“I love building businesses and launching new ventures, but the only reason I value money is that I’m going to need a lot of it when I buy the New York Jets.”
-Gary Vaynerchuck, Crush It!
“…the Erotic Professional positions herself as answering a vocational ‘calling’ that seems to have barely anything to do with being paid.”
-Juno Mac and Molly Smith, Revolting Prostitutes
Like many people born after the 1980s, I grew up surrounded by discourse about work and passion. The underlying thesis was that, since work occupies the majority of a regular person’s time, and work is often associated with unhappiness and discontent, the solution was to turn work into an enjoyable experience. In a capitalist system that abhors any hint at communism, it does not do to examine the reasons why work is so undesirable to so many — that would eventually lead to discussions about fair wages, a reasonable hourly schedule, shifts in working conditions. The only solution that capitalism proposed to the issue of work was the individualist solution of finding something you’re so passionate about, it doesn’t feel like work, a sentiment summed up in that old cliché “love the work you do, and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
As a young person coming of age in the early 2000s, I wholeheartedly believed this mantra. I spent my first year in college casting about for my passion. When I finally found it in translation, it was not at all clear how I would even enter into the field. I had no connections and knew no one who even worked in it — apart from my professors, and they were not hiring. There was no way to get my foot in the door because no one could even point me to the door. My professors could not realistically provide the answer. They had both sort of fallen into the field in a time before the internet, when the industry was vastly different.
One particular memory sums up that time in my life. One of my translation classmates had been talking proudly about a project to translate encyclopedia articles her mother, a government employee, had gotten for her using her connections. At the time I worked at the now-defunct Toys R’ Us, and keenly remember a moment when, while mopping spilled soda from the floor, I felt like I was at a complete dead end compared to my luckier classmate. How would I, as a soon-to-be college graduate mopping soda off the floor at a retail store ever become a freelance translator?
After college, I entered the corporate world, when I excitedly took a job at a call center as a telephone interpreter. That seemed to be the door, back then, until it became clear that it would never lead to where I wanted. I became known around the office as a provider of translations, and so was often tasked with this additional labor. Back then, it was true of me that I was so passionate about translation that I would do it for free, but I also aspired to become a full-time translator and be remunerated for my work. Eventually, I realized that these odd in-office jobs would lead nowhere, and that people were simply taking advantage of my willingness to do the work for no additional pay. They were never going to hire me as a full-time translator. These odd jobs would never lead to me figuring out how to acquire clients on my own.
I began looking for freelance work online, only to end up in exploitative situations by underpaying rapacious agencies. As I spent three years searching in a frenzy for the way in, I realized that the tools and resources I had at hand were wholly insufficient to allow me to realize my dream.
A graduate degree emerged as the solution. There was a school in Monterey, California that specialized in translation and interpretation. My college professors spoke about it as it was well renowned within the field. I decided I would go there. A master’s degree from a prestigious translation school would probably do the trick. As it was a private school and I absolutely would never be able to realistically save up enough money to go, I decided to take the leap into massive student loan debt, after countless hopeless attempts to find scholarships and grants.
Gary Vaynerchuck is what is termed a serial entrepreneur, an innovative content creator who has positioned himself as the social media guru. His massive and impressive library of content includes three books and thousands upon thousands of hours of video on YouTube and other social media. Looking at one of his videos, he seems to spend his days in a Truman Show-esque reality TV world where he is producer and actor in the center of his own media universe.
In his book, Crush It!, he tells the story of how he and his immigrant family made it and of how you can make it too. His central thesis is that we live in a time when anyone can build the life they want and make money from their passion thanks to the internet. His avowed goal is to help people make it out of jobs that they hate into living through their passion.
One of the central tenets of the “work as passion” rhetoric is that work you are passionate about is work that you would do for free. In other words: what would you do if no one was paying you for it? This was a question I constantly came across through my academic and professional journey. I could think of any number of things. I wanted to write, most of all. I imagined myself as a novelist, comic book writer and poet from a very young age.
