Dolly Parton and the Danger of Doing What You Love

Let’s get through the easy parts quick. This Vox feature does its best to argue for, without ever explicitly stating or committing to, the thesis that Dolly Parton should be canceled because she has never said or done anything controversial, let alone anything justifying cancelation.

It is not good and is largely unworthy of comment. As much as some of you crave dunking on the proponents of cancel culture with a an intensity that sometimes feels a lot like, well…cancel culture, I’m bored with the whole family of skirmishes, vendettas, and public identity burnings.

I want to talk about sh*t jobs.

I don’t mean unpleasant, dangerous, or low status jobs. There are positive compensating wage differentials for such things. No, I submit to you that the new sh*t jobs of the modern developed economy are relatively pleasant, safe, and within the appropriate social circles, quite high status. And therein lies the trap. Let me set the scene.

You’re at a top 100 undergraduate university. English is your first language, you’re accustomed to receiving high grades, and are sufficiently socially adept that attending college parties is at least moderately enjoyable. In choosing your major, you are persuaded that you should choose the subject within which you experience the greatest pleasure executing your assignments and participating in class. While math is by no means beyond your capacity, studying it brings you little pleasure, and there is no similar mechanism for you to earn approbation from your professor or impress you classmates. You don’t get excited about telling your friends you are planning to become an engineer or chemist, and, perhaps most importantly, imagining your future self as an employee in sensible work slacks fills you with an almost crippling amount of ennui.

So you start on the path to become a writer. You know that fiction writing is a brutally competitive field, dominated by a handful of (what you imagine to be) supernovas of talent. You’re practical, you tell yourself, and imagine a career in journalism or journalism adjacent publications where you research beat stories and features, allowing yourself to get excited about climbing the ladder and eventually writing a regular column where you blow our collective minds with your insight and pith. It only takes six months into your first gig that you realize the problem. The really big problem.

Every other English major in the country had exactly the same idea. A lot of sociology, history, critical theory, and field studies majors, too. The field is flooded. But it gets worse. It’s also filled with engineers, economists, psychologists, biologists – people with specialized knowledge, often with advanced degrees, all competing with you for space in a brutally selection selective ecosystem where every ounce of attention and influence is measured to the last eyeball.

But it gets so much worse.

Thousands of those people are willing to do the job– your job — for free. For nothing. Hell, some of them are willing to pay the publisher for the opportunity to do what you considered the vocation that you were you going to use to pay your rent. How can you compete with that? It’s beyond our fears of being underbid by people willing to take less pay, of our job being outsourced to workers in another country with a lower standard of living and weaker labor laws. Nobody’s worried about the execs at their company discovering a sweatshop in Vietnam full of employees willing to pay your boss for the right to do your job.

But that is exactly what’s happened to everyone who wanted to write about sports, music, partisan politics, or, for that matter, any subculture where being a tastemaker or cultural curator is catnip for the teenage soul. There’s been a revival of unionization in the digital print business and its easy to see why: they need to close shop. Everyone who’s gotten their foot in the door and ridden the elevator up to their new 6th floor cubicle has been greeted with the same horrifying sight. Teeming masses, as far as the eye can see, all desperate for their job, for their identity, as a writer. So desperate they’ll do it for free. Some want a chance to prove themselves, but many of them just want a hobby. They competently teach 7th grade band during the day for a pay package that includes health and dental insurance, all while wearing a very sensible skort from Costco. But by night they write fiery, in-depth, shockingly well-informed features about their favorite North London soccer team, Icelandic DJ subculture, or how to get the most bang for your buck shopping at Costco. The research, the writing, the promotion, they do all of this for free.

Which means every assignment could be your last. Which means you need to get attention, no matter what. Most days it’s not that big a risk. You churn out 1-2 posts per day, mostly just recapping news or taking a few shots at someone who wrote something you don’t like or, at least, you think other people won’t like. But every now and then you shoot the moon on a big feature, going through old sources, putting together a collage of links that you think will jar readers into not only reading your work, but responding to it and, most importantly, sharing it with others on Facebook, Twitter, or even Instagram. A viral hit is the kind of thing that your overlords will remember the next time your writing hits a fallow period.

But if your feature doesn’t pan out, that could be a problem. If a beloved country singer with a reputation for virtuoso talent, kindness, and often overwhelming generosity that actually makes the world a measurably better place, well, you don’t have the luxury of letting three weeks go to waste. If you can’t find evidence that she’s a bad person, well, you’ll have to go with your gut. And your gut tells you that everyone who is successful is a bad person. Lack of evidence to their secret depravity is itself only evidence to how much they have invested to hide said depravity.

That’s the problem with trying to make what you love at 19 into a career. You’re a kid, you don’t know that much about what you’re going to like in 10 years, all you know is what is fun and what is hard. And, in rough approximation, the same things are fun and hard for all of us. Only studying the things that are fun, dodging whenever possible the things that are hard, will leave you with nothing to rely on but your talent. And, ample as that talent may be, it is unaugmented by the skills and tools that are harder and less fun to come by, tools which would differentiate you from the teaming oceans of talent sloshing against the sides of that cubicle, all desperate to do your job. For free.

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