ON FINDING PURPOSE IN WORK AND THE SOCIETAL NARRATIVE OF PERSONAL CAREER PROGRESSION
When I was a bit younger I used to believe that in my life I would gradually work my way up and up at something, until I had finally ‘made it’. Then I would have loads of money, live in a nice big house, be really good at something, have loads of influence and authority in my chosen area, and finally be happy. When I was studying for a PhD, the whole culture that was propagated, both implicitly and explicitly, was such that we poor postgraduate students must work really hard to increase our academic profiles and ‘build our careers’: Write and deliver papers, produce journal articles and books, go to conferences and network, get accredited and acknowledged, be cited and recognised, ‘publish or perish’, they say. Then, and only then, we might have a small slim chance of actually ‘making it’–getting a job, and one day becoming a big name famous academic. (It was assumed that this was obviously what we all wanted to do really if we thought about it properly. Or maybe this is really a route to being able to do what you love to do, for money.)
If you ever read books or attend workshops on writing fiction, the authorities in such contexts usually talk about how in order to create a compelling fictional character you need to give them a story goal—something that drives them, something that they are trying to get or accomplish at any cost. As I’ve thought about this, I’ve reflected that we human beings all have different story goals. What do we want out of life? What do we need to achieve, obtain or accomplish? Depression, it seems to me, often has to do with being unable to get excited about any particular life story goal and seeing them all as (perhaps rightly?) arbitrary or worthless, or having a story goal that is massively blocked and frustrated. Some worldviews, such as Buddhism, advocate detachment from story goals—but even then the new goal becomes detaching from goals, or ‘enlightenment’, or ‘happiness’, or something similar. Society tells us that our life is a story all about us that is constantly progressing towards (but never arriving at) some goal. In the world of our personal lives, we are usually chasing sex or romance, financial security and/or material luxury. In the world of work, we have a career path and we undergo continual professional development, chasing performance, promotions and power. We are told that sometime we are going to arrive at the peak of our powers when we will have become what we want to be and we will be able to do whatever we want to do; we will have ‘made it’.
I used to be on board with all of this. Now that I’m back working in schools again, for the meantime, I see things slightly differently. Of course, it may be the case that one day we will live in that nice big house with that fat bank balance and that gorgeous partner. It may be the case that one day we will be at the peak of our powers and influence, the ‘top of our game’, so to speak. But I’ve come to think that these things shouldn’t be fetishised and fixated upon as much as they are. They shouldn’t be seen as the goals of our existence and the things that once we will have obtained them will make us truly happy at last. Because then, when we have reached that moment and we aren’t truly happy, what do we do? Because then, how do we enjoy ourselves and find meaning while we’re still on our journey prior to arriving at that place? Because then, what we do after we reach that place but then we start to go into decline, and view it from the other direction, and get old and die and have to let go of all of those things that we have accumulated?
We all have different story goals in life. As an evangelical-charismatic Christian (Anglo-Pentecostal Arminian to be precise), I believe that life is, very mysteriously, a place of choosing to accept the love, forgiveness and grace of God, or not. As such, my highest goals are to know the love of God and to love others with that same love (I’m not very good at fulfilling them, but those are my ostensive goals). As a brief aside, this means that I don’t see my work, whatever it is, as an end in itself and something that is the primary way of defining me. Rather, it is simply a means to an end, the end of loving God and loving others, and is secondary to my identity after being a Christian, a husband, a brother, a son, a friend and so on. Now, you might think that within this worldview it is fairly easy to avoid the never-ending personal career progression model. But it is just as prevalent within evangelical Christianity. Once upon a time, for example, my own version of the personal career progression plan meant I believed that I would gradually accumulate and accumulate qualifications, life experience and personal holiness until I one day finally made it to the apex of human vocation: becoming a full-time overseas missionary. Then I would at last have ‘made it’, be fulfilled and happy, and be able to make a massive difference to the world, helping to convert millions of people to Christianity so that they could encounter the love and forgiveness of God for themselves.
Now, those things may still happen one day(!) and as I said earlier there will still be a time when I am at the ‘top’ of my own particular game. But I have come to think more and more that life is not best viewed in this way. Yes, Christians see themselves on a journey, but not one of which the focus is ever-increasing personal success, but a journey into the love of God in eternity, with opportunities to share that love with others in varying measures at every stage along the way. Life is a story, but it isn’t a story that’s just all about us, what we accomplish and how satisfied we feel, it’s a Story mainly about God and how he works all our little stories into his Glories in eternity. This leads to a different way of looking at life: It’s no longer about building a career, accumulating points on a CV, getting promotions, making more and more money, living in a larger house, getting a bigger TV, chasing that ever-elusive magic moment when we have one day finally made it.
Rather, from the perspective of eternity, each act of love and kindness, is powerful and valuable, whether performed yesterday, today or tomorrow, as it contributes to what lasts forever. Each act of witnessing to the love of God to someone, telling them about the good news of the Christian message, is radical and gratuitously awesome, whatever stage on the personal journey of one’s own career development is performed at. Each act of self-surrender and sacrifice fits into God’s masterful purpose and plan and can be worked by him into his overarching Story in order to build an everlasting Kingdom and bring him glory, whether it’s carried out by a three year old child or a thirty-three year old professional or a sixty five year old consultant. There is, after all, “more joy in Heaven over 1 sinner who repents than over 99 who do not need to repent” (Luke 15:7). It seems that if just one person encounters the love and forgiveness of God, Heaven has a massive party; it’s something worth celebrating. So we should celebrate the little as well as the lot too because that will teach us to have a Heavenly attitude. Maybe that’s why those who are “faithful with a few things” will eventually be given “many things” (Matthew 25:23), in any case. Because it’s not about how much you’ve got, but what you do with it.
So here’s a small electronic rallying call sounding against the widespread narrative of personal career progression. Isn’t what’s most important in life being loved and loving others? If you’re a Christian, what’s most important is being loved by God and loving others through acts of kindness and telling them about the good news of the Christian message. So let’s go out and enjoy doing those things, whatever our context, whether we’ve just started doing them or whether we’ve been doing them for a long time. It doesn’t matter how good at them we are or where we are in our career progression plan, we can still enjoy them and find purpose in them, whatever our circumstances. All the glory goes to God anyway. Over and above ever progressing towards our own state of personal fulfillment, there’s a powerful purpose to be found in work today, as well as yesterday and tomorrow. #YOLF (You Only Live Forever).