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The Art of Work

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There is a lot to like about Jeff Goins’ new book The Art of Work, and there is a lot to commend in it. For those reasons I really wanted, and even tried, to love it. Unfortunately, though, it cannot overcome a couple of significant, exasperating flaws.

Despite the title, The Art of Work is not actually a book about work, but about calling. Goins promises to share a proven, time-tested path that will lead you to the very thing you were always meant to do, and he begins with the familiar restlessness of this life. “No matter how noisy the world got, no matter how busy you became, there would always be something inside you — a small voice what whispered in the quieter moments of life taunting you with the shadow of the unlived life. If you listen hard enough, you can still hear it.” I think we all grapple with this at one time or another and wonder if we are doing the right or best thing—the thing that will best unleash our gifts, talents, and passions. Of course this dissatisfaction is the key to a million self-help books, and I had hoped that Goins, a professed and committed Christian, would be able to offer profound and satisfying answers. Sadly, this was not the case.

But first, let me share some highlights. The book is well-written and packed full of interesting illustrations and interviews. Goins is a gifted writer and is able to easily carry his subject for the requisite 200 pages. He also has the ability to arrive at interesting insights and to distil them down to thought-provoking phrases—things like “Comfort never leads to excellence” or “The worst way to get a mentor is to go find one. The best way is to see the one that’s already there.” I live a life that is similar to his in many ways, and I benefited from his wisdom and candor.

But then there are those not-so-good parts that, sadly, steal away much of the good. I am going to focus on two of them.

My first major disappointment is that all through the book Goins speaks of the importance of heeding our calling, but he never quite tells where that calling comes from. He says that this calling is something that demands a response and promises a better life if only we will follow it, yet he never says anything significant about the origins of that call. Who is calling? Strangely, Goins anthropomorphizes life and the universe, making us answerable to them, of all things. He quotes Parker Palmer and says, “Don’t just tell your life what you want to do with it; listen to what it wants to do with you.” But what is life that it has a will and that it can be listened to? He quotes Paulo Coelho who says, “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” But what is the universe that it can offer help? Am I under obligation to heed the universe? Am I under obligation to even acknowledge that the universe is capable of calling out to me about my purpose? Goins commends calling, but calling is never more than a mystical force or presence or something. It is terribly unsatisfying.

My second disappointment is that this book subtly diminishes work that does not flow out of that mystical call. Once the existence of this call has been established, you and I become answerable to it. But the simple fact of life in this world is that someone has to stock the grocery shelves and haul away the trash. These are hardly the jobs dreams are made of, but we are all grateful that people do them and that many do them perfectly happily. I know many women who have put great passions and talents on hold in order to commit themselves to raising their children, or men whose life circumstances simply do not afford them the ability to pursue what they may feel as their calling. The long-held Protestant understanding of vocation says that these are perfectly noble tasks precisely because they can be done for the good of others and the glory of God. Those who do them are not wasting their lives and are under no obligation to heed life’s mysterious call. I doubt Goins would deny this, but I’m also not convinced that he adequately commends these jobs and the people who do them. This book and its principles apply well to the highly-motivated middle-class creative or the type-A entrepreneurial person, but it falls short for many others.

I do not wish to critique The Art of Work for failing to measure up to what I would have liked it to be—a book written by a Christian that would carefully draw truth out of the Bible and apply it to our lives. It seems clear that, even though Goins is a Christian, he wrote this book for the general market reader. But I think this is exactly what becomes so frustrating. He has borrowed concepts from his Christian worldview, and in many way displays Christian thinking, but strips away all biblical grounding and authority. This leads to considerable danger.

At one point in the book Goins discusses meaning and purpose and says “Life is too short to do what doesn’t matter, to waste your time on things that don’t amount to much. What we all want is to know our time on earth has meant something. We can distract ourselves with pleasure for only so long before beginning to wonder what the point is. This means if we want true satisfaction, we have to rise about the pettiness of our own desires and do what is required of us.” I completely agree that true satisfaction comes when we do what is required of us, but the requirement comes from God, not life or the universe. God’s foremost requirement is that we turn to Christ in repentance and faith. Our truest purpose and deepest satisfaction flow out of the relationship we establish with God by faith in his Son. But to read this book you could believe that you can be truly, deeply, and eternally satisfied apart from Christ. The gospel is entirely absent. Not only that, but the Bible is largely absent, apart from a couple of passing references and an egregious misuse of the story of God calling Samuel. Rather than grounding his work in the authority of Scripture, Goins ultimately grounds it in his own life, experience, and research.

The Art of Work is the kind of book that I love to read because I invariably discover a few helpful applications that I can immediately apply to my life. That was exactly the case here. But in the end I can only recommend The Art of Work in that way, as a book that contains helpful nuggets rather than as a wider system for finding meaning and satisfaction in that thing you were always meant to do. In the book’s acknowledgements Goins offers heartfelt thanks to God for his grace and mercy. This book would have been so much better and so much more complete if he had told us a lot more about that God.

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