from our partnerLightWorkers Guest
written byJordan Raynor
A middle-aged man swings open the door and enters his home. He swaps out his sport coat for a cardigan sweater and slips into a pair of blue canvas shoes, all while singing a song. Then he looks straight into the camera and offers a simple greeting: “Hello, neighbor!” This is Fred Rogers, the gentle, soft-spoken man who essentially played himself as the host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood—the beloved educational show that was watched by millions of children between 1968 and 2001.
What is commonly known is that Rogers was a master of his craft, spending decades getting exceptionally good at his work of educating children through the medium of television. What is less known is the winding path Rogers took to choosing his one thing—a journey that spanned many years and saw its fair share of twists and turns.
Rogers had a term he liked to use when referring to discerning one’s calling. He called it “guided drift.”
Guided by what? Dr. Junlei Li, the co-director of the Fred Rogers Center, explained that “Fred was guided by a deep sense of service, of wanting to be useful to the world. He was driven by service even if in his mind it was vague for years as to how to best leverage his considerable talents in service of others.” A devout Christian, Rogers deeply understood one of the central themes of this book: that as Christians, the gospel of Jesus’ selfless sacrifice should compel us to view our whole lives as service to others. When it comes to our work, the proper response to the gospel is not to seek out the work that will earn us the most fame and fortune. The goal should be to find the work we can do most exceptionally well in service of God and others.
In the words of Rogers himself, “You don’t set out to be rich and famous; you set out to be helpful.” And we are most helpful when we are focused on mastering one thing at a time vocationally. “Deep and simple—that’s what matters,” Rogers said.
As he was exploring his own path to mastery, Rogers identified many interests and passions, but he was always on the lookout for the one thing that best combined his passions with his considerable gifts to be the most “helpful” to others. As his biographer observed, this deep sense of service came from “the Presbyterian values” instilled by his parents, those of “hard work, responsibility and caring for others, parsimony, duty to family, ethical clarity, a strong sense of mission and a relentless sense of service to God [that] drove every moment of Fred Rogers’s life,” including how he thought about discerning his calling.
Rogers grew up in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, just forty miles southeast of Pittsburgh. In material terms, Rogers’s upbringing could hardly have been easier. His parents, the unofficial “first couple of Latrobe,” were incredibly wealthy and could provide for any of Rogers’s needs and then some. But emotionally, Rogers’s childhood was challenging. Overweight, frequently ill and shy, “Fat Freddy” was the target of relentless teasing and ridicule from the other kids in town, leading Rogers to spend much of his childhood hiding away at home. It was there that Rogers spent countless hours playing the piano and escaping to the attic to play with the puppets that would end up becoming central characters in his Neighborhood of Make-Believe. By the time Rogers reached high school, much of the harassment from his peers had stopped, and Rogers grew into his own, confident and focused on his future, even though his path to finding his one vocational thing was far from clear.
Given that “music was the singular passion of Fred’s young life,” Rogers decided to take his experimentation with the piano to the next level and enrolled in the music composition program at Rollins College north of Orlando, Florida. There, Rogers excelled. He always knew he had a passion for music, and at Rollins he found independent validation from others that he was quite gifted at the craft. But music wasn’t the only passion Rogers explored in his collegiate years. His own emotional pain as a child had led him to start studying the field of child development. While “impressed with Fred’s musical abilities,” Rogers’s wife, Joanne (who was enrolled at Rollins with her future husband), “thought he might wind up running an orphanage. He talked about children and their education all the time, and he often went to visit nursery school classes and children’s centers to observe the children and their teachers, and to develop his own thoughts on education.” Later on “she [remembered] that she had never encountered quite such a focused young man, and that his focus seemed to center around children as well as music.”
Upon graduation from Rollins, Rogers still had little idea of what his vocation might be. While he was passionate about music and clearly gifted at the craft of composition, he “had doubts that he could turn his love of music into a career,” which was a problem for Rogers who was always looking for where he could be the most helpful and of service to others—especially children. For a long time, Rogers thought the answer might be pastoral ministry, leading to his application and acceptance into Western Theological Seminary (now Pittsburgh Theological Seminary), which he planned to attend after graduating from Rollins.
