Discernment is a key question for people in our stage of life. How do we make the right decision for our lives? How do we know what we are meant to do? How do we listen to God’s voice in our lives (which is what we mean by vocation)?
Mike Rowe is famous for uncovering and telling the interesting stories of people who are doing difficult jobs. He was host of the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs show and now headlines a similar show on CNN called Somebody’s Got to Do It. He has talked to a lot of people about their work and what makes them happy — a lot of people.
So, he has some interesting things to say about how to find happiness in life through our work. In a recent video post, he talked about passion and opportunity. He said it’s more important to follow opportunity than it is to follow passion.
His argument goes like this: If you commit to following a passion, you might decide you want to be an astronaut. You’ll embark on a long (and expensive) path through engineering and science studies in higher education, only to discover that a very small percentage of people who apply to become astronauts make it. Where does that leave you, then?
It’s better to make the most of the opportunities you’ve been given than to follow a capricious passion, Mike claims. Opportunity comes in many forms. He knows one guy who got laid off his professional job, noticed that no one in his city was cleaning septic tanks, and created a multi-million dollar business to meet that need. He vacations in Mexico and can coach his kids’ baseball teams.
I think Mike is right about paying attention to opportunity — God is active in the concrete realities of our lives. We don’t find God’s will by discovering it written in some secret book in the sky. We find it by paying attention to circumstances — the opportunities and people (especially those in need) God places in our lives are invitations we should listen to.
So, Mike is right on point when it comes to following opportunity. As we’ve uncovered in some of our stories, though, it’s not a simple thing to say that following your passion will mislead you.
Mike’s assumption here is that we find our passion by identifying some kind of job or work or position that embodies what we think we will love. Then, he says, latching on to that external reality, we’ll sell out to make it happen, only to likely discover that it doesn’t make us happy.
But the Christian notion of discernment goes deeper than that. Discernment is about paying attention to what is going inside of you — not what shiny things “out there” you might think you want. Our own judgment and desires are far too limited and capricious to be able to identify with any accuracy what will fulfill us.
To find what will fulfill us takes introspection and attentiveness to what our dispositions and reactions are in the here-and-now.
Mike thinks most people find their “passion” by asking these kinds of questions: What do I want? What will make me happy? What would I love to do?
And in one sense, he’s exactly right: seeking your passion by asking these questions will probably mislead you. But there are better questions to ask: What makes me happy now? What do I love to do right now? Where do I find my life filling up with energy? What makes me feel creative?
Answering these questions requires an inward journey and time. They can’t be answered in a ten-minute reflective stop at a coffee shop. We need to pay attention to our inner lives over the course of days, weeks, months to A) learn to listen to our own experience in the (say it with me) here-and-now; and B) discover patterns about how we react in certain situations over time.
Maybe you are studying medicine, but find that giving time to an artistic outlet makes you feel good, so it’s something you’ve been tinkering with since grade school. Maybe your current job is in accountancy, but you light up when you get to teach a coworker new skills. Maybe you work with your hands, but find that you lose track of time when you watch documentaries and learn more about how the world works. Any of these experiences might lead to a true “passion” that could be worth a departure from a current state to follow.
Put in these terms, we don’t try to figure out our passion, as Mike suggests — we uncover it. We discover it by paying attention to our own lives.
Last week, I met a woman who teaches high school chemistry, even though she got her Ph.D. in chemistry. When she was working at a post-doc research facility, she realized how much she enjoyed discussing her project with new Ph.D. students. That was a realization that took time to figure out, probably months. But she was listening to her own experience in the here-and-now, and connected the dots to see a pattern.
She discovered something about herself: she needs to work with people, and she loves teaching. So she teaches high school chemistry and is peachy-keen happy. She has a lightness to her personality that tells you in an instant that this is a person who knows what she was meant to do and, because she is happy doing it, she is doing it well.
This teacher could have listened to external voices that explained that it would be a waste of close to a decade of post-graduate education to teach high schoolers. She could have listened to her own dreams of discovering a cure for cancer. But in either of those cases, she would have been fabricating her own dream.
Instead, she got smaller and went inside. That’s a pattern that is not very popular in our culture, especially in the achievement-machine that we find in the pipeline funneling people through high school to college to an internship to a seat in a cubicle in a big city somewhere.
But, if we are to find our true calling, our true passion, it’s the only way to listen to a God who is committed to our here-and-now.