Editor’s Note: Carolyn Chen is an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and a co-director of the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion. She is the author of the recently published book “Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
In the past month, millions of college students have been graduating and entering the American workforce. Steve Jobs’ well-known advice to the Stanford class of 2005, “find what you love … and love what you do,” has now become the accepted gospel among the college-educated workforce.
But having studied Jobs’ most ardent disciples in Silicon Valley in my book “Work Pray Code,” I have some different words to share with 2022’s graduates; not as lofty, but deeply necessary.
As college graduates, you’ll likely be joining a class of people who describe their work using words like “passion,” “love” and “authenticity.” And you may be tempted by companies inviting you to bring what they’ll call your “whole self” to work.
As I learned in my study of Silicon Valley work culture, it starts with giving you a paycheck. Soon they will give you a community. They’ll try to shape your identity and offer you a purpose, imbuing every day with the sense you are not working for a paycheck but to make the world a better place.
To be sure, if you follow this path, you’ll soon be in love with your work; body, mind, heart and soul. No other social institution will work so hard to earn your love as your workplace. And if you don’t love your work, or believe in it, many of those around you will do or say things to make you feel like a loser.
But Gen Zers, don’t believe the hype. Let the Millennials wallow (or degenerate) in their love-work fest. You’ve got to learn to love smarter. Because even though your workplace may be promising to develop your whole self, its goal isn’t to help you. It’s to optimize your personality, so you give everything inside you to expanding its profits.
So, ignore those exhortations to do what you love. It was fresh advice 20 years ago. Today, professionals’ problems come not from failing to love work, but from loving work too much.
Back in the 1950s and 60s, most white-collar people considered work “a sacrifice of time, necessary to building a life outside of it,” according to the sociologist C. Wright Mills. It was in their families, communities, softball leagues, churches, temples, unions and political clubs, and not work, where white-collar workers sought passion, love and authenticity.
Americans contributed to the shared project of building a healthy community and a healthy nation. During this bygone era of mass political mobilization, adults saved some of themselves for the people around them and for civic service. Young people had the time and energy to pour their love into building social justice movements, not technology products.
The civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the women’s movement, Black and yellow and brown power movements, the gay rights movement: their work really did transform the world. Building a better app may change the world, but too often it does so by diverting massive amounts of money into a few pockets, and leaving everyone else out in the cold.
Here’s what they don’t tell you in those graduation speeches: Your love and energy are limited, so you have to carefully choose your objects of devotion. After interviewing more than 100 people who worked in Silicon Valley for my study, I learned the love of work increases or decreases in relation to other meaningful commitments.
Not all generations loved work equally. I found many of the older workers (Baby Boomers and late Gen Xers) knew work was merely work, and any company would try to get as much as it could out of you. They learned work did not love them back.
Most millennials, on the other hand, wanted more out of their jobs. They expected their work to fulfill them. They gave so much to work, they had no time or energy to devote to the communities around them. Even though most millennials said things like “Life is more than work,” few were able to live this out. Their hobbies – things meant to sustain and nurture them, like mountain biking, meditation, hiking and yoga – turned out to be merely refreshment breaks, so they could come back and love work even harder.
Their senses of self were flattened into a work self, a carefully cultivated “personal brand” which is LinkedIn legible. And when they lost their jobs, they also lost their sense of identity and purpose attached to it.
Work is not inherently meaningful, nor is meaningful work the only path to a purposeful life. But love of work is the now accepted gospel among college-educated Americans, drowning out other competing religious and civic teachings such as “love your homeless or undocumented neighbor as yourself.” And our families, communities, religions and democracy are paying for it.
Let’s be clear: “Work” is labor exchanged for wages. It’s not supposed to be an all-encompassing sacrifice of your time and energy. It isn’t synonymous with what you love or who you become.
American work culture wants you to ask whether you are doing what you love at work. But the real question to ask yourself is this: What do you love? Everyone will tell you to love your work, from your well-meaning grandparents to the companies seeking your love to increase their profits.
I certainly don’t want you to hate your job. Work is an important source of dignity and meaning for all of us. But to love smart in our work-obsessed world, we need to ask ourselves instead: Who do we become when we love work too much?