A recent book questions the prevailing wisdom of finding a job where we can follow our passion as the key to success. I found the book a refreshing dose of “the emperor has no clothes.” We need something better than a passion to follow. Unfortunately, Cal Newport, the author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You, offers something only slightly better than passion for a basis for a satisfying career.
Newport summarizes “the passion hypothesis” like this: “The key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you’re passionate about and then find a job that matches this passion” (page 4). He goes on to argue this hypothesis won’t work. We lose or change passions. Or we don’t really know what our passions are. And very few people find jobs that perfectly match their passions. He concludes, “’Follow your passion’ might just be terrible advice” (page 6).
Instead, his book’s subtitle suggests a better alternative: “Why skills trump passion in the quest for work you love.” Newport says we should develop proficiency, even mastery of a skill and then find a job where we can display that skill so well, people can’t ignore us.
As far as Newport’s suggestion goes, it’s OK. Skills probably do pave the way for success more than passion does. But people are looking for something more than job satisfaction and success. We want meaning, purpose, and a sense of fitting into a grander story.
Considering this topic through the lens of scripture, one has to wonder if finding a job that suits our passion or our skills is tantamount to digging “broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (Jeremiah 2:13). Our passions are the wrong place to find fulfillment or meaning. As C. S. Lewis put it in his insightful novel Till We Have Faces, “a passion which has for years been wrapped round the whole heart will dry up and wither” (page 267).
But it’s even worse than that. The Scriptures almost always talk about passions in negative ways. We’re to “put to death” our passions (Col. 3:5), not allow them to control us (I Thes. 4:5), “crucify” them (Gal. 5:24), lest God give us over to them (Rom. 1:26) leading to all the horrible results that follow (Rom. 1:29-31).
I agree with Newport that passion is a bad foundation upon which to build a career. But skill is only slightly better. We need a calling from God for a career. That assumes we’ve found our identity in him for more than just a job. He’s the one who is “the spring of living water” (Jer. 2:13), the One who made us in his image and offers to remake us through the cross. He’s the one who helps us find satisfaction in a job without allowing it to become anything more than just a job. Now that’s something we can get passionate about.
Randy Newman has been with the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ since 1980 and currently serves with Faculty Commons, their ministry to university professors. Randy is a Jewish Believer in Jesus and is the former editor of The Messiah-On-Campus Bulletin. He is the author of numerous articles and books including Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People's Hearts the Way Jesus Did and Bringing the Gospel Home: Witnessing to Family Members, Close Friends, and Others Who Know You Well.