What’s Wrong with The Passion Economy?
Adam Davidson’s “The Passion Economy”
21 minutes read - 4415 words
Adam Davidson describes the “Passion Economy” in a book released in 2020. Davidson claims that we are moving toward a new economy, centred around the identification and development of individuals’ unique talents and passions. This article shows why Davidson’s proposal is not a sustainable solution to fix our current relationship with work.
Introduction: The Passion Economy
century is only beginning, but we have already seen considerable changes in our relationship with work in the past two decades. The effect of globalization on the industry, unemployment, increase in work-related health issues (such as burn-outs), the environmental crisis or the COVID-19 pandemic… these are only some of the reasons that have pushed many of us to reconsider our view of what it means to be a worker.
It’s more and more common to hear people expressing wishes to ditch their office jobs to become full-time bakers, woodworkers, or buy a farm and make soap with goat milk. It seems that the 9-to-5 life, which used to be synonymous with security and happiness, has ceased to be that attractive. Younger generations especially, maybe sick of being the witnesses of their parents’ sacrifices, seem to aspire to a better work-life balance, or generally look for more meaning in the workplace.
It’s more and more common to hear people expressing wishes to ditch their office jobs to become full-time bakers, woodworkers, or buy a farm and make soap with goat milk.
“I don’t dream of labor”, is a common slogan for those who no longer wish to conform to societal norms and look to dedicate their time to more authentic activities. This collective realization that work is often a source of pain, pressure, and detract us from what we truly care about, opens the door to new models.
This article will explore one: The Passion Economy, described by author Adam Davidson in a book released in 2020. This book claims that we are moving toward a new economy, centred around the identification and development of individuals’ unique talents and passions. Many have praised Davidson’s book, arguing that the Passion Economy is the future of work. But although it raises valid criticisms regarding our current, often alienating, vision of employed work, it also brings about various concerns.
This article starts with a brief presentation of the concept of Passion Economy, as it is presented by the author. It goes on to explore the different reasons why, despite a promising starting point, the Passion Economy fails to offer long-term satisfactory solutions. Davidson’s book is not a philosophy book, but the vision of work it presents raises philosophical questions, which we will try to address here.
The idea for this article came to me after watching a YouTube video by YouTuber Alice Cappelle (“The Passion Economy is Pure Nonsense”), in which she develops a critique of the concept, and raises concerns over monetizing every aspect of our lives – an idea that I will not tackle here. As she mentions, the Passion Economy is aligned with a “don’t be a wage slave” vision of work, while remaining elitist and mostly out of reach. This article is a brief description of why Davidson’s proposal is not a sustainable solution to fix our current relationship with work.
The Passion Economy: Definition
In his book, The Passion Economy, Adam Davidson describes the main lines of this new phenomenon, which he argues will reshape our understanding of labour, leisure, and the relation between the two.
Davidson’s idea starts with the following observation: most of us have grown used to undermining our own well-being for the sake of our jobs. The corporate world has relied on this fact. Little by little, it has turned the idea that success requires suffering and suppressing of one’s own desires into a standard and commonly shared belief.
In other words, work is not meant to be fun, it is a series of necessary sacrifices, which, if done properly, will eventually pay off by bringing financial security, respect from peers, and social status. For most people in the twentieth century, work, whether pleasant or unpleasant, is just something one has to do. Of course, there are always been outsiders, people who pursued their passion – artists, thinkers, comedians… – but as he explains, this phenomenon was rare, and most of the time not very well-welcomed or understood. These people were often seen as selfish fools pursuing an unrealistic dream, when employed workers were being rational and simply doing the right thing.
Davidson illustrates this idea using the example of his own family. His grandfather was a factory worker and worked the same demanding and mostly unpleasant job his entire life, while his father chose to become an actor, and to pursue his passion over stability. These two generations held dramatically opposed views of work, and maybe of life in general. Davidson’s attempt is however optimistic: he argues that these two views, far from being incompatible, should in fact feed into each other. Simply put, and as he says himself, passion is good for business. To him, this shift is characteristic of the new economy of the twentieth century: it is simply the future of work.
Davidson claims that more and more workers come to this realization, and start rejecting the idea that personal well-being, passions, desires and so on, must come after corporate interests. This realization is not merely negative, it is not simply the rejection of something but also the recognition that the things that drive us are worth pursuing.
The Passion Economy, as he describes it, aims at developing “those things that make you different from other people”. It is based on the idea that work and success should rely on people’s unique talents; the things you love and you’re good at should drive your career path and eventually create irreplaceable value. It relies on the premise that our 9-to-5 jobs are often boring, painful, or alienating, and that it need not be so.
The Passion Economy, as Davidson describes it, aims at developing “those things that make you different from other people”.
