Parts of Miya Tokumitsu’s much-praised Jacobin essay, “In the Name of Love,” had me cheering out loud. By taking a deeper look inside the self-help slogan of “Do what you love!”, Tokumitsu has eloquently exposed the social and class implications of being able to claim it as a career option.
To me, as a person working in the arts, the slogan is annoying as well as classist. It’s true that what I do for a livelihood looks like a lot of fun, but the “Do what you love!” mindset leads many libertarian types to conclude that I should be happy to do it for no pay, because it’s not really work. (I’ve blogged about this problem before here.)
After Tokumitsu’s piece went viral, I was glad to see this follow-on article in the New York Times by the St. Olaf College professor Gordon Marino, “A Life Beyond ‘Do What You Love.'” In contrast to the glib advice of talk-show hosts and CEOs, Marino advises students to do what they’re good at, and what’s right for the well-being of their families.
I realize that some might expect me, a professor of music, not to like this advice. Since my job’s continued existence is dependent upon my recruiting students to prepare for a precarious profession, you might think that I’d be preaching “Do what you love!” to anyone who’d listen. But I don’t, because confession time: I did the thing I could do best, and not the thing that interested me the most.
I realize how how silly it sounds that the cello was, for me, the sensible career choice. I hasten to add that the thing I loved best as a teenager was even less sensible. It wasn’t ballet or architecture. It was writing essays. Whether the assignment was Shakespeare, the Second World War, Greek myths, or current issues, the act of writing worked some kind of energizing magic on me; describe it as an ecstatic experience is no exaggeration. While I practised the cello religiously every day, I seldom found Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s elusive concept of flow in the relentless slog of scales and etudes, but I could find it nearly every time I sat down to write in my exercise books with my trademark purple ballpoint. And I still find it, even when writing work e-mails, course syllabuses, and class handouts. Writing is my happy place, in a way that music has never been.
Why, then, did I pursue music and not writing as a profession?
I suppose that I understood, even as a teenager, that a literary career was an elusive fantasy. I knew that most people who wrote poems and novels didn’t get them published. I knew that I lacked the extroversion and bold inquisitiveness to succeed in, say, journalism. I knew that very, very few people got paid the big bucks to sound off about various social issues in Sunday newspaper columns. (If they did, everyone would be India Knight.)
I knew few writers, but many musicians. I knew I was good at music, because a lot of important people had said so. I’d won awards and accolades. I was getting paid work, even as a schoolgirl. Every adult I knew expected me to study cello at university. No one, including myself, seriously considered any other profession for me. It seemed like the logical thing to do.
Do I regret my career choice? Not really. My cello has taken me all over the world, and I love my job as a professor of music. That’s not to say, of course, that there haven’t been any “what ifs.” I did, immediately after finishing my doctorate in my mid-twenties, spend a few anguished months reconsidering this thing I had invested my whole life in. For the first time, I looked into careers in fields that looked challenging and socially important, such as politics, law, and medicine. A brief period of working in an entry-level position for the New Zealand government caused me to abandon the first, though applications for law and medical schools were never far from the top of the stack of papers on my desk. Ultimately, I went back to music, because it was the one thing I knew I could do really well. Could I have done other things well, had I given them and myself a chance? Possibly. I don’t know.
It was during this time, since the New Zealand government didn’t seem particularly concerned that I could accomplish my day’s work in 90 minutes and spend the other 390 surfing the internet and eating biscuits, that I went back to my first love, writing. That year, I wrote my first ever published article for the DSCH Journal. For some years afterwards, I had no time to write because I was busy playing full-time in a string quartet, but since becoming a professor, I haven’t gone a day without writing, except when I’ve been on trans-continental flights or giving birth.
I suppose I’ve managed, more through dumb luck than through any especial virtue of my own, to achieve some kind of synthesis between my profession and my interest. I’m privileged that I enjoy and get paid for both. I’m conscious of the privilege that got me to where I am, and of the sheer impossibility for most people ever to have that kind of privilege. I still wouldn’t counsel a similarly privileged teenager to “do what you love,” however. If I counselled anything at all, it would be to take a good look around and see what’s out there before deciding, and once you’ve decided, go ferociously after the thing you want.
And that thing, whatever it is? Love it, because sometimes your love of it will be all you have.