By Joseph Sunde
Television personality and former Dirty Jobs host Mike Rowe has become notorious for penning pointed responses to fans and critics on Facebook, offering routine challenges to prevailing American attitudes about work, calling, and vocation.
In a recent rant, he stays true to form, explaining to a man named “Stephen” why popular vocational directives such as “follow your passion!” make for such terrible advice:
Like all bad advice, “Follow Your Passion” is routinely dispensed as though it’s wisdom were both incontrovertible and equally applicable to all. It’s not. Just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean you won’t suck at it. And just because you’re determined to improve doesn’t mean that you will. Does that mean you shouldn’t pursue a thing you’re passionate about?” Of course not. The question is, for how long, and to what end?
When it comes to earning a living and being a productive member of society – I don’t think people should limit their options to those vocations they feel passionate towards. I met a lot of people on Dirty Jobs who really loved their work. But very few of them dreamed of having the career they ultimately chose. I remember a very successful septic tank cleaner who told me his secret of success. “I looked around to see where everyone else was headed, and then I went the opposite way,” he said. “Then I got good at my work. Then I found a way to love it. Then I got rich.” …
… We would surely be worse off without the likes of Bill Gates and Thomas Edison and all the other innovators and Captains of Industry. But from my perspective, I don’t see a shortage of people who are willing to dream big. I see people struggling because their reach has exceeded their grasp.
Rowe does a nice job of exposing an obvious truth that is now, for whatever reason, routinely downplayed or ignored. “‘Staying the course’ only makes sense if you’re headed in a sensible direction,” Rowe writes, “because passion and persistence — while most often associated with success — are also essential ingredients of futility.”
Indeed, while America’s unique position of prosperity has led to plenty of opportunity for empowerment, when our response is driven by personal “passion” or “ambition,” we are bound to find ourselves in the active service of precisely that. What about the problems that actually need to be solved? What about the needs of our neighbors? As David Brooks once wrote: “Most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life.”
Yet even before and beyond this kind of external, others-oriented needs assessment, we are called to ground our sense of “calling” and “vocation” in obedience to God, first and foremost. The Bible is filled with examples of God calling people to tasks, careers, and vocations that at first seemed largely misaligned with their gifts, talents, and “passions.” From Moses to Gideon to Jonah to Saul to Elijah to Peter, God gives specific direction to specific people, and in doing so, confounds the designs of man, redirecting us toward new forms of service and sacrifice.
Discerning that path involves the type of needs analysis that Rowe indicates, but it also demands a basic acceptance of the Gospel, surrender to Jesus, whole-life transformation by the Holy Spirit, community among believers, active and attentive prayer, relationship, discipleship, and so on. It is not enough to simply “follow our passion,” as Rowe points out, but it also involves a whole lot more than assessing the job market.
As Charlie Self explains in his book, Flourishing Churches and Communities, not until we find spiritual formation, personal wholeness, and relational integrity can we hope to find vocational clarity and connect the dots between this, that, and the other — discovering, knowing, pursuing, and loving “our purpose” in the Christian life:
Vocational clarity occurs when believers understand that their new identity in Christ aligns with God’s revealed will in Scripture and they begin to grasp their specific role in the body of Christ and broader society. Clarity includes knowledge of natural strengths and spiritual gifts, specific callings, and skills that add value in chosen fields of work.
Flourishing churches and communities depend upon all parts of the body fulfilling their functions. God’s callings and gifts are not static—they are dynamic as Christians learn to live by the Spirit and keep in step with the Spirit (Rom. 8:1–17; Gal. 5:22–26). Vocational clarity is not overspecialization or vague feelings but rather increasing wisdom regarding the value each person brings to the mission or the task.
Vocational clarity will enhance flexibility and make maturing believers more employable in an ever-changing labor market. Regardless of college major or past positions in industry, Christians who are clear about their abilities and value will have greater opportunities. Such flexibility is not just for the highly educated or technologically skilled; it is the privilege of every child of the King. There are no inferior or superior people, just unique assignments.
Spiritual leaders must also bring reality into the conversation. To say that anyone can do anything they imagine is a lie. Visualizing possibilities can either be the first step in God’s plan or a fantasy that keeps us from God’s best for our lives. Imagining a career in opera without a good singing voice is fruitless. Conversely, ability without discipline is equally wrongheaded.
Clarity begins in the presence of God—with humility and joy, repentance and faith. Clarity is fostered as we obey the general precepts of God’s Word. One Scottish preacher declared to a group of young leaders, “You will have many more crises of obedience than guidance. Obey what is clear in the Bible and you will position yourself to hear from God about your specific assignments.”
For the Christian, vocational clarity comes not from “following our passion,” but from following the voice of God in all that we put our hands to.
If this is really true—that our work, callings, and vocations find their source and ultimate purpose in the presence and glory of God—let us follow the Shepherd, and put our “passion” where it belongs.