Instead, he aims at providing a new vision for the economy, based on the idea that your passions and talents should not be dismissed for the sake of your job, they are in fact your best business assets. But working on your passion, Davidson argues, is not limited to a few privileged Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, it is not an elitist and non-inclusive vision of work. He argues that this shift applies to all types of jobs, from accountants to brush-sellers, winemakers, or factory workers.
His book is an instruction manual for this new vision of work, as he claims that “with a handful of easy-to-learn rules, a shift of perspective, and a bit of hard work, a meaningful marriage of passion and business can be forged, and far more people can do a whole lot better”. It comes with a list of rules one should follow to flourish in this economy, such as “identify the set of things that you love and do well”, “charge a lot then earn it”, or “never be in the commodity business, even if you sell what other people consider a commodity”. In short, the Passion Economy is a true call for self-realization, and the reclaiming of what our 9-to-5 lives have stolen from us for over a century. It is meant to reconcile two apparently opposite views of work, and free us from the idea that success requires suffering, and the sacrifice of the things we love.
What’s Wrong With the Passion Economy?
What’s not to like about the Passion Economy, you may ask. Don’t we all feel the pressure of the corporate life? Don’t we often wish we had enough time to dedicate to things we enjoy, want to improve, even if they don’t seem to have much market-value? Isn’t it a good idea to re-centre our lives around the things we truly find meaningful, instead of conforming to standards others have set for us?
To all these questions, I assume most of us would unambiguously answer yes.
The Passion Economy seems to raise legitimate questions about our relationship with the workplace, and highlights valid concerns. The call to make our professional lives more authentic and fulfilling certainly finds an echo in many, especially among younger generations. The rise of craft-economy, the growing rejection of what David Graeber called “Bullshit Jobs”, or even the anti-work movement; all seem to be symptoms of a collective recognition that we no longer want our lives to be dictated by the market’s rules.
The Passion Economy seems to raise legitimate questions about our relationship with the workplace, and highlights valid concerns.
One of the problems pointed out by Graeber about Bullshit Jobs, is their lack of meaning. Those who have them, he argues, feel that what they do has little to no impact on society. In other words, they often feel useless. Graeber notices that this sense of uselessness tends to negatively affect people, who generally seem to crave meaning, fulfilment, and a sense that what they do matters, even if only to themselves. Because it advocates reintroducing meaning to the workplace, the Passion Economy can look like the answer to the problems of the loss of meaning. Free to follow their passion and develop their talents, people would no longer be wage-slaves. They would become truly themselves, making money at something they truly value and are good at. Again, what’s not to like?
Unfortunately, things are not that simple. If the Passion Economy emerges from valid observations, looking underneath the surface of Davidson’s proposal, it does very little, if anything at all, to effectively address any concern.
By not challenging our deep understanding of work and the capitalist societies in which it has developed, the Passion Economy fails to attend to the root cause of the problems it raises. Because of this, and despite its promising starting point, the Passion Economy remains an unambitious, vague and despite Davidson’s claims, a potentially elitist concept. Davidson’s book might give ideas to some already privileged workers on how to make their lives slightly more interesting within our current economic system, but it provides no solution to sustainably improve the lives of those who aren’t already at the top of that system.
Who Is the Passion Economy For?
Davidson claims that the Passion Economy is designed for everyone, and can be applied to all career types. He often uses the example of a brush-making family business: despite the multiple obstacles faced by the family over the years, the company was able to flourish by finding niche spots in the brush industry, and by responding to specific demands.
Davidson sees in this case the illustration of his idea: what made this family successful is not the type of business they were in, but the fact that they could identify their unique talent. While generic mass-produced brushes provide basic services, they could adapt to unique needs, which made them irreplaceable. To Davidson, this is proof that the Passion Economy is for everyone. All it takes for you is to identify your passion, what you’re good at, and make it the heart of your career.
But is it really that simple?
What if, for example, I simply don’t have a passion? This economy relies on uniqueness, individual talent, personal dreams. While there is certainly nothing wrong with any of these concepts, there is a problem in basing an entire economy on the assumption that every single one of us is in possession of at least one. These injunctions to be unique, coupled with the expectation that everyone has a specific talent to develop, put a kind of pressure on people that this not necessarily different from the pressure of a corporate job.
Not everyone can be or will want to be an innovative creator. To insist on this idea and make it the core concept of our relationship to work can also have perverse effects: if I didn’t identify any passion, am I less deserving of a fulfilling work life than someone who did? It seems that the Passion Economy only increases the gap between those who happen to have a unique talent, and those who don’t. But it does nothing to help generating such talent in people, or accommodate those who, for various reasons, may simply fail to have one – and who are as deserving of a fulfilling work life as anyone else.