But then Rogers saw television for the first time and his “guided drift” received a major jolt that forever altered the trajectory of his life and the lives of millions of children.
It was Easter break, and Rogers had come home to Latrobe to visit his parents before heading back to Florida for his last few weeks of classes at Rollins. While he was away at school, the family had purchased a television—one of the first in Latrobe. Sitting down at the ten-inch set in the parlor of his parents’ mansion, Rogers changed channels until he came across a children’s program that caught his attention. What he saw appalled him. As Rogers later recalled, “I saw people dressed in some kind of costumes, literally throwing pies in each other’s faces. I was astounded at that.” Rogers’s first impression of TV was that it was gimmicky and even demeaning. “And if there’s anything that bothers me, it’s one person demeaning another,” Rogers said.
While Rogers “hated” what he saw in that first show, he also instantly appreciated how the medium of television could be used for good, particularly in the education of children.
And I thought: This could be a wonderful tool for education, why is it being used this way? And so I said to my parents, ‘You know, I don’t think I’ll go to seminary right away; I think maybe I’ll go into television…Let’s see what we can do with this.
At first glance Rogers’s decision to abandon seminary for television may seem like the impulsive thing you would expect from an unfocused college senior. But as Rogers’s biographer explains, the decision was actually quite deliberate:
Fred Rogers was interested in lots of things: in religion, in becoming a minister, in music composition, in playing the piano, in children and education—and, now, in television production. Because of his well-developed ability to focus and to think his way over the hurdles he encountered in life, he could envision what television might offer to children and to himself. He understood that the right kind of programming, grounded in a good knowledge of child development, could become a highly inventive and creative way to help young viewers. And he understood that television could give him a unique opportunity to marry his skills in music and entertainment with his interest in children’s education. Fred saw that there could be a career opportunity that would blend his aspirations in the more structured field of education with his powerful, more free-form creative instincts. He saw the chance to be both an educator and an artist, and he knew right away that he wanted it.
In other words, Rogers caught a glimpse of what his one thing might be and then made a significant adjustment to his career path in order to pursue it. Rogers wouldn’t launch the now-legendary Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for another seventeen years after that seminal moment in front of his parents’ TV; but throughout those years, Rogers was continually tweaking the direction of his “guided drift” in pursuit of that single opportunity to best combine his passions and gifts in service to others. Then, once he found it, he chose to commit to it and spent decades mastering the art of educating young children in his Neighborhood.
During commencement speeches to college graduates, Rogers delighted in talking about his journey down the path to choosing and mastering his one thing. In one such speech, Rogers shared,
“I’ll never forget the sense of wholeness I felt when I finally realized what in fact I really was: not just a writer or a language buff or a student of human development or a telecommunicator, but I was someone who could use every talent that had ever been given to me in the service of children and their families.”
Once we’ve explored who we are—who God has made us to be and the work he has equipped us to do most exceptionally well—it is essential that we model Rogers’s extraordinary focus and intensity, choosing to go big on our one thing and committing to becoming masterful at it in service of God’s glory and the good of others.
Jordan Raynor, author of Master of One: Find and Focus on the Work You Were Created to Do (available 1/21/20) and the national bestseller Called to Create, leads a growing community of Christians seeking to more deeply connect their faith with their work. In addition to his writing, Jordan serves as the executive chairman of the tech startup Threshold 360, where he previously served as CEO after launching a string of successful ventures. A highly sought-after speaker on the topic of faith and work, Raynor has spoken at Harvard University, SXSW, Q Ideas and many other events around the world. He has twice been selected as a Google fellow and he recently launched “The Call to Mastery with Jordan Raynor” podcast. He lives in Tampa with his wife and three children. For more information, visit https://www.jordanraynor.com.
Excerpted from Master of One: Find and Focus on the Work You Were Created to Do. Copyright © 2020 by Jordan Raynor. To be published by WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, on January 21.