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Esther Cepeda: The rewards of hard work

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Esther Cepeda
January 22, 2014

CHICAGO -- It looks as though 2014 may shape up as the year that hard work gets acknowledgment after decades of society’s self-indulgent belief that work can be supplanted by fun and passion.

 In a provocative critique of “Do what you love, love what you do” (DWYL)—the inane aphorism that has become the favorite cliché of seemingly every high school’s college and career counselor, and first cousin of the old saw, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”—essayist Miya Tokumitsu makes this startling declaration:

 “[Do what you love, love what you do] is now the unofficial work mantra for our time. The problem is that it leads not to salvation but to the devaluation of actual work, including the very work it pretends to elevate?—and more importantly, the dehumanization of the vast majority of laborers.”

 Writing in Jacobin magazine, Tokumitsu points out that “by keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness, DWYL distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labor, whether or not they love it. It is the 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 an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. … ‘Do what you love’ disguises the fact that being able to choose a career primarily for personal reward is an unmerited privilege, a sign of that person’s socioeconomic class.”

 Tokumitsu describes how wealthy graphic designers, entrepreneurs and “think-tank acolytes” who follow their bliss only because they can afford it (because mom and dad are footing the bill) unfairly set the standard for ease of achievement for those without the same fundamental supports.

 This is worth chewing on. Also notable is that more often than not, those who actually do excel in their chosen vocation work like demons.

 And that’s the problem with the Love-and-Passion Philosophy of modern career selection: It substitutes easy, positive emotions for the physical acts of courage, determination, discipline and excellence necessary to have the privilege of doing what you love.

 One obituary of the late maestro Claudio Abbado—who was known for his humble, subdued personality and style at the rostrum—reported that as a student he learned to conduct with one hand tied behind his back.

 For the uninitiated, a conductor’s technique is a flamboyant mystery. But Abbado’s grueling training puts into perspective the agonizing, profoundly disciplined work that set him apart from the untold number of music students who ever took a conducting class and dreamed of leading a professional orchestra.

 Yes, there was some privilege involved in his meteoric career, a fair amount of luck and no small shortage of love and passion—but above all: hard work.

 In an article in The Wall Street Journal about his book “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big,” “Dilbert” creator Scott Adams said, “Passion will presumably give you high energy, high resistance to rejection and high determination. Passionate people are more persuasive, too. Those are all good things, right?”

 But when he was a commercial loan officer for a large bank, Adams said, he was taught that passion is not a sustainable business model. His boss told him, “The best loan customer is someone who has no passion whatsoever, just a desire to work hard at something that looks good on a spreadsheet. Maybe the loan customer wants to start a dry-cleaning store or invest in a fast-food franchise—boring stuff. That’s the person you bet on. You want the grinder, not the guy who loves his job.”

 Adams recalled, “‘Dilbert’ started out as just one of many get-rich schemes I was willing to try. When it started to look as if it might be a success, my passion for cartooning increased because I realized it could be my golden ticket. In hindsight, it looks as if the projects that I was most passionate about were also the ones that worked. But objectively, my passion level moved with my success. Success caused passion more than passion caused success.”

 Talent gets you started. Courage and luck move you forward. But in the pursuit of success, love and passion aren’t reliable substitutes for hard work.

 Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.



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