Not everyone can be or will want to be an innovative creator.
But let us assume that everyone has in fact a unique talent. Many conditions seem to be required for people to actually engage in the Passion Economy, conditions that are not easily met.
First, people must be able to identify their passion, which already requires a certain level of self-awareness, or quite a lot of life experience. But most importantly, they need to develop their passion, which requires that they have the financial, social, and emotional means to be able to shape their careers around it. It is far from self-evident that everyone will be in a position to do so, without prerequisites.
From what Davidson says, it seems that the Passion Economy is designed to fit he lives of those who are already in the privileged position to choose such a path. It is unclear how one can focus on developing their passion, if they live pay-check to pay-check, have children to feed, student loans to pay, or work three jobs to simply make ends meet. To encourage people to ditch their 9-to-5s, which they often desperately need, is to ignore the various ties that bind people to their jobs, making it impossible for them to break this alienating circle. Why don’t we focus on freeing them from these ties, before we do anything else?
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It seems that instead of finding new ways to work within a system dictated by market laws, it could be worthwhile to question the very nature of that system. This is what the Passion Economy completely fails to do.
One the other hand, society requires many jobs for which the concept of passion might completely irrelevant. We need street-cleaners, restaurant dish-washers, cashiers, trash-collectors, and so on. What are sometimes called “grunt-jobs”, are described by James Chen as “lacking glamour and prestige, or are boring and repetitive”. Yet, they are tremendously useful for society, and the COVID-19 crisis only highlighted how essential these workers are. But can you really ask a public toilet cleaner to be “passionate” about their job, or to identify what they do uniquely well and make it the centre of their career?
We need street-cleaners, restaurant dish-washers, cashiers, trash-collectors, and so on.
Of course, these workers probably deeply care about performing their tasks well, and a feeling of well-deserved pride over an accomplished work is in no way incompatible with having a “grunt job”. Yet, I don’t know if passion necessarily has anything to do with it. These workers might also be passionate about many other things, like singing, playing chess, hiking or simply spending time with their children; however, these tasks need to be performed, even if nobody is passionate about them – which is a possibility.
Instead of focusing on the Passion Economy, why don’t we make sure that these essential workers benefit from decent work conditions that allow them enough time, energy, and money to develop their unique passions on the side, and as they please? Before we try to improve the work life of a privileged few, it seems more urgent to improve the conditions of those who, for a multitude of reasons, might never be in a position to work on their “passion”. In other words, the Passion Economy seems to be a very non-inclusive concept that only benefits those who are already privileged enough to engage with it. It is also overly demanding, as it expects everyone to find and develop a passion, while ignoring the various factors that make people able or unable to do so.
Does the Passion Economy Really Make Us More Free?
Davidson starts the book by asking this question: “How many people continue in jobs they don’t love, working for insufficient wages, because they don’t believe they have the inherent gifts necessary to follow their dreams and take control of their economic lives?” The Passion Economy, consequently, should be about reclaiming power over your own destiny, ultimately bringing you freedom and well-being.
Davidson ends his book by also saying that “it is up to each of us to find our own paths, to define, uniquely for ourselves, what we want and what we have to offer,” reaffirming that this new model is the way to self-mastery and independence. But is it really? Are we as capable as Davidson so optimistically seem to think? Do we in fact have all the necessary tools, like he claims? And most importantly, is it really up to us to change our lives the way he suggests we do?
It is not self-evident that working on a passion, assuming that we are lucky enough to have one that we could successfully develop, automatically makes us more free. It could actually alienate us even more, making the line between our work life and our personal life very blurry.
And most importantly, is it really up to us to change our lives the way Davidson suggests we do?
Of course, it does not mean that in order to keep these two spheres separate, one must hate one’s job. Loving our job is certainly a key element to our well-being. But it certainly does not follow that to work on a passion is necessarily liberating. The famous inspirational quote “choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life”, is far from necessarily true. Philosophy is one of my biggest passions, I am privileged enough to be able to teach philosophy for a living, and I absolutely love my job. Yet, it remains a job: I am happy that I have time and energy to dedicate to my other passions and interests, like for example, lifting weights or trying to find which bakery has the best scone in each town I go to.
If your job takes so much of your time that you start neglecting other significant aspects of your life, it does not matter whether it is a passion-job or a grunt-job: you might end up alienated all the same. Freedom is not defined by doing the things we love only, but by being able to do many things, or at least, not being prevented from doing them. If to compete with my business rivals, I have to work 80 hours a week on my “passion,” I am not sure that I am freer than if I have a job that maybe isn’t as thrilling, but pays me well-enough and gives me enough time to realize myself outside of it.
