It’s been said in many places and by many luminaries: Do what you love.

But what does this phrase actually mean?

Miya Tokumitsu, a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine and author of the new book Do What You Love And Other Lies About Success and Happiness, criticizes the pervasiveness of this idea in American work culture. She argues that “doing what you love” has been co-opted by corporate interests, giving employers more power to exploit their workers.

I recently spoke with Tokumitsu about work myths and why we should pay attention to them. The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for clarity.

Bourree Lam: Your book started as an essay, “In the Name of Love,” (which was later republished by Slate) that really touched a nerve with people. What were you talking about in that essay and why are people so drawn to it?

Miya Tokumitsu: I’ve noticed in other mainstream outlets that there’s been a lot more writing about work and work culture, particularly professional work. I think there really had been a kind of simmering widespread frustration with the state of work. American wages have been pretty flat since the 1970s, Americans are working longer, they’re more productive than ever, and they don’t seem to be getting much more in return for all of that.

At the same time there are these cultural icons that project these pictures of work through media and social media as this blissful thing. In the old-media case it’s Oprah, and in newer media it’s Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop.

Lam: And Steve Jobs.

Tokumitsu: Steve Jobs, yes. There is this pantheon of super successful blissful workers who are held up as these cultural ideals, and there is this kind of lifestyle peddling that goes along with it, the imagery of which is saturating our visual landscape more than ever. But even as we see more pictures that world, it is even more of a fantasy. So I think frustration had just really been there.

Lam: I’m interested to hear a little bit about your background and research focus. You’re an art historian, but you analyze work culture and work myths.

Tokumitsu: It seems kind of unintuitive at first, but one of the most valuable things that I got out of my training as an art historian was the ability to question with sensitivity the visual world, such as all these images of what seems like success or images of what seems like happy successful work.

Those [images] don’t just exist—people make them. And one of the things that I’m struck by with this whole “do what you love” culture is how visual it is. For a while I followed a few [corporate] accounts on Instagram. These accounts are maintained by people, whether public-relations managers or interns, and they didn’t just post photos of the products or events [they are promoting]. A lot of times they would post photos of business trips or backstage at like a catalog photo shoot, presenting pictures of their work as super fun and joyful. I thought that was fascinating that they were using pictures of their work to sell products.

My training in art history connected me to this phenomenon. In art history, you also learn to question what it is you're not seeing. For example, service workers— who are a growing pool of workers today—they’re much more hidden from view.

Lam: Right, it’s only glamorous work that gets glorified.

Tokumitsu: Glorified and visualized, and then those pictures get repeated over and over. And I feel like certain outlets, such as Instagram and Pinterest, seem especially designed to make these beguiling pictures for people to look at.

Lam: What are some of the other myths surrounding work?

Tokumitsu: I think this idea that work somehow makes you a good person is something that is very American to me. There’s this idea that it has something to do with your character as a person. I feel that it’s very ingrained and I don’t completely disavow it, too. Work is held up as something that is more revelatory about your character than  the interests you have or the way you care about other people or care for  other people. I feel like it comes from people who are earnest in their striving and want to do good things and want to be good people, but it leads to this culture where people are just working all the time.

Lam: You focus on one big myth, which is “do what you love.”

Tokumitsu: People take it as this absolute, but it’s an idea that’s not even that old. People have told me, “Yeah my grandmother thinks this idea is totally selfish and narcissistic.” So if you go back one or two generations, it’s not an intuitive idea for people.

Lam: Do you know where it came from?

Tokumitsu: So in my book I have my theory about where it came from. I really feel like it comes out of post-World War II prosperity. The Protestant work ethic is work, work, work—work is a calling, work is virtuous. I felt like that was with us for a long time, but pleasure never factored into that much.

But then come the Baby Boomer generation—you have the wars seemingly over and there’s a lot of prosperity, though it’s been spread pretty broadly throughout society. And that gave people the opportunity to indulge themselves a little bit. And within the U.S. particularly, there arose a culture of self: thinking about what makes me happy and how to improve myself. [I argue that the] virtue strain of work and the self strain of work combined in the late 1970s and 1980s, and in a way pleasure-seeking became the virtue.

Lam: The way you describe it in the book, this has almost reached absurdity. Even menial jobs now require a worker to be super passionate.

Tokumitsu: When I found that Craigslist posting [for cleaners who were passionate], I was super depressed.  You’re demanding that this person—who is going to do really hard physical work for not a lot of money—do extra work. On top of having to scrub the floors and wash windows, they have to show that they’re passionate too? It’s absurd and it’s become so internalized that people don’t even think about it. People write these job ads, and of course they’re going to say they want a passionate worker. But they don’t even think about what that means and that maybe not everyone is passionate.

Lam: I’m constantly curious about the question of how passion became so central to work.

Tokumitsu: I think there are a lot of things behind it. The most cynical explanation is that employers demand passion because they don’t want to hear complaints. If you make passion a job requirement, you can’t complain about your workload.

