The universe has a sense of humour. After spending years stuffing my hopes of becoming a full-time writer into that brutal crevice of time that occurs between four and eight am and reporting to jobs that sapped my soul from the inside, like something from Season Five of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I found myself, jobless, in a strange city on the cusp of realising my freelance dreams.
As someone who’s never held much truck with the concept of moderation, I spent nearly every day of the next two years hunched over my laptop for punishing stretches, determined that I’d make self-employment work for me, whatever it took. I was “doing what I loved” and, yes, it was rewarding and satisfying. But every so often, the awareness that I’d traded in Saturday nights with people I adored for the dubious thrills of a blank page and blinking cursor filled me with a pain so excruciating, it made me gasp.
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. These days, the articles that once told us how to land promotions and gracefully scale career ladders have given way to podcasts on the art of entrepreneurship and listicles that show us how to “Quit Your Job and Follow Your Dream in Seven Easy Steps.”
There’s something dangerous about the way “do what you love” elevates entrepreneurship over working a day job.
Our professional heroes aren’t foreign aid workers or the leaders of Fortune 500 companies but Steve Jobs acolytes, anyone who threw in teaching to sell knitted sculptures on Etsy or entrepreneurs whose Instagram shots -- a private jet, the flash of a Macbook, a Manohlo-clad foot -- are tantalising breadcrumbs, leading us to the conclusion that it’s possible to marry a higher purpose with an impossibly glamorous life.
And the co-working space, complete with white-washed walls and bottomless coffee has supplanted the corner office with the twinkling view of the city as the ideal habitat for monetising our passions for designing apps or making scented candles. This isn’t surprising given that an October 2014 study by Elance O-Desk found that one in three Australians now freelance and that the co-working market is growing 50 per cent each year according to a January 2016 report in Deskmag.
A 2013 paper by the University of California, Berkeley, found that successful entrepreneurs were disproportionately white, male and highly educated.
But although following your desires and cultivating a meaningful work life are worthwhile and important missions, there’s something dangerous about the way “do what you love” elevates entrepreneurship over working a day job and constructs the decision to go freelance as a moral choice. Sure, leaving an IT firm to launch your first startup or resigning from your lucrative finance gig to write the novel that’s burning inside you can mean carving a career built on independence and autonomy but your success isn’t just down to talent and tenacity; it’s also a matter of race and class privileges that include the ability to speak English, access to money and resources, a network of professional contacts and, if you happen to be a mother, the means to afford childcare so that you can meet the around-the-clock responsibilities that self-employment often demands. A 2013 paper by the University of California, Berkeley, found that successful entrepreneurs were disproportionately white, male and highly educated, in the century’s least surprising news.
“Do what you love” and its trash-talking cousin, “fake it til you make it” also trivialise the very real downsides of self-employment while making it difficult to seek help if you’re struggling with a life you actively chose. A March 2015 ABC article revealed that long hours, professional isolation and an absence of the support systems found in large offices meant that small business owners were often at a higher risk of mental illness while a February 2015 report by the American Psychological Association identified strong links between depression and financial instability.
By framing self-employment as a duty to oneself or an act of inherent bravery, “do what you love” shuts down any possibility that you may be more than the sum of your labour or find fulfillment or solace conventional job. And although I couldn’t imagine not being self-employed, I can’t subscribe to a system that shames those who, for whatever reason, can’t absorb the risks of entrepreneurship or the pain of professional loneliness as inferior to those who can.