Why “do what you love” is the worst graduation advice

Publisher’s note: Carolyn Chen is associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-director of the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion. She is the author of the recently published book “Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley.” The opinions expressed in this article are my own.

(CNN) — In the past month, millions of college students have graduated and entered the American workforce. Steve Jobs’ well-known advice to the Stanford class of 2005, “find what you love… and love what you do,” has now become accepted gospel among the college-educated workforce.

But having studied Jobs’s most ardent Silicon Valley disciples in my book “Work Pray Code”, I have a few different words to share with the 2022 graduates; not so high, but quite necessary.

As a college graduate, you’ll likely join a class of people who describe their work using words like “passion,” “love,” and “authenticity.” And you may be tempted by companies that invite you to bring what they call your “whole self” to work.

As I learned in my study of Silicon Valley work culture, it all starts with giving yourself a paycheck. Soon they will give you a community. They will try to shape your identity and offer you a purpose, instilling every day the feeling that you are not working for a salary but to make the world a better place.

Without a doubt, if you follow this path, you will soon fall in love with your work; body, mind, heart and soul. No other social institution will work as hard to earn your love as your workplace. And if you don’t love your job, or believe in it, many of those around you will do or say things to make you feel like a loser.

But Generation Z, don’t believe the hype. Let Millennials wallow (or degenerate) in their love and work fest. You have to learn to love more intelligently. Because even though your workplace may promise comprehensive development, their goal is not to help you. It is to optimize your personality, so that you give everything that is within you to amplify its benefits.

So, ignore those exhortations to do what you love. It was fresh advice 20 years ago. Nowadays, the problems of professionals do not come from not loving the work, but from loving the work too much.

In the 1950s and 1960s, most white-collar workers considered work “a sacrifice of time, necessary to build a life out of it,” according to sociologist C. Wright Mills. It was in their families, communities, softball leagues, churches, temples, unions, and political clubs, and not at work, that white-collar workers looked for passion, love, and authenticity.

Americans contributed to shared project to build a healthy community and nation. During this bygone era of mass political mobilization, adults reserved something of themselves for the people around them and for civic service. Young people had the time and energy to pour their love into building social justice movements, not tech products.

The civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the women’s movement, the black, yellow and brown power movements, the gay rights movement—her work truly transformed the world. Creating a better “app” can change the world, but too often it does so by siphoning huge amounts of money into a few pockets and leaving everyone else out on the street.

This is what they don’t tell you in those graduation speeches: your love and energy are limited, so you have to choose your objects of devotion carefully. After interviewing more than 100 people who worked in Silicon Valley for my study, I learned that love of work rises or falls relative to other significant commitments.

Not all generations loved work equally. I found that many of the older workers (Baby Boomers and late Gen Xers) knew that work was just work, and any company would try to get everything they could from you. They learned that the job was not theirs.

Advice from Dr. Taylor Swift to 2022 graduates 2:04

Most millennials, on the other hand, wanted more from their jobs. They hoped that their work would satisfy them. They gave so much to the work that they had no time or energy to devote to the communities around them. Although most millennials said things like “Life is more than work”, few were able to live this. Their hobbies—things meant to sustain and nurture them, like mountain biking, meditation, hiking, and yoga—turned out to be just refreshing breaks, so they could come back and love the job even more.

Their sense of self flattened into a work self, a carefully cultivated “personal brand” that is readable on LinkedIn. And when they lost their jobs, they also lost their sense of identity and purpose attached to it.

Work is not inherently meaningful, nor is meaningful work the only path to a purposeful life. But love of work is the gospel now accepted among college-educated Americans, drowning out other competing religious and civic teachings like “love your homeless or undocumented neighbor as yourself.” And our families, communities, religions and democracy are paying for it.

Let’s be clear: “Work” is work exchanged for wages. It’s not supposed to be a comprehensive sacrifice of your time and energy. It is not synonymous with what you love or who you become.

American work culture wants you to question if you’re doing what you love at work. But the real question you need to ask yourself is this: What do you love? Everyone will tell you to love your job, from your well-intentioned grandparents to the companies that seek your love to increase their profits.

I certainly don’t want you to hate your job. Work is an important source of dignity and meaning for all of us. But to love intelligently in our work-obsessed world, we must ask ourselves: who do we become when we love work too much?

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