Steve Jobs was the poster boy for following our creative curiosities and passions. “You’ve got to find what you love,” he told Stanford’s 2005 graduating class. “The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”
Recently, though, an occupational counselor argued for a life beyond Jobs’s career advice. In The New York Times, Gordon Marino wrote, “Our desires should not be the ultimate arbiters of vocation. Sometimes we should do what we hate, or what most needs doing, and do it as best we can.”
When given the choice—which not everyone has—either to “do what you love” or “do what needs doing,” which should we do—pursue our passions or prioritize our opportunities?
No False Dichotomy
In creation, there is no separation between “do what you love” and “do what needs doing.” God is doing what he loves. When he declares that his creation is “good” and “very good,” he is celebrating, enjoying, approving, lingering, and gazing on his work. He is proud of what he makes and rejoices in his works (Ps. 104:31).
Yet he’s also doing what needs doing. His work isn’t only for his own pleasure, but also for the enjoyment of his image-bearers. His creation is “good” and “very good” not only because it’s perfect, but also because it’s perfect for us. As my friend Jen Pollock Michel says, “God is a homemaker.” His creation is a place where we can live, survive, thrive, and flourish.
As his image-bearers, we work as he does. He puts us in the garden to do what needs doing—“to work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). He gives us “dominion . . . over all the earth” (Gen. 1:26) and thrills to see how we cultivate it—he brought the animals “to the man to see what he would call them” (Gen. 2:19). This is a picture of abundance, joy, and culture.
Expect Too Much or Too Little
In the fall, though, our relationship with work is broken. From bearing children to tilling ground, our work involves “thorns and thistles” (Gen. 3:18). It can be frustrating and boring. It can be marked by toil, vanity, and selfishness. Sometimes we have rude, unappreciative, and complaining bosses. Other times, broken systems foil our plans.
We also tend to expect too much or too little from work. Steve Jobs expected too much. He didn't want us to settle on work until we find fulfillment and passion in it—even if it is self-driven and self-focused. This “do what you love” ethos is crippling because our loves are disordered; we love wrong things or we love right things in wrong ways (Jer. 17:9).
The occupational counselor expects too little. He recommends doing whatever needs being done—even if we hate it. This “do what needs doing” advice is crippling because it calls us to deny that which we cannot—our desires, affections, and passions. We are not Stoics, advocating for the absence of emotion and the increase of naturalistic ethics.
Affinity and Opportunity
On the cross, though, Christ restores the union of “do what you love” and “do what needs doing.” The writer of Hebrews describes the work of Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2). He’s both doing what he loves (redeeming his people) and doing what needs doing (enduring the cross).
When we are young in years and faith, we ought to question the “do what you love” ethos—not because it’s untrue, but because we rarely know what we love. As a practical matter, research says that less than 30 percent of us have an identifiable, inherent passion that we can work into. Most of us have to discover and explore, usually by “doing what needs doing.”
As a spiritual matter, God is reordering and reshaping our loves to make us increasingly like Jesus (2 Cor. 3:18). He is at work in us, teaching us to discern and mature in our affections (Matt. 6:33). He’s chiseling our superficial longings for ease, comfort, and anything else we prefer over taking up our crosses daily, and making us solid, rooted, and strong “oaks of righteousness” (Is. 61:3).
This process, though, often takes time and always depends on grace. “The little measure of knowledge I have obtained in the things of God has not been owing to my own wisdom and docility, but to his goodness,” John Newton writes. “Nor did I get it all at once: he has been pleased to exercise much patience and long-suffering towards me.”
No matter how mature we are in years or faith, though, parts of our work will always be toilsome in this age. Most lawyers will probably never grow to love legal citations. Most teachers will probably continue fighting against extreme standardization. All of us will perpetually struggle in our relationships with our colleagues, bosses, and clients.
In our work, though, Paul turns our attention to the resurrection: “Christ is raised. Therefore, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58). In other words, the resurrected body of Jesus—whose hands still bear the marks of his work—means the work we do today matters in the age to come. In the Lord, our labor is not in vain.
To thrive in our work when it seems a far cry from our calling as image-bearers, we need to recapture the long-arc of our vocations. Those dreaded legal citations, for example, are a part of justice in this age—justice that will be unfurled in its fullness in the New Jerusalem. Those hated standardized tests point us to scholarship in this age—scholarship that will recognize and glorify God as the fountain of knowledge in the New Jerusalem.
Sometimes it’s not a matter of “doing what you love” or “doing what needs doing” as much as getting new hearts and new perspectives that shape what we love and how we love it.