A couple of writers have pointed this out, but in today’s service-oriented economy I really think that emotional access and feelings are really important. Employers are looking to harvest social interaction and worker authenticity for profit. Paul Myerscough had a really good piece about Pret A Manger in the London Review of Books. Pret A Manger has a really really lengthy, specific code for how its workers have to behave and how they always have to project happiness. One of his theories is, it’s not just the sandwiches that they’re selling at Pret A Manger—the way that they make customers feel is as important a commodity.

Lam: In some ways I feel McDonald’s pioneered that. Do you remember the free smiles?

Tokumitsu: Yes, and the high fives!

I think McDonald’s just recently reintroduced that thing where they were encouraging their cashiers to high-five customers, or kind of do a little jig or do all of this work that was all about generating feeling in people. In Peter Fleming and Carl Cederstrom’s Dead Man Working they talk about authenticity being something that the boss is coming for to monetize for profit. While I think that might be extreme, I do think there’s something to it. I think that’s where all these appeals for passion is: You don’t just want a maid service to come and clean your house. You want them to make you feel good.

Lam: We’re so greedy.

Tokumitsu: We are. I feel like this whole culture of feeling good too is just really kind of hedonistic. And I also feel like it’s a little bit dark. There’s almost something in it to me that speaks of like addiction or something. We can never be at just baseline contentment. We always have to be relentlessly seeking these “good feelings.”

Lam: But this is very American, and how does that contrast with, say, the work culture in Japan where you compartmentalize your personalities. You’re one person at work, you're another person after work, and another person at home. In the U.S., all these narratives have to converge into one.

Tokumitsu: Japanese work culture is ridiculed in the U.S., [for example] the caricature of the soulless Japanese salary man.  It’s not the answer to emulate any one country, but I feel like in Japan there’s a lot more respect for service workers: You do your job, and serve the public, and then you retreat to the private world. I also think there’s a sense of purpose in work that’s not based on achieving yellow smiley-face happiness. There’s a certain satisfaction to be taken from performing a certain role in society, whether you’re driving a taxi or working at a convenience store. “I’m doing something that other people are relying on,”—and that’s such a different way to regard work.

Lam: Let’s talk about what you call “hope labor”—the idea you have to pay your dues and hope that you're going to eventually “make it.”

Tokumitsu: I think with economic liberalization and this whole world of neo-liberalism that we’re living in, there’s just less and less room at the top. One of the really frustrating outcomes of this has been this whole proliferation of basically first- and second-class labor systems.

I see some of my students, who are undergraduates now, they talk about internships and they just accept that they’ll have to do that after they graduate. When I was in college, that wasn’t the case.

That whole narrative is used basically to exploit people. And again it has a lot to do with these images of wealthy, successful, happy workers. It has a lot to do with meritocracy too—if you’re the best then you'll kind of get all the prizes.

Lam: And no one wants to drop out of the rat race because they don’t want to signal that they’re not the best.

Tokumitsu: Exactly that's the thing. That's what’s kind of genius about it. The whole notion of meritocracy is kind of genius, because if you walk away—then it’s obviously because you couldn’t hack it.

Lam: One thing that I want to bring up that challenges your framework is the new focus on wellness at work. For example, working out at work, meditating, and the four-day workweek.

Tokumitsu: First of all, I feel like it’s very attached to worker surveillance. It’s all about opening the worker up, even your body and your interior thoughts, to potential monetization by the employer. They want you to stop smoking so you’ll stop taking cigarette breaks. They want you to lose weight so you’ll be more attractive as a salesperson.

Lam: But what about the four-day workweek? That’s working less hours.

Tokumitsu: I think that’s actually a good point. I think a lot of the wellness things that I mentioned do come out of a place of caring, but I think it’s also at the end of the day about profitability. And one of the reason that these four-day workweeks—and also in the city of Gothenburg in Sweden they were experimenting with a 6-hour workday—they explicitly say, “we want to see if it will increase productivity.”

So at the end of the day, it was about making workers happy so that they will produce more. Again I feel like these things, I don’t want to say that employers are all totally evil and cynical, but it's a little complicated. A lot of employers truly want both. They care about the people who work for them, and they care about the profitability of their business.

I actually tend to be somewhat optimistic, especially when you meet individuals themselves. People tends to care about the people that they’re working with, but they wouldn’t do it if there wasn’t some perceived benefit for the bottom line. I think it would be interesting to follow up with those companies to see what if productivity declines?  What happens if the business starts losing profits?

Lam: Why do you think people need an excuse to work? Why can’t we just go to work to make money?

Tokumitsu: I have wondered that. And one of the things I want to do is celebrate the job that just pays the rent. I feel like that is so maligned in our present culture.

I think work is where we spend a lot of our lives. And we wed our identities so tightly to our job titles in the U.S. You don't want your identity to be someone who just puts in eight hours and checks out.

I’ve tried this little experiment when I meet people in non-work situations and try to see how long I can talk to them without asking about their work or have them ask me about my work. It's actually really hard to last longer than four minutes.