Some thinkers have started arguing that “follow your passion” is bad advice. The real problem is not with the advice itself, but rather with a failure to understand the true definition of “passion” and the role it plays in a person’s life.
This issue is extremely important not only because we need to know how to make good career decisions. It is also pertinent because denying the importance of “passion” in choosing our jobs constitutes a denial of the doctrine of vocation itself.
This becomes clear if we look a bit closer at Scott Adams’ comments in his recent Wall Street Journal interview. After saying that following one’s passion is typically bad advice, Adams goes on to say that passion usually follows your work, rather than precedes it. The idea is that people get excited about a job or a project once it starts getting successful and people are performing well. Adams goes so far as to say that “my observation is that anybody can have passion when something is working.”
But is that true? Is it actually the case that “anybody can have passion if something is working?”
The answer is no, and though I appreciate Adam’s attempt to address this important issue, it leads us to misunderstand what our strengths and passions are.
What Are Strengths, Exactly?
Most of us tend to think of our strengths as what we are good at. Your strengths are the things you do well, and your weaknesses are the things you do poorly.
But what if there is something you do well that you actually hate to do? Can you call that a passion, or strength? Does it ever happen?
Marcus Buckingham is one of the leading researchers and authors on helping people identify their strengths. He is the co-author of the landmark book, Now, Discover Your Strengths, which is based on groundbreaking research by the Gallup Organization, which also led to the StrengthsFinder test that so many have found helpful.
In his book, Go, Put Your Strengths to Work, Buckingham tells the story of a guy named Matt (no relation, despite the name!). Matt was an all-star swimmer in high school. The problem was, he hated to swim. He hated it so badly that he would get terrible migraines before swimming.
Was swimming a strength for Matt? No. Buckingham points out that our strengths are not just things we are good at, but rather the activities that strengthen us. Your strengths are what strengthen you.
So, while it is often fun when things are working and going well, I have to differ from the idea that passion is irrespective of specific activities and merely a function of whether things are going well.
Why is this so important? I mentioned at the beginning of this post that this all relates to the doctrine of vocation. Here’s how.
Passion and Vocation
God has a specific purpose for each of us. He doesn’t typically drop it from heaven, telling us what our purpose is directly. Neither are we to try looking for obscure messages that we try to piece together to identify our calling.
Rather, there are certain gifts, talents, abilities, resources, and even personalities God has given us and we have not chosen. These are usually the markers of our calling. As many Reformed theologians used to say “the gift is the call.”
There are things about us which God has placed in us, apart from our own doing or choice. We need to take account of those things in choosing our course, because our course is not ultimately a result of our choice, though it may seem that way. Rather, it is a result of the working and design of God.
Here’s another way to put it. God has given you certain gifts and abilities. You have a responsibility to steward those well (1 Peter 4:10-11). Not to use your gifts is bad stewardship. Our passions and strengths are among the gifts God has given us. To the best of your ability, find the job and career that allows you to optimize your talents, interests, and passions for the good of others.
What a tragedy it would be to let your God-given passions lie dormant out of the notion that you only need to find something to do with your life that “works,” rather than something in which you truly feel an echo of what God has put in your heart.