Freedom is not defined by doing the things we love only, but by being able to do many things, or at least, not being prevented from doing them.
Another significant problem with the Passion Economy is the implication that it is up to us to transform our lives. This raises questions about the value of meritocracy, which is beyond the scope of this article. Davidson seems to endorse a work philosophy based on merit: those who are most deserving will succeed, as long as they follow their dream, make the right choices, and work hard.
The correlation between hard work and success is far from established, but most problematically, this meritocratic view implies that those who did not make it can only blame themselves. If all it takes to succeed is hard work and an ability to make the right choices, then those who don’t succeed are simply guilty of either a lack of will, or a lack of capacity to make good decisions. The problem with this implication is that it puts the praise or blame on the individual only, while ignoring the various external reasons for success or lack thereof.
Not only is this view on responsibility inaccurate – there are many other reasons than work and good decision-making that make one succeed or not – it is also potentially dangerous. Focusing on individual responsibility allows us to ignore the structural political changes that would actually be required so that people can improve their work life. It is easier to tell someone that they did not financially succeed because they failed to identify their real passion, than it is to analyse the role of our neoliberal system in the increase of these social inequalities. Similarly, it is easier to write books on how to follow your dream, than it is to engage in a profound conceptual restructuration of our societies.
Focusing on individual responsibility allows us to ignore the structural political changes that would actually be required so that people can improve their work life.
People don’t need paternalistic textbooks on how to identify and develop their passions, they need the actual means to do so. These means rely on an environment in which people are not urged to find any job they can to make ends meet, in which they have enough money, time and energy to be able to determine and pursue what they want to do. We could add that the Passion Economy, as an overly-individualistic view of work, seems to ignore the role played by our various communities in the formation of both our identities and our work life. It leaves no room for collectiveness as something that can shape not only who we are but also the way we will become able to realize ourselves and make authentic choices. If freedom is an ability to identify and pursue the things we want, and if our environment and communities play a role in this identification and pursuit, then to ignore these aspects is to provide only an incomplete picture of freedom.
Towards Better Solutions for Work
What now? Should we remain “wage slaves”, content with our alienating but secure 9-to-5 lives? Should we accept to sacrifice our authenticity for the sake of following orders we don’t even see the value of? Or should we just wait until retirement to finally develop our passions?
This is of course not what this article is suggesting. It is hard to disagree with Davidson that there are many things wrong with the traditional economy of the 20th century, and that we could all benefit from making our work life more meaningful. I personally don’t have a 9-to-5 job, and knew very early in life that it wasn’t a model I was interested in pursuing. But again, I was lucky enough to be in a position to make this decision, both because of my environment and the various opportunities I got.
Before inciting people, it might be a good idea to make sure the prerequisite conditions are met, that their environments are favourable, and that financial pressure does not urge them to find any job they can. In other words, we might have to re-think our capitalist system, instead of looking at how to accommodate its demands. Healthy work conditions, minimum living wages, solid security nets… these are actually what provide people enough security to do the things they want and live happier lives.
We live in a world where most people struggle to have their basic needs met; I am not sure people need innovation as much as they need enough food and a roof over their heads. Why don’t we use our energy and ideas to fix this problem instead?
I am not sure people need innovation as much as they need enough food and a roof over their heads.
Davidson is right to point out that people may lack meaning in their work life. One easy solution could be to give workers more power of decision on the conditions that directly affect them – create collaborative committees in the workplace, empower workers so they can gain autonomy and be fully in charge of their own work lives. When, in an interview given to the media World Affairs, Davidson is asked whether his model is accessible to the most vulnerable members of society, he has no option but to admit that it probably isn’t, at least at the moment. Later on, during that same interview, he is asked if and how the Passion Economy could be used as a tool to fix urgent problems such as climate change. Davidson fails to answer.
I believe that this pretty much sums up the problem around the Passion Economy: it is a concept designed for people who are already in a position of economic privilege, it does nothing to reduce social inequalities, and it is not robust enough to address the problems of environmental justice that we will all have to face tomorrow. Maybe we’re right not to dream of labour, but we should make sure that what we replace labour with isn’t just another hustle-culture trap, but actually leads to everyone’s emancipation.
Adam Davidson, The Passion Economy, The New Rules for Thriving in the Twenty-First Century, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2020.
David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs, A Theory, Simon & Schuster, 2018.
Ezechiel Thibaud is a visiting assistant lecturer in philosophy at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. She has specialized in moral and political philosophy. Her current research interests include liberal and republican freedom, theories of autonomy, the impact of technology on agency, corporation power and market ethics. She is also the co-host of the Accented Philosophy podcast. You can reach her at: ezechielthibaud (at) ln.hk.