I recently came upon a Christianity Today opinion piece by Patricia Raybon titled Why ‘Follow Your Passions’ Is Bad Advice for Graduates. This confused me. The advice made perfect sense to me. What on earth could be the issue?
At first, Raybon’s objection sounds like a practical one:
Scott Galloway, a marketing professor at New York University whose subscription business L2 sold for $155 million, has for years called passion advice “bull—-.” In a recent Time article titled “4 Pieces of Advice Your Commencement Speaker Won’t Tell You,” Galloway argues instead that praxis follows passion. “Your job is to find something you’re good at,” and after practicing and refining it, “get great at it,” he writes. “The emotional and economic rewards that accompany being great at something will make you passionate about whatever that something is.”
I think this is missing the point. I’ve never interpreted “follow your passion” as something this narrow—and besides, we tend to be passionate about what we’re good at. My grandfather, now in his 80s, used to tell me to “find something you love, and find a way to get paid for doing it,” so it’s not like this advice is new or unique to Millennials or Gen Z.
Besides, from a Christian perspective, isn’t doing something you’re passionate about more important than focusing on whatever will bring in the most money? And what is “success” anyway? Raybon summarizes the work of two Stanford researchers to the effect that following your passion “may lead to more failure than success.” But what exactly is success? Aren’t Christians supposed to view success in a non-monetary fashion?
Raybon’s whole conversation felt off, somehow. Something wasn’t quite right here. Raybon continues as follows:
As Christian parents, teachers, and church members watching our young people graduate and head out into the world, we have an even deeper reason to reject personal passion as a driving force. According to Scripture, our hearts make horrible compasses. “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).
And that’s when I realized what was off. There is a language issue. A translation error. I’ve sometimes mentioned evangelical-speak, the rhetoric and words evangelicals pepper their conversations with that are markers of the evangelical tradition. Saved. Born again. Convicted. But what I’ve spent less time thinking about is what happens when the same word means something different to evangelicals than it does to everyone else. Translation error.
Hold that reality in your mind, and then read the phrase “follow your passions” again. The meaning changes, doesn’t it? When people in mainstream society say “follow your passions,” they mean follow your interests. When evangelicals hear the same phrase, they hear follow your lusts. Therein lies Raybon’s objection.
At the beginning of her piece, Raybon noted that the “follow your passions” advice is sometimes given as “follow your heart.” She objected, at that point, to both phrases, quoting Galloway and other secular researchers. But “follow your heart” also takes on a completely different meaning in the evangelical context. If you’d asked me this morning to quote a Bible verse about the heart, I would have immediately said “the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked” (this is the King James Version of Jeremiah 17:9, which Raybon quoted above, because AWANA is KJV-only).
Here’s another piece of evidence for my thesis:
If the heart is a poor compass, then what alternative guidelines can our graduates trust?
Turn from sin.
Yep, that’s right. And no, that’s not your typical topic for a graduation speech. …
Even nonbelievers promote their own version of this wisdom. In his book The Algebra of Happiness: Notes on the Pursuit of Success, Love, and Meaning, Galloway practically begs young adults to “be the adult in the room” and flee alcohol and substance abuse, marry wisely, be loyal to their spouse and children, give up vain pursuits, save and compound income instead of spending it, and make other healthy choices. In Christian terms, he’s inviting young people away from sinful, risky behaviors and toward human flourishing.
As Raybon writes:
Jon Bloom, author of Don’t Follow Your Heart: God’s Ways Are Not Our Ways, echoes this wisdom: “The truth is, no one lies to us more than our own hearts.” Unaided by Christ, adds Bloom, our hearts “are pathologically selfish. In fact, if we do what our hearts tell us to do, we will pervert and impoverish every desire, every beauty, every person, every wonder, and every joy.”
You want some evidence that my interpretation of what’s going on in this article is probably correct? I have some. Despite starting her article by drawing on research and quotes form major secular businessmen and researchers to argue that “follow your passions” is not the most direct way to success, Raybon includes an entire section titled “Follow God, not ‘success'” later in her article. Apart from my thesis, that doesn’t make a lot of sense.
When young adults hear “follow your passions” or “follow your heart” at a graduation ceremony, they don’t hear what Raybon does. Instead of hearing “follow your sinful lusts and wicked inclinations” as Raybon does, they likely hear something closer to “make a difference in the world” or “do something you love even if you make less money.”
You see what I mean? It’s a translation error.
Now, Raybon would likely object to the terms “follow your passions” or “follow your heart” even if she understood them in the same way I do. Why? Because what she wants young people to hear is “follow God.” While I personally think it’s generally a good thing for people to be engaged in work they’re passionate about—it sure beats jobs they hate—Raybon’s primary concern is that people convert to Christianity and live lives outlined by religion.
I’m suddenly curious, though, about how many other words and phrases there are that hold different meanings in evangelicalism from the meanings they hold in mainstream culture. Are there other moments where “translation errors” create a similar lack of understanding of what is actually being said? I’ll have to think on this!
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