Yet it was not clear how I could make a living doing what I actually loved. How would I afford to live? With what money? My parents didn’t own a home or any other assets, and I partnered from a young age with another artist with the same resources as me (i.e., none). This is how I arrived at the compromise so many artists pursue: I would find a career I could live with and write on the side. Translation was that career. It was perfect because it coupled my love for languages with my love for writing, and was a more direct path towards making an income.
And so, we come to the central problem with the passion premise: what do you do while you wait for your passion to monetize? Do you choose to stay living with your parents to save on rent and food? I know countless examples of hustlers and brilliant artists living with their parents, working a minimum wage part-time job, devoting themselves to their passion on their time off. Do you get a regular job? Will that job leave you enough time and energy to realistically work on your project? (In Crush It!, Gary Vaynerchuck claims this can be done in the 8pm to 2 am timeframe after work, because nobody needs sleep when they are working on their passion.)
The path, according to social media gurus and content strategy peddlers, is to become a content creator. Showing up on YouTube with bad lighting and a cheap $30 lavalier mic you bought off of Amazon is better than not showing up at all. All of these people built their empires on the promise of content creation and influencer culture, and so too can you.
I love content creation. I spend more time on YouTube than on any other social platform. Now, for the past couple of months, I have been planning the launch of my YouTube channel devoted to dance. I am a creative person and want to work on creative projects. I love computers and technology and have developed a keen interest in video editing. But how realistic is it for people in every field to pursue this path?
This is why I find this concept that you should be passionate about your work highly problematic. For one, it puts undue emotional labor on people whose material conditions do not permit them to realistically find work that people can be expected to be passionate about. In my particular story, I had to go into a lot of debt to realize my passion. Once I did enter my chosen field, the passion mindset left me vulnerable to exploitative work practices and lowering rates. If you could do it for free, what is then the incentive to charging what you’re worth? (For Gary Vee, it’s so he can amass enough wealth to buy the Jets.) Do you then only charge what is enough to live? Or do you charge more? How do you charge more when the existing laws regulating your industry and your type of work leave you open to rapacious practices? Do you then begin to engage in similar rapacious practices in order to survive? How do you get away with saying no to clients when you are uncertain how you will make rent next month and the property manager at the building you live in does not fool around when it comes to evictions? And how do you find time to record and edit videos to promote your work, develop social media content and write and send newsletters when you are busy working all the jobs you can get your hands on for fear that work will dry up at some point? How do you accomplish all of this while also ensuring that you continue training and educating yourself in your chosen field?
This is what I call the Passion Trap. Feeling passionate about the work you do is a privilege. There are many jobs in society that one cannot realistically expect people to feel passionate about: garbage collection, scrubbing toilets, flipping burgers at a fast food joint, bagging groceries at a supermarket. While you might find one or two individuals who seem content with their circumstances, there are millions more who dream of better things. Not by necessarily doing a different job, but by getting paid a livable wage for whatever job they can find and having access to free healthcare and free education, so they don’t have to go into debt in order to get a degree or pay their medical bills.
Even when you do feel passionate, your financial conditions might be so precarious that the work becomes associated with those conditions. One often ends up over-worked and exploited but trapped in a situation where you cannot take full steps towards something better. The videogame industry is a perfect example of this. Employees are often guilt-tripped into accepting terrible working conditions for the privilege of working on their passion. You are expected to do what people like Gary Vee preach: work your little behind off, physical and mental health be damned.
I believe we need to decouple passion from work. Expecting fulfillment from the activity itself, no matter the conditions or the pay, is a symptom of a sick society. Let’s accept that some work sucks and that it’s not always possible to turn our passions into paid work. Let’s accept that without proper social supports, people are forced to do what they need to in order to survive. Our society needs to move towards better pay and better working conditions, and to provide people with their basic needs: decent housing, access to free healthcare and free or low-cost education. When you are not worried about not ending up on the street or what you will eat for your next meal, it is possible your passion might have space to flourish. When your choices are not either massive debt or an unfulfilling office job with barely a livable salary, you can perhaps pursue that education. Working all hours of the day is not realistic for everyone, and you should not have to become a content creator, with all the technical and knowledge obstacles that entails, to earn a proper living and secure a roof for yourself and your family.