Net worth equals self worth. Coined by a Wall Street banker during the 1980s, few phrases better capture the “secularization” of work. Over the past 300 years, the idea of human beings as primarily economic creatures has replaced more traditional understandings of human beings as essentially spiritual.
In other words, our salvation, our happiness, is now linked to the satisfaction of material desires rather than spiritual aspirations. Wall Street knows that we have reached the point where most people in the Western world think their salvation, their purpose in life, depends on the endless accumulation of consumer goods.
Means to an end
Not surprisingly, work is now seen by most people as the means to that end. People today tend to evaluate themselves by what they own. Seeing little else to life other than what they own—they readily give themselves entirely to the vehicle for acquiring more things their work.
We are easily led, by advertising and other marketplace mechanisms, to want what we do not need. As Jerry Mander, a former advertising executive in the United States, once said: advertising generates “an internal scarcity of contentment.”
“Net worth equals self worth” is a phrase that implies a direct correlation between conspicuous consumption and personal happiness. During the last 40 years, salaries of North American workers have quadrupled. But, according to opinion polls, the happiness quotient among those same workers has gone down during the same time period.
For example, an opinion poll taken by the University of Chicago in 1957 reported that 35 per cent of people said they were “very happy” with life. The university’s second poll taken in 1997 showed only 30 per cent were “very happy.” Ironically, abundance has not brought personal fulfillment. Is this not an opportunity for Christian witness?
Spiritual impoverishment in the workplace provides Christians with a tremendous opportunity to reinvigorate the world of work with a sense of the “sacred.” How can this be achieved?
I suggest we start with an understanding of how vocational choices are made by individuals. The secularization of work begins at the beginning of career decision making. As individuals, when we think about questions concerning our purpose in life, our vocation, the work and jobs that would allow us to fulfill that purpose, finding the answers is difficult.
Most of us aspire to the kind of work that will deliver both money and meaning to our lives. But it seems such an elusive target. Finding a job that fits our talents, skills, personalities, and values is just not easy.
Besides, the world has provided us with a ready made formula for success: good grades, good test scores, good school, good job equals success! Many individuals who have faithfully followed this formula find themselves a long way down the wrong road before realizing they did not actually choose their work. They are swallowed up by the world, by its systems and values.
Perhaps we spend our lives trying to become someone that others will look up to. (“I wanted to do something important with my life.”) Perhaps we drift into a job. (“I saw an ad in the newspaper; got the job; here I am 10 years later.”) Or perhaps we gravitate towards one (“The division I was in closed down, and I had to take a transfer or quit”), graduated into it (“I took nursing because it seemed like a good idea at the time.”), or were intimidated into it (“I wanted to be a musician, but my Dad insisted on accounting.”). Surprisingly, few of us purposefully chose the work we do today.
Instead of making a career choice based on accurate, reliable information about who and what we are in terms of our right work, perhaps we go to college because that is the expected thing to do. We learn early in life to act on what others say, value, and expect.
What is true for college is true for trade school, the family business, or the army. We usually aim at becoming something without ever taking the time to find out who we are already.
Perhaps we choose a career on the basis of what the market requires, for example, software programmers and system engineers. If we lack the information to become that high tech specialist, then we simply educate or train ourselves to fit the niche. We’re all equal, therefore we must all be the same, and we can be whatever we want to be, right?
These are just a few examples of cultural assumptions that are embedded in our career choices. Secular ideas related to materialism, individualism, humanism, opportunism, and egalitarianism dominate our approach to career choice.
By contrast, an approach to career choice that is rooted in the traditions of the Christian faith offers a different perspective. From a biblical worldview, God is our Creator and because God chose to create, God must have a plan. With a plan there is a purpose and, with a purpose, there lies responsibility and accountability.
The great adventure of life is to discover and develop God’s gifts to us in accordance with His will. This historical connection between the fundamentals of Christian faith and work has been clearly articulated by Lee Hardy in his book The Fabric of This World: Inquiries into Calling, Career Choice, and the Design of Human Work (Eerdmans, 1990).
Hardy attempts “to revitalize the concept of work within the professing Christian community, where it should have some force” (p. xv). He says, “Possessing different gifts, each person is to occupy that particular station in life where those gifts can be exercised for the common good” (p.60). Proper job assignment benefits not only the individual and their level of job satisfaction, but also the workplace. Examples of the negative effects of bad job fit, on both sides of the labour/management equation, fill pages of arbitration decisions.
The challenge of this approach, of course, is that everybody loves the idea of having their right work but few know how to achieve this or are willing to embrace the hard work it takes to achieve it.
Recently, I discussed this dilemma with Dr. Hardy at the WRF’s “Changing Workplace, Unchanging Faith” conference. He suggested that individuals focus on narrative as a method of understanding their unique skills and abilities and how they may best fit into a certain choice or job placement. I was gratified to hear this suggestion because, as a career consultant in private practice, this is precisely the approach I take to career choice and development.
Our story and the “big” story
We live in a storytelling culture, surrounded by stories in all media, trying to make sense of the complexity of life. Narrative is fundamental to our lives. It helps us learn from our past mistakes and successes.
When it comes to making career choices, most often we ignore the power of our own narrative and experience and seek instead “objective” feedback through technology, tests, or the measurement of human performance through psychometrics. While psychology may have a limited role to play, it tends to be the tool of choice for secular humanists. There are, however, many problems with tests in terms of how well their conclusions correlate to specific jobs. This is because our relation to various job requirements, as with most of life, is both nuanced and complex, and as such, is not readily measured.
For example, by some estimates, a typical IQ test measures only 10 15 per cent of the many abilities that have been identified and can be described with some degree of accuracy. IQ tests are a good measure of short term memory, vocabulary, and spatial reasoning. But the tests miss creative imagination, leadership, social sensibility, interpersonal ability, artistic or musical ability, mechanistic aptitude, and “street smarts.” No test can capture the “whole” person.
Daniel Goleman suggests that while IQ and certain technical skills are relevant, a leader’s emotional intelligence are a larger determinant of success. He describes emotional intelligence in terms of self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. Each of these attributes are best discovered through telling our story.
In his novel The Gates of the Forest, Elie Wiesel suggests that “God created man because He loves stories.” Like so many characters in fairy tales, we are lost in a dark wood, a labyrinth, a swamp of career choices. Our personal stories can provide us with a surprising amount of rich material if we take the time to examine them.
How many of us truly examine our personal stories to find our God given gifts? How many of us submit the facts, people, and events of our stories through a filter of biblical principles and analysis to discern God’s will for our lives in terms of work?
I meet hundreds of people who have been trained to follow a vocation for which they have no real passion, no real motivation, no real calling jobs for which they are not motivationally equipped or particularly gifted. There are literally millions of unhappy men and women in the workforce employed in jobs that are at odds with their giftedness.
Instead of trusting our Creator’s wisdom for our lives, we too often lean on our own understanding in terms of career choice. Perhaps this is because most of us feel our lives are dull and uninteresting too ordinary! as if our personal story is the road upon which we travel, and like most roads, it is well used with little real attention paid to it. In short, we feel we have no stories to tell.
We need to remember that our individual stories intersect with the “big” story. God uses “His story” to rescue us from the clutches of the profane. Perhaps if we follow the biblical example and examine our own stories, we will discover a new richness: we may even be surprised by the patterns and depths that are revealed to us.
As the Bible clearly indicates, story is our nearest and dearest way of understanding our lives and finding our way onward. In my next article, I will show how our God given gifts and talents are revealed through our stories, and how to connect key elements of our right work to specific jobs and careers.