How to live: Work is a four-letter word

3043138-slide-istock-unfinished-business-2 My pal, Tim Mansfield, sent out a series of newsletters around the topic of feeling stuck. One of the posts that stuck in my brain was about work. Because all around me, friends ask:

  • Am I doing the right work?
  • Do I like my work?
  • How should I get work that I like?

I often wondered about these questions too.

My first two major career phases, which could really be seen as one extending to the other, were connected to a passion and purpose: to change the world for the better, first through fighting for gay and lesbian rights (and I do leave out bisexual and transgender folks as my organisation wasn’t particularly good at inclusion at that stage) and then working to reduce HIV infections around the world, while improving conditions for those living with HIV.

3043138-slide-istock-unfinished-business-10However, while a sense of purpose underlay all of my work, I remember very early on realising that in fact most of my work was very similar to my father’s work as a businessman, sitting at a desk all day, organising information and numbers. And my day-to-day work would often be unpleasant and draining, not because of passionately fighting injustice, but instead because I had to navigate the egos of and rivalries with people I worked in, and a preponderance of terrible, terrible managers.

After a mid-life crisis, I realised that I didn’t have to stick with the same career forever. I could contribute to any social justice causes I wished, in my spare time, without having to make it my career. Most of us are small players in a much larger movement; removing this cog from that machine would be pretty much unnoticeable.

I love my new career as an editor and writer. I love the activity of it, the variation and freedom, the absence of bad managers.

So one of the links in Tim’s posts made me think: In the Name of Love, with the subtitle ‘Elites embrace the “do what you love” mantra. But it devalues work and hurts workers‘ by and posted on

1425479423-vince-vaughn-appearing-free-cheesy-stock-images-you-can-download-getty-3The writer argues persuasively that it’s only the global elites that have the economic freedom to try to make our passion (whether a cause or something we like doing) into our work. Most people just need to work for a living, at whatever work they can get, and the language of ‘do what you love’ casts judgement on those who don’t.

Miya makes many more complicated arguments than that, but I take away the idea, something which I have said before, is that sometimes (or for some people, perhaps all the time), work is something that you need to do to survive. You shouldn’t believe you’re doing unrewarding work just because you’re doing it to pay the rent. And neither should work be rejected because it doesn’t represent someone’s life passion. Can’t we have lives outside our work (even though I know we spend a lot of time there)?

A further point, which I found useful, is that when people do love their work, it shouldn’t be an excuse for them to be paid less or treated badly because they are ‘doing what they are really passionate about’: the example of university professors is given.

I’m also thinking of the countless times that I asked somebody what they do for a living, and while they actually like what they do, they would discount it, expecting the world to judge their work as not being noble enough or being boring (accountants seem particularly reluctant to admit they like their work).

As for me, I’ll be thankful that I do have work that I enjoy. I’ll advise friends who are feeling too pained about their work that perhaps the question is not whether they feel passionate about their work, but whether they are being treated well enough, and if it allows them to do others things in their life that they are passionate about.

Or is that too simplistic? Do you like your work? Love it? Or really would like to find a new job?


(As far as I can tell, these photos of Vince Vaughn, Tom Wilkinson and Dave Franco, created for their film Unfinished Business, as spoofs of stock photos of the workplace can be used for editorial, non-commercial purposes…)

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