What’s wrong with “do what you love?”

We’ve said it for so long to graduating college seniors it’s become almost gospel. Do what you love. Do what you’re passionate about. Don’t settle for just a job. Follow your dreams. But is this wisdom or just hot air?

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Gordon Marino recently wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about his experience at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. In contrast to the college students who came into his office, “rubbing their hands together, and furrowing their brows,” wondering if they should become doctors, philosophers, or stand-up comics, many people in Northfield delivered papers at 5am or became roofers. Marino’s own father worried very little about “doing what he loved.” He worked at a job he hated for most of his career in order to take care of his family.

The rub, says writer Miya Tokumitsu, is that the “do what you love” ethos is actually elitist because it undermines work that is not done out of “passion.” Moreover, it severs the traditional connection between work, talent and duty. The vast majority of the world’s workers are not working because they love the job, but instead are simply providing for their loved ones, and they had little choice in the matter.

Kate Harris of The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture has aptly pointed out that in today’s culture, the word vocation has been twisted from its original meaning of living one’s entire life in response to the call of God. Instead, for many it refers to an ideal job, one that forever seems over the rainbow. In my own experiences in Denver, I’ve found this to be the case as well. Mentioning the word vocation elicits a range of responses, mostly involving: “I feel called to…” or “I don’t feel called to…” The emphasis is on our personal feelings, self-fulfillment, and career preferences, not necessarily on hearing and obeying the voice of God.

Throughout its usage in Christian history  vocation has rarely if ever meant “do what you love.” More often than not, the call of God was actually a call to suffer for the sake of others. Moses was called from the desert to free the Israelites from slavery, only to be burdened with the task of another 40 years of wandering the desert with a bunch of grumblers. Jeremiah was called to suffer as a prophet to the nations; a calling he rued later is his life. (“Cursed be the day I was born! May the day my mother bore me not be blessed!” [Jeremiah 20:14]). Paul was called to be the great apostle to the Gentiles, and God tells him through Ananias, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name,” (Acts 9:16). Not exactly “do what you love.”

Of course, the biblical idea of calling is not for sake of suffering, it’s for the sake of Christ, and for the sake of serving others. This is why Tokumitsu’s critique is so ripe. There is a historical connection between being called, and using your gifts to serve the needs of others. For some this means doing what you love. But for most, it means doing what you must. It means using your skills to bring value and life to your community.

Is this life, this call to do what you must, inherently unsatisfying? I don’t believe so. My mother was a public school teacher in Hopkins, Minnesota for 35 years. Her days were long, and when she came home, she cooked, brought us to basketball practice, and most nights corrected papers for her third graders until she dozed off. Did she love it? Many days, yes. All the time? No way. Being a single mother supporting two kids is a life of duty and a life of service. It’s not one of self-actualization. But in the giving, my mother made a huge impact on the lives of my sister and myself.

Ironically, when we think about work, chasing after our own happiness will never bring us happiness. It is in serving others and pointing beyond ourselves that happiness is tossed in along the way. To find happiness, forget about passion. Give yourself to what the world needs. Or better yet, give yourself to God, and let him use you as He sees fit.

At the conclusion of Christopher Wright’s magisterial The Mission of God, he says, “I may wonder what kind of mission God has for me, when I should ask what kind of me God wants for his mission.” Exactly. But be prepared, this just may not be a job that you love.

This article first appeared on the Missio blog at The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture. 

Illustration by Leslie A. Wood

About Jeff Haanen

Jeff Haanen is the Executive Director of Denver Institute for Faith & Work. He previously served as a pastor, missionary and school administrator, and contributes to Christianity Today, Comment Magazine, and the Review of Faith & International Affairs. He lives in Colorado with his wife and three daughters.


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