning bus.

Bedroom, dining room, the school where I worked...all become my impromptu studio
Bedroom, dining room, the school where I worked…all became my impromptu studio…

Find time to do what you love and make that your time that nobody else can touch.

(To read more on the subject, see these fabulous lists of artists and writers who didn’t quit their day jobs…Charlotte Brontë, Julian Schnabel, Toni Morisson…the list goes on….) 

Sinnae Choi

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5 replies on ““Do What You Love” Every Day in Small Doses…

  1. Fantastic article. I have struggled with this concept for some time. After a brief career stint in music performance, I am making the switch to music therapy, which for me is about finding the deeper meaning in a passion. Thanks.

    P.S. John Cage wrote 4’33”, not Philip Glass.

  2. 4’33 is NOT by Phillip Glass, not by a long shot. It’s by John Cage. Please edit to reflect. Thank you.

  3. Thanks so much. I should have caught the 4’33” error in editing. It’s fixed now.

  4. I also thought these ideas were refreshing when I saw them. FYI Marino was essentially riffing on Miya Tokumitsu’s original article. I wish the woman who first put forward these ideas had gotten some recognition here.

  5. Erin, I think this is the Tokumitsu article you were referring to:

    What a wonderful article. She delves more deeply than Marino does into the socioeconomic implications of the phrase—that it stems from elitism and doesn’t always apply to the general public. She also touches on how the “do what you love” ethic harms those in academia. A quote:

    “Instead of crafting a nation of self-fulfilled, happy workers, our DWYL era has seen the rise of the adjunct professor and the unpaid intern: people persuaded to work for cheap or free, or even for a net loss of wealth. This has certainly been the case for all those interns working for college credit or those who actually purchase ultra-desirable fashion-house internships at auction.”

    And the coda to her article is poignant as well: “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life! Before succumbing to the intoxicating warmth of that promise, it’s critical to ask, “Who, exactly, benefits from making work feel like nonwork?” “Why should workers feel as if they aren’t working when they are?” In masking the very exploitative mechanisms of labor that it fuels, DWYL is, in fact, the most perfect ideological tool of capitalism. If we acknowledged all of our work as work, we could set appropriate limits for it, demanding fair compensation and humane schedules that allow for family and leisure time.

    And if we did that, more of us could get around to doing what it is we really love.”

    Thanks so much for suggesting the read, Erin. I hope between Marino, Takumitsu, myself and all our readers, a middle ground of ‘moderate creativity’ can be reached, a lifestyle that doesn’t require a degree of privilege to pursue.

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