mike-rowe-life-adviceTelevision personality and former Dirty Jobs host Mike Rowe has become somewhat notorious for penning pointed responses to fans and critics on Facebook, offering routine challenges to prevailing attitudes about work, calling, and vocation.

In his most recent rant, Rowe 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.

As usual, 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 routinely gives specific direction to specific people, and in doing so, confounds the designs of man, redirecting us instead toward new forms of service and sacrifice.

Discerning that path involves the type of needs analysis that Rowe indicates, but it also involves 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 duly 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:

flourishing-churches-self-coverVocational 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.

Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action)

Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action)

Addressing topics ranging from the family to work, politics, and the church, Jordan J. Ballor shows how the Christian faith calls us to get involved deeply and meaningfully in the messiness of the world. Drawing upon theologians and thinkers from across the great scope of the Christian tradition, including Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Abraham Kuyper, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and engaging a variety of current figures and cultural phenomena, these essays connect the timeless insights of the Christian faith to the pressing challenges of contemporary life.


  • Dr. Charlie Self

    Outstanding work here. Once we realize that vocation and occupation are distinct yet interwoven, we can take joy in daily work. There are many divinely-called pastors doing the “dirty jobs” Mike Rowe honors…and they are no less pastors, even as they serve with their hands. the 21st century will be an era of maximal adaptability with ever-increasing need for self-understanding and lifelong learning. I miss the chalkboard and #2 pencil – yet I can fulfill my teaching vocation with technology.
    Thank you, Joseph, for excellent analysis and exposition.

  • Paul

    There are many first hand historical accounts that not only prove historically Jesus is the Christ but that he rose again from the dead not the least of which is the Bible itself. The gospel reaches out to the rich and the poor ,the ignorant and the genius and its wisdom calls out to the hearer. To those who hear this call it is the power of eternal life and to others it is foolishness. The gospel is simple enough to be grasped by the mind of a child and yet confound the deepest of thinkers. No man could have dreamed up the gospel and story of God’s grace if he had a thousand years to do it.

  • Bart

    Great stuff. Working with college students for years I’ve become a bit jaded to the idea of “following your passions.” Far too often it feels like a christianized version of the american dream.

    Let’s instead follow the king.

    http://bartshadle.blogspot.com

  • Dr. Charlie Self

    Kevin, Paul’s tribute to Christianity is not revisionism, even if it is not as critical as other assessments. “Real NT scholars.” Who defines these? N.T. Wright, Raymond Brown, Gordon Fee…my list of scholars is endless who hold to the historical veracity of the NT documents. This said, there is much in the history of Christianity for which all streams of Christendom have repented and never wish to repeat. As a historian, I take evidence seriously and the combination of archeological and literary data available offers reasonable grounds for the accuracy of both the OT and NT texts. The contributions of Christianity to the world are too numerous to mention. One final thought: the only places in planet earth where an atheist is free to defame religion and real freedom of conscience and religion exist are lands touched at some point by Judaism and Christianity. It has been a (too) long road to such full liberty, but it is no accident that the freedoms we enjoy in the is forum are the fruit of Judeo-Christian values. I value your thoughts and treasure the debate we enjoy.

  • Jump

    “What you described above is man’s invention, a human created God.”

    Well, I’d listen to an argument for that. It seems to me that most of what you said is either false or irrelevant to the truth of (at least) classical theism.