The Need: Overcoming Mistaken Identity

A few years ago I had a phone call with one of my former students (we’ll call him James) who was asking for career advice.  He had been out of college for three years. This young man had a ton of potential and skill, but had bounced around from job to job since graduating and didn’t really seem to have much focus. The substance of the call went something like this:

Basie:  “So, James, it sounds like you’re been thinking about your career a good bit. What’s on your mind?”
James: “Well, I was talking with our mutual friend Rick the other day, and he and I are on the same page on this.  We REALLY want to make a difference in what we do in this life.
Basie: “Absolutely! I’m thrilled to hear you still have this conviction.”
James: (Reluctantly) “Right…well, let me put it this way. I believe God is leading me to something bigger—probably much bigger. I’m thinking I’m going to run for office in my congressional district. And if that doesn’t work out, I want to be CEO of an influential, well-respected company.”
Basie: “Wow, James—you have some pretty big hopes and dreams there. It’s good to dream big—too many people don’t really dream at all about what could be. I’ve got a question for you though.”
James: “Ok, shoot.”
Basie: “What are some of the major indicators that tell you these two possibilities are the best ones for you?”
James: “Probably the best indicator for me personally is how I thrived as student body president in college. That was such a great fit and I loved it, and I was good at it.”

To make a long story short, I discovered that James had seized onto the idea that his calling was to be a visible, out-in-front leader of some sort. And, he was sure it was going to happen soon, probably just a few short years down the road. He was determined to make it happen. His passion and energy would get him there, and he even gave a tip of the hat to God’s power in all of it.

A few years came and went, and James and I kept in touch. But, he didn’t land that top spot. He eventually landed in a good place, but only through some trying experiences and hard lessons did he learn that his priorities were out of order. He had not been envisioning true vocation when he dreamed of his larger-than-life future. James craved success, but something other than his God-given design was moving him.

“True vocation is found only through a heart of service to others.” @impact360

He had been dreaming of the accolades and significance that such a “bigger” calling would bring. For James, his understanding of vocation was a case of mistaken identity.  Put differently, James had mistakenly linked his worth—even his very dignity—with achievement and status.  In so doing he had assigned ultimate worth to something fleeting, temporary, and fragile. James did not understand that true vocation is found only through a heart of service to others. He wanted position and influence, but he wasn’t so interested in humble service.  As a Christ-follower, James had forgotten that “every kind of work…is an occasion…for exercising a holy service to God and to one’s neighbor.”[1]

My Self is on a Search—But I’m Coming Up Empty

Like James, all of us are searching for meaning and purpose. To the degree that I am living according to my divine design, to that degree my soul—or “self”—finds meaning and purpose. When I live in a way that is consistent with how God designed me, my search leads to true vocation and a flourishing life. Additionally, mistaken identity is much less likely for me. Why? Because I am living with my chief end in mind, which is to glorify God in every aspect of my being, including my work.[2] If I live with this end in mind, I will not be satisfied with cheap substitutes. Many successful professionals never achieve fullness in this sense. Many are on an ongoing search for meaning through their careers, but all they come up with is perpetual emptiness. They are, in a very real sense “empty selves.” It is no different for Gen Z.

“When I live in a way that is consistent with how God designed me, my search leads to true vocation and a flourishing life.” @impact360

The notion of the empty self became a topic of scholarly study in the 80’s and 90’s, with historian and psychologist Philip Cushman providing groundbreaking thought leadership on the subject. In his 2012 book Love Your God with All Your Mind, Impact 360 Institute guest professor Dr. JP Moreland, takes Cushman’s notion of the empty self and unpacks its characteristics.[3] These include the following: inordinate individualism, infantilism, narcissism, passivity, sensate culture, no interior life, and busy-ness. Although I can easily argue that Gen Z struggles with each of these, let’s take four of the most obvious ones.

Inordinate individualism: McKinsey & Co. found in 2018 that expressing individual truth, or “undefined ID,” is very important to Gen Z.[4] The key here is that they do not want to be defined by stereotypes. Rather, they want to experiment with various ways of “being myself,” and thus shape their identity over time.

Passivity: this goes hand-in-hand with apathy toward growing up, which could be evidence for “a creeping lack of purpose and meaning.” Moreland points out television as a chief culprit. The Barna and Impact 360 Institute research on Gen Z is consistent with this claim, noting that Gen Z members are “screenagers” who have never known a world without the internet or smartphones, and who spend hours and hours each day on their devices.[5]

No interior life: Spirituality is a low priority; only 16% said that becoming spiritually mature is a future goal.[6]

Busy-ness: Exploring “deep” identity isn’t a priority for most; only 31% said they desire to discover who they really are. Doing is primary. Finishing their education, starting a career, and success in that career is the highest priority. [7]

What are we to make of the fact that, for Gen Z career success is the highest priority, but spirituality and discovering their core identity are the lowest priorities? Might it be that Gen Z’ers, like others who have gone before, are not sufficiently aware of their deepest motivations for choosing a career path? How do they discern the way to move forward and avoid the problem of mistaken identity in their search for true vocation? Is it reasonable for an empty self to expect God to grant such discernment in the absence of authentic, biblically-centered spiritual formation?  We will explore these questions in post #2 of this series.



[1] Gene Edward Veith, God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002): 19.
[2] See The Westminster Shorter Catechism, question 1 (
[3] See JP Moreland, Love Your God with All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2012): 101-111.
[4] Tracy Francis and Fernanda Hoefel, “’True Gen,’: Generation Z and its implications for companies.” McKinsey & Company, November 2018.
[5] Barna Group & Impact 360 Institute (2018), “Gen Z: The Culture, Beliefs and Motivations Shaping the Next Generation,” p. 15-16.
[6] Ibid., p. 38.
[7] Ibid., p. 38-39.