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A Dream From My Father: Do What You Love

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Family picture. When DWYL started for me.

Two years ago, I wrote a piece on GOOD magazine on sacrifice and pursuing one's passion. It was a heartfelt amendment to the "Do what you love, love what you do" (DWYL) mantra. At the time, I felt it was necessary to illustrate the sacrifices people must make to pursue their passion. We all know those who live out DWYL and its headline-grabbing cousin,"YOLO!," with reckless abandon. It's not my place to say it's the right or wrong approach, but my intention was to write a piece that painted a realistic picture of what it's like to pursue your passion.

Recently, I came across a popular essay excerpt by Miya Tokumitsu about the dangers and effects of professing "do what you love." Her piece repositioned DWYL as a harmful phrase, stating "DWYL is a secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment." She later goes on to say that DWYL is "self-focused to the point of narcissism." Ouch. Though she has many insightful thoughts about the sociology of work, I can't help but think her critique is missing something.

I fundamentally believe that the DWYL mentality is constructive and positive when used properly. The intent of this follow-up piece is to provide another perspective -- and perhaps, a more comprehensive one -- to the DWYL/YOLO conversation. Things are not as black and white as Ms. Tokumitsu suggests.

I do not want to cause another internet firestorm regarding the Haves and Have-nots. Therefore, I will use examples from my own life and say that Tokumitsu's overgeneralization doesn't resonate with me. It's up to the public to assess whether DWYL is indeed harmful and de-valuing. My take is simple --DWYL is an uplifting mantra meant to inspire and bring out the best in people. It should continue to live in today's lexicon.

"Do What You Love" is not a secret handshake for the privileged. It is a cry from the strong. As I wrote in GOOD, my parents are immigrants to the United States. My father was one of the Freedom Swimmers who swam nine hours from Southern China to Hong Kong, risking imprisonment and his life to escape China's Cultural Revolution. Today, he is a proud municipal transit operator (i.e. bus driver) for his beloved city here in the United States. As a result of his life experience, he never took anything for granted and stressed two things throughout my childhood: 1) always try your best and 2) do what you love.

For him, DWYL is a rally cry. It is his dream to see my sister and I do something we love. Before he worked as a bus driver, he and my family ran restaurants in San Francisco and New Jersey. Like many immigrant parents, he strived to provide a better life for his wife and children. And the funny thing is he loved and still loves his jobs. Once, after being placed on a medical leave for breaking up a fight on the bus, my father was given the choice to take six months off work or return to early. He chose to go back early because he missed his friends and seeing familiar faces on the bus every day. He just won "Operator of the Month" and put the plaque next to my childhood karate trophies. (For the record, it dwarfs all of my trophies combined.)

To him, love is a decision. It is a choice and expression to make the most out of his situation. He once told me that he would have been a gardener if he could have any other job in the world. I asked him why he didn't become one from the beginning and he said, "I have other things I like more." It's a simple statement that I used to overlook. But now, I get it. He loved providing for his family more than gardening. He loved that a paycheck would come every two weeks without having to worry. He loved knowing that his hours were consistent and stable. He loved knowing everyone at work. He chose to love his situation.

I think the perspective on DWYL is synonymous with "follow your passion." If financial security is your top priority and passion, go for it. If it is to own a business, then that's your calling. If it is simply to put food on the plate for your family, that too, is fueled by passion. Everyone has the chance to follow their passion -- even 18 year-old refugees from China like my dad.

In my first post on HuffPost, I wrote that passion comes from the Latin word "passio" which means "to suffer." I believe passion and suffering go hand-in-hand. Many who choose to DWYL and pursue a passion are not doing it blindly. (And some even pursue a passion that is for the greater good, so it is a gross generalization to say that DWYL is narcissistic.) To assume that they do not weigh the consequences of their decision is an insult to the pursuers and their family and friends who support them.

When I started Boba Guys, many people thought my business partner and I were crazy, including many of our friends. There I was, an MBA from a good school (Go Bears!) starting a bubble tea shop. Yes, not a tech startup, but a bubble tea shop... in one of the most expensive markets in the U.S. ... when most of the U.S. population has never heard of bubble tea (save yourself a second on Google and click here). I do what I love, but also choose to love it, especially when times are tough. It is still work, after all. Love is on a spectrum. What one person calls love may be another person's "strongly like." If I truly did what I LOVE, with a capital "L," I'd be starting shortstop for the New York Mets. But that isn't realistic and I have come to terms with that. Kinda.

DWYL means different things to different people, so it is essentially a tool with various applications. Some use it as inspiration to channel their skills elsewhere. And for others, it is simply a mantra like 'carpe diem'-- a motivational device. That is probably why Steve Jobs' Stanford Commencement speech has nearly 19 million views. DWYL does not preach a solution to one's life. It is merely a call to make the best out of your situation. In his speech, Jobs said "Do what you believe is great work." We focus on the "great work" part, but its lack of definition is instigating polarized opinions. Perhaps, we should shift the attention to "what you believe." "What you believe" is Jobs' way of saying that the definition of "great work" is different for everyone. After all, what does "do what you love" even mean? What makes one love his or her job?

For me, DWYL fulfills a debt owed to my dad. It is the dream from my father in action. In college, he saw how miserable I was whenever I talked about going into medicine, my original path in college. When I told him that I wanted to study sociology and communications, he was surprised, but he understood where I was coming from. He could see how passionate I was about understanding people. A decade later, when I told him and my mom that I was working on a food startup with a friend, he had the same puzzled look on his face. "You have an MBA," he said. "Use those skills to make money or something. I don't want to see you work in a restaurant like us." But he knew couldn't change my mind. He had already taught me too well.