You’re listening to a talk — maybe it’s a professor, a politician, a public speaker of some repute — and then it comes. Perhaps it’s subtle at first, but then, all of a sudden, the speaker’s laid it on you even faster than the last 14 times you’ve heard it: “You’ll be most successful in life if you do what you love.” They then go on to reflect about how lucky they are: Who else gets to wake up in the morning and be thrilled about going to work? And then, the clincher: As the next generation of “leaders,” do as I do.
Not everyone has heard a version of this talk, though chances are pretty high if you go to Yale. That said, it’s by no means restricted to those who’ve dabbled in (or soaked in) “elite culture.” It’s an increasingly common refrain for a few reasons. First, it’s good to hear, especially when most people know (or, perhaps as it applies to Yale, have at least seen on TV) other Americans who feel alienated from their work while they struggle to make ends meet. Second, for the middle and upper classes, it’s at least partially true: They have the resources to acquire the skills needed for a job they won’t hate.
At Yale, this advice is often flouted. It’s not bold to guess that most of the throngs of students currently going through interviews weren’t born aspiring to spend their college summers crunching data for a consulting firm. But even for those who succumb, for whatever reason on the spectrum of legitimacy, most believe that the bit about doing what you love is true: Either you really love the high-pressure situations those jobs provide, or you’ll do what you love after. Easy breezy.
Plenty of people talk about whether the “do what you love” advice is good or bad. But the more interesting question is whether it’s actually applicable to everyone.
In reality, only a privileged few can get away with loving their work all the time. For everyone else, a varying combination of personal satisfaction and the ability to put food on the table is much more likely. But it seems that the most pressing issue here involves how this language affects the inequality problem in America, particularly with the renewed focus on alleviating poverty.
Poverty, as I’ve seen it in my family and friends, is like a physical chain. We won’t know how fast those who are perpetually poor can run, because they’re never allowed to show the world without this unjust deadweight attached. Almost everyone, from President Obama to Paul Ryan, acknowledges this.
But unless you give in to some transhumanist, determinist belief that says everyone can be made — depending on the right combination of social variables — to experience equal levels of devotion, force of personality or desire to succeed, that’s not the whole nine yards. We know what happens to the folks in the middle classes and above who are, descriptively speaking, average — they continue living, for the most part, their not-too-shabby lifestyles. We all know plenty of people in this category. What does “average” here mean? Take an example: I knew a guy who had everything you could ask for — a wonderful home, good friends, good schooling — but he had very little drive to do much more.
There’s a distinction between poverty and ordinariness that our lexicon eschews. If you’ve been inculcated in the same culture as I’ve been, you might be thinking that talking about people this way is insensitive. But there’s nothing wrong with not having all-consuming passions or ambitions. It feels that way because the culture we live in — of maximization — implies in many ways that anything below the maximum is worse.
But what happens to the poor who are “average”? Those who, even if society succeeds in providing opportunity ladders, simply don’t climb up very far, if at all?
Even the desire to be productive and to push yourself forward comes from an arbitrary combination of nature and nurture, plus (if you believe in it) some free will. But the truly meek — those not able to get themselves onto the ladder, whether because of their will or because that’s just how they were born — have no way out using the language so popular today.
Even if they don’t inherit the earth in this life, people like this will always exist. Which means, for the determinists among us, we have to find ways of engineering their lives. Or perhaps a little more realistically, we’ve got to sober up and adjust our language of success and opportunity so that it doesn’t rob them of the human dignity that they deserve just as much as you and I.
John Aroutiounian is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. His columns run on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .