“Do What You Love”: The Privileged And Exploitative Inspirational Work Mantra

“We live in an era that’s intent on reminding us that “do what you love” is the key to professional and creative satisfaction while conveniently eliding the fact that love can also hurt like hell.” Neha Kale, 2016. 

When I turned 18, I was expected to pay my own way. My mother was renting a two-bedroom home in the CBD of my small country city, and the weekly rent was to be split down the middle – $150 each – from the week after my birthday. I also had to go halves in all house bills and groceries. I was forced to drop out of the TAFE course I was doing as an alternative entry to university and get a job at a fruit and vegetable store in order to pay my share.

This wasn’t a totally unique experience, I thought, but in the seven years since, I haven’t met a young person who had to ‘go halves in everything’ to live at home, especially at the expense of gaining a higher education. I ended up moving into a share-house with friends as it was the cheaper option for me and allowed me to save money for three years to move away from my hometown to attend university.

This experience had an impact on deciding what I was going to do at university. When I was filling in my application, I was having a fight with my head and my heart; my head was arguing for a reliable career option, which would produce money and employment opportunities but that I may not love, while my heart was making a case for pursuing an unstable and tumultuous career in writing.

I followed my heart, and am now at university studying journalism and communications and media. I’m working a job that I do not love, which I was offered after doing months of unpaid labour through an internship. I am in the ‘hard yards’ phase of my career, paying my dues and gaining experience. I’m doing the undesirable work so that I can one day move into a job I will love. Because Doing What You Love is the career path young people told to strive for.

In his famous 2005 commencement speech to Stanford University, Apple CEO Steve Jobs said:

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.” Steve Jobs, 2005

The message of this uplifting speech was clear; Find something you love and figure out how to turn that into your career.

This inspirational work mantra – Do What You Love (and You’ll Never Work A Day In Your Life) – permeates throughout current and future work culture, and on the surface, is an attractive idea. In Australia, the average full-time employee spends over 35 hours each week working, and so if they are doing something they enjoy, it stands to reason that their overall job and lifestyle satisfaction will be higher.

This advice is evident, especially at universities. The very concept of paying thousands of dollars to attend university to study something for three to five years has the implication that the person is studying something they love or something they want to do.

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

A 2015 study on first year experiences in Australian universities found that 96 per cent of students cited “intrinsic interest in the field of study” as their reason for going to university, followed by 87 per cent aiming to improve their job prospects and 77 per cent hoping to develop their talents and creative abilities (Baik, Naylor & Arkoudis 2015, p. 23).

This data shows that personal interest and developing of talents are as important to university students as improving their career prospects, which is evidence that students are going to university to gain degrees and get jobs in fields they are going to enjoy.  Students are sold the product of a degree, with the university saying “Come here, study this, and then you’ll get a fulfilling career doing a job you love”.

An article on Forbes talks of millennials seeking purpose over a paycheck, saying young people today ” long to be part of something bigger than themselves… want to lead a balanced life… want to be happy at home and happy on the job… [and] are on an endless search for happiness”, driving home the idea that doing what you love is the new career goal for our generation.

For a generation which values doing what they love, there is a potentially dangerous implication which can be found if looking at this mantra through the lens of the narrative principle of the absent but implicit”, which involves finding out the “subjugated meanings that the problem story relies upon for its expression? How do these connect with stories of preference and how can we bring them forward?” (Carey, Walther & Russel 2006, p 3) to discover the implicit but unsaid value behind the saying.

“Do what you love” is saying that you should love what you do. The absent but implicit value behind this is that the thing you love will bring meaning and fulfillment to your life. The opposite of this is that if you don’t seek a career doing what you love, your life will have less meaning and fulfillment, which is a concerning implication, as not all people are able to seek a career doing what they love.

The reality is that doing what you love is a privilege not all will be able to achieve. The mantra itself discredits other kinds of less-‘loveable’ work and young people who are seeking to fulfill this advice are open to exploitation from the current job market.

“In mainstream Australia individuals who do not “pull their weight” are stigmatised, with those receiving welfare colloquially referred to as “dole bludgers” demonised on tabloid television.” Sara James, 2012

The culture of work in Australia has been built around strong work ethic; in the past, a job was just something you did, where you were expected to work hard and put in the ‘hard yakka’ in order to reap the reward of money and respect. Career enjoyment was an added bonus, if you had it, but was not to be expected.

In online articles outlining potentially jarring aspects of Australian work culture to international students, it is spelled out that Australians have a very strong work ethic. “Australian companies value talent and hard work above the amount of time you have been working for them,” one article advises, while another explains that organisations “expect their staff to work a bit later” than their hours dictate. “Don’t get a reputation as a clockwatcher”, the article says, while explaining that “When someone asks an Australian to do an extra task at work, they will usually take on the extra work and not say they are too busy to do it. If you say that you are too busy, your co-workers or boss will assume that you cannot handle the workload”. In other words, always accept more work, stay back late to complete it, and don’t complain.

According to the Department of Home Affairs Life in Australia booklet, one of the key aspects of Australian culture is the ‘fair go’ and the expectation that “what someone achieves in life should be a product of their talents, work and effort rather than their birth or favouritism”. It also explains that Australians “don’t often want to be seen as boastful or arrogant. This often extends to their accomplishments, success and expertise,” and that Australians “don’t always praise someone for a job well done as they assume everyone is doing their best” (Australian Government 2016)

Photo by Lost Co on Unsplash

What all of these aspects of Australian culture come back to is that you’re expected to work hard at your job, whether or not you enjoy it. And young people are increasingly encouraged to strive for a job they love but are still operating in a work culture with the above values at its core.

It is these elements of Australian work culture which have led to the rise of exploitative working conditions, particularly unpaid internships and work experience expectations.

‘Do what you love’ disguises the fact that being able to choose a career primarily for personal reward is an unmerited privilege, a sign of that person’s socioeconomic class.” Miya Tokumitsu, 2014

The decision to choose a career for enjoyment over necessity is one that only financially privileged people can make because it is a costly one, with many risks.

Many of the careers which fall into the ‘lovable’ category are ones which are less likely to make a large income return; creative, intellectual or socially prestigious pursuits as opposed to necessary but more unattractive jobs which may be repetitive, unintellectual, and undistinguished (Tokumitsu 2014). Careers as a writer, artist, academic, teacher or musician, for example, are considered “loveable” careers, compared to menial jobs such as retail or hospitality.

It is these ‘loveable’ careers which are the jobs that, especially within Australia, require large amounts of unpaid work in order to ‘prove’ that you are good enough for the paid jobs, and willing to work hard for it. For example, a study published in 2016 found that “58 percent of Australians aged between 18 and 29 had participated in at least one episode of UWE [unpaid work experience] in the last five years and that one in five had undertaken five or more” (Tweedie & Ting, 2018).

This culture of unpaid internships is able to thrive in Australia, especially in the ‘loveable’ industries, as young people seeing jobs in these areas are told they need to work for free in the name of love and to show they are willing to put in hard work, which will, in theory, be rewarded with paid work. They are also pitted against each other, with the expectation that doing these unpaid internships will result in better job prospects, but which are not always a guarantee. This taps into the above elements of the Australian working culture of reward for work but internship culture “legitimises worker exploitation, undermines the graduate job market and entrenches class inequalities” (Thorn, 2018). It makes it difficult for the people who cannot afford to do unpaid work but might be just as skilled, to compete in an already-scarce job market.

It completely ignores this larger issue of exploitation of workers and the privilege of being able to do unpaid work without financially ruining oneself and places the responsibility on the individual, implying that if they are unable to undertake unpaid internships in the pursuit of their dream career, they just do not want it enough. This is the exact opposite of the core value of narrative practice, which says that “The person is never the problem; the problem is the problem” (Sween 1998, p. 4). It also goes against the core Australian value, dictated in the Life in Australia booklet; that “Australian society values equality of opportunity for individuals”.

All of this would not be too much of an issue if Do What You Love was just a motivational quote instead of the expectation for young workers that it has become. But when it is expected, it places all of those who are not as socioeconomically or culturally privileged at a disadvantage. It increases the divide between the classes and encourages a devaluing of some work and workers whilst coveting and praising others. And, perhaps most concerning, it allows for the exploitation of young workers in an already-competitive work culture.

If the future of work continues to go in this direction, even the ‘loveable’ jobs will become tedious and unwanted.

“If we acknowledged all of our work as work, we could set appropriate limits for it, demanding fair compensation and humane schedules that allow for family and leisure time. And if we did that, more of us could get around to doing what it is we really love.” Miya Tokumitsu, 2014

Main image: Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash


Australian Government 2016, ‘Life in Australia: Australian Values and Principles’, Department of Home Affairs, online booklet, accessed 29 October 2018, <https://www.homeaffairs.gov.au/LifeinAustralia/Documents/lia_english_full.pdf>

Baik, C, Naylor, R & Arkoudis, S 2015, ‘The First Year Experience In Australian Universities: Findings From Two Decades, 1994-2014’, Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne, online report, accessed 29 October 2018, <https://melbourne-cshe.unimelb.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0016/1513123/FYE-2014-FULL-report-FINAL-web.pdf>

Carey, M, Walther, S & Russell, S 2006, ‘The Absent but Implicit – a map to support therapeutic enquiry’, Adelaide, accessed 29 October 2018, <http://narrativepractices.com.au/attach/pdf/The_absent_but_implicit_-_A_map.pdf>

James, S 2012, ‘Hard yakka: what’s the work ethic really worth?’, The Conversation, online article, 26 September, accessed 1 November 2018, <https://theconversation.com/hard-yakka-whats-the-work-ethic-really-worth-8959>

Neha, K 2016, ‘The problem with ‘do what you love”, SBS, online article, 14 June, accessed 29 October 2018, <https://www.sbs.com.au/topics/life/culture/article/2016/06/14/problem-do-what-you-love>

Sween, E 1998, ‘The one-minute question: What is narrative therapy?: Some working answers’, Dulwich Centre Publications, accessed 1 November 2018, <http://www.narrativetherapylibrary.com/media/downloadable/files/links/g/9/g982sween.pdf>

Thorn, A 2018, ‘Journalism is becoming a profession only for the rich – so why won’t anyone talk about it?’, Mumbrella, online article, 22 August, accessed 1 November 2018, <https://mumbrella.com.au/journalism-is-becoming-a-profession-for-only-the-rich-so-why-wont-anyone-talk-about-it-535796>

Tokumitsum, M 2014, ‘In the Name of Love’, Jacobin Magazine, 1 December, online article, accessed 29 October 2018, <https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/01/in-the-name-of-love/>

Tweedie, B & Ting, I 2018, ‘How working for free went mainstream’, ABC News, online article, 3 May, accessed 1 November 2018, <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-05-03/what-job-ads-reveal-about-the-rising-internship-culture/9713918>


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