Work: A Play on Your Passion

If you were a real worker… (Credit to XKCD)

I’ve linked to Miya Tokumitsu’s piece In the Name of Love that was featured on Jacobin, as well commenting on the issue of “do what you love” myself (see here and here).

More recently Tokumitsu has published another excerpt from her book called Do What You Love: And Other Lies About Success and Happiness titled, Forced to Love the Grind. Through my last attempt at getting the first article I mentioned republished here I know that Jacobin has some sort of hold on it.

So instead of going that route, let’s just look at (some of) her article and see what insights we can find.

A lot of Tokumitsu’s article relies on programmers and, though Tokumitsu doesn’t mention it directly, a phenomenon known as “Real Programmer Syndrome. This is a situation herein programmers feel compelled to be the “best” programmer they can be. I don’t mean this in a general or normal sense. Rather, they work sleepless nights and near-sleepless days trying to code as best as they can.

Tokumitsu’s article touches on this more specifically right at the beginning and elsewhere:

The ceaselessly productive worker, with little time for rest, let alone any need or desire for it, stands today as a heroic icon, particularly in the high-strung white-collar milieus of Silicon Valley and Wall Street. The desired persona is one that transcends needs for sleep, care, relationships, and any other obligation that might distract from work and profit.

During the Cold War, defense companies like Lockheed in the Santa Clara Valley drew scores of ambitious scientists; these workers seemed to share certain personality traits, including social awkwardness, emotional detachment, and, namely, a single-mindedness about their work to the point at which “they devoted every waking hour to it, usually to the exclusion of nonwork relationships, exercise, sleep, food, and even personal care.”

In the late ’50s, Lockheed’s own company psychologists created a label for this particular bundle of traits: “the sci-tech personality.”

I’ve seen some programmers in real life who have this problem (and I do too sometimes) where they just can’t get themselves off of a project. They simply forgot about little things like sleep, food, social interaction or just about anything else.

From experience I know you just get lost in a given project that you have so much passion for that you just don’t want to stop. These are likely very genuine feelings you have about your project and not something your boss inculcated you with in some insidious manner. But even so they can be fairly detrimental to your health.

Check out the article I did called Free Speech: Endgame (Batgirl and Beyond) to see what I mean.

Script Timer tells me it’s 9,795 words and would take nearly an hour to read if you average 3 words a second.

What was my process for writing this?

Well, as I said back in March:

I spent [around] 8 hours straight writing my first draft of it. It was insane. I just started and before I knew it I was at 2,000 [words] and [still] only felt like I had just really gotten started…

From what I recall I started at some point late in the evening (perhaps around 9 PM) and then proceeded to find article after article, quote after quote, topic upon topic, to address. It was (as I said then and still believe now) insane. I literally should not have done that…probably.

I took some breaks but not many, probably not enough. And don’t get me wrong, I loved the whole experience. I still love that article and I’ve even looked it over a few times since.

But it still wasn’t good for me.

I remember feeling absolutely exhausted after I finished the article. And even then I think I still had to review it here and there and do more revisions. It is a proud accomplishment of mine in some ways but it’s not something I’d want to make a habit of.

And that’s the problem that Tokumitsu is more directly addressing. Folks who did the equivalent (or somewhere near there) of what I did with my Batgirl article…for their job.

So that’s something that they do on a near-daily basis and it most likely keeps them exhausted fairly frequently. When you’re feeling so tired so often you’re likely to not have much energy for anything else. Like questioning why you’re spending so much on something (even if you love it) to begin with.

See, the problem here is that love doesn’t cancel out your health.

We need a more holistic view here of what makes people live a flourishing life. We can’t just have a lot of happiness and say we’re free and we can’t have a lot of love in whatever we’re doing and claim it as some sort of victory. If it was that straightforward how would capitalism have claimed it so quickly and easily? Why would it have become such a big mainstay of mainstream rhetoric about how to do your job “right”.

That’s the other dangerous part of this concept. That if you don’t love what you do then you just must not be doing it right.And that can lead to all sorts of things that mostly stem from the power dynamics involved in the worker-boss relation.

The boss can now say, “Well Jack, you’re not enjoying your job? Well, what are you doing wrong?”

Because surely it can’t be a problem of the workplace or the boss or capitalism or some larger infrastructural, institutional or systematic issue.

And from this sort of pressure the worker can now feel guilt and shame on top of their frustrations with their job. They can now feel like the job is too good for them instead of what is much more likely. This can lead to a “Real Programmer Syndrome” festering in an individual worker pretty quickly.

And as we just concluded, that ain’t good for ya.

Moving on, as Tokumitsu points out there’s just no point to such a use of your passion. Working that hard for that long isn’t likely to make you more productive.

In my case I ended up being pretty productive and I think the article came out fairly good. But I was my own boss in that case and I set when I took breaks and when I didn’t. I also wasn’t competing with anyone to be the best writer, nor was I trying to impress myself or a boss. I just loved the topic and wanted to write about it as much as I could.

To be clear, I’m not claiming that these factors were decisive in making me more productive but they were ameliorative ones at least.

Plus, the studies that are involved with nonproductive people at certain hours are usually measuring folks at their stable and consistent jobs. That’s not exactly the case for someone who is writing for an anarchist organization.

One particularly poignant thing Tokimitsu says that caught my eye was, “Passion is all too often a cover for overwork cloaked in the rhetoric of self-fulfillment.”

This passion rhetoric is also used as a way to blur the lines between our lives and our work-lives.

After all, if we love what we do then why aren’t we working all of the time?

If we (once again) go back to tech companies like Google we can see them in particular (and other tech companies) trying to dissolve the lines between our individual identities and our work identities.

In practice, this means hardly ever leaving work, treating your workplace like your home, treating your co-workers (or more worrisome) your boss like family, almost always eating at work and so on.

Basically, work becomes our new homes.

The problem with this sort of situation is that humans have things besides biological needs. It isn’t just that we need to eat, sleep and use the bathroom once in a while. We also need varied experiences. If we’re shut in a given place and hardly ever move around or interact with our larger context then we’re likely to start making more and more mistakes.

Especially in a big and powerful company like Google this is particularly salient and noteworthy.

There’s also the problem of treating your life as reducible to whatever you do on a given day.

You may do a given activity a lot or like it a lot or want to do it a lot but that doesn’t mean that’s all there is to you. You may love engineering and be an engineer in some specified sense but you also have external ideas from engineering. You have loves, desires, dreams, preferences, aesthetic interests and more that exist outside of your job and that’s not going to change just because Google offers you those things in-house.

And let’s say that it does change, it still may not be very healthy for you to get all of your supposed needs or desires from one place. This sort of life strategy boils down your entire identity to a single point of failure that, if it goes, you do too.

Can you imagine the sort of emotional and psychological harm these sorts of workers would experience if their job was lost?

People already get so much distress and pain from losing jobs, whether they like them or not.

Now try to experience a world where people aren’t even sure who they are, would likely experience some sort of trauma if they lost their job and treat their bosses like some sort of family member.

“Do what you love” sounds noble but it’s not such a noble idea when it’s being absorbed more and more by capitalists.

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