Follow Your Passion!

bad advice Soph“Follow your passion!” This aphorism of self-actualization is often given to college students searching for what work vocations they will do after graduation. This saying can be a well-intentioned antidote to the dull and dubious pragmatism that says, “Wealth (and the job that gains it) makes the man.”  But this aphorism can also be misleading and damaging. Its passion-propelled portrait of work can set people up for failure and disappointment instead of helping them find meaning and contentment in their labors.

There are, of course, long-standing warnings—secular and sacred—against being led astray by one’s passions. Think of Plato in The Republic placing reason over one’s shifting emotions and conflicted appetites in order to control and guide them. Recall Paul exhorting Christians to pursue righteousness instead of fleshly passions in Romans 6:12-13 and 2 Timothy 2:22.

Another warning against the “Follow your passion!” advice is that it easily leads to unjustified feelings of failure and anxiety. If the beatific vision of work is that people spend their careers doing what they are passionate about, what about people who cannot (and, maybe should not) make their passions their career? Are they unsuccessful? Is their work less significant because it does not satisfy their personal dreams and desires?

Some people might respond by saying, “Vocation is where your greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need.” This saying, adapted from the theologian Frederick Buechner, seems to satisfy both concerns: the desire for self-actualization and the needs of the community. (Buechner actually wrote this: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”) But even this vision of one’s work vocation seems too high a mountain to climb to reach the summit of success. Can we ever satisfy our passions (which are fluctuating and insatiable) and the world’s needs (which are immense and endless)?

If some people can do what they most love or enjoy for work and take care of the world at the same time, they might be the most blessed. But is this a realistic and helpful account of calling and its fulfillment? Is it the ideal?

My mind immediately turns to two Old Testament heroes: Joseph and Esther. In Genesis 37-50 we hear about Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers and being thrown into a prison in Egypt. Later Joseph rises up to become the vizier of Egypt where he saves countless lives from famine—including his family. Nowhere does it say that Joseph’s greatest passion in life was to be a slave, prisoner, or vizier. Rather, reflecting on his life’s travails and triumphs, Joseph tells his brothers, who fear his wrath, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:19-20).

Esther is taken from her uncle’s care into King Xerxes’ harem so that she—among countless virgins collected from across the Persian Empire—might become Xerxes’ next wife. When Esther appears before Xerxes, he favors her and makes her queen. Soon enough, Esther is in dire straits since Haman, the king’s right-hand man, has been permitted to exterminate every Jew throughout the empire. Esther has not yet revealed her Jewish identity to the palace, but Mordecai, her uncle, petitions her to address the king to save her people. To do so, Esther rightly fears, means exposing her identity and risking her life. Mordecai retorts, “Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from some other place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14-15). Esther responds by going before the king to plea successfully for her people’s lives. She sacrificially exposes herself to save her people.

Nowhere does the book of Esther indicate that she was passionate about entering a harem, becoming queen, or risking her life. Rather, she was forced into the former and persuaded into the latter. For Joseph and Esther, personal passion was not a beacon to find their callings. Compassion was a factor in their actions (i.e., Joseph has compassion on his brothers’ lives and Esther has compassion on her people’s lives), but that did not move them to pursue these positions.

If we judge Joseph and Esther by the “Follow your passion!” advice, both fail. That sits terribly with the text though.

God uses the roles forced upon Joseph and Esther to save countless lives. This makes their work meaningful. Undoubtedly, the fruit of their labors brought them contentment.

These success stories suggest that today’s popular model of vocational fulfillment is misleading. How should the model be adjusted? For a start, we should reflect on great stories about historical and fictionalized figures to see where their significance, meaning, contentment, happiness, honor, and acclaim in life came from. Did it derive from fulfilling their personal dreams and desires, or from serving others in the situations they found themselves in—even if those were far less than ideal? In these stories we might discover that the beatific vision of vocation is not so much about satisfying our passions, but about meeting the needs of our neighbors.

Scott A. Ashmon is Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Concordia University Irvine