Relevance, validation, affirmation—if we're honest, don't most of us want these? If we're honest, don't most of us hope to find these in our careers, our vocations, our workplaces? The more pious might chime in here, might say, “I only seek relevance and validation in the eyes of The One,” and perhaps that’s true (for them). But my life-experience has taught me something about the things we say: so often we use our words like fresh paint (as if there's no rust underneath) or reverse psychology (as if we can say ourselves into believing) or invisibility cloaks (as if we can hide our human frailty under fantasy and magic). The desire to be seen, known, and recognized as successful is as human as breathing. It grows from ego, sure, but weren't we all created with an ego (which most certainly ensures our survival)? But the play of modern career--doesn't it exacerbate the ego's already voracious appetite?
Allow me to answer that last question for you. Yes.
This, I think, is why it's high time we said the true thing instead of the right (i.e., the marketable) thing. And here's the true thing, at least for me: I want you to see me as a relevant, successful, and important as I go about my craft, my career. (I said as much on Tuesday.)
For three days, now, I’ve been noodling on vocation, relevance, irrelevance, and success. As much as I'd love for you to see this noodling as a poignant, maybe even novel work on the topic, let me be clear: this is not new stuff. (Is there anything new under the sun?) There are others who’ve written competent volumes on the ways in which our vocational aspirations so often fall prey to the ego. Consider vocational guru Victor Frankl's statement about vocational success from his book Man's Search for Meaning:
"Don't aim at success [or relevance, or validation, or affirmation]. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. … [S]uccess, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it."
(The bracketed language is my own, but seems a fitting addition.)
Success, relevance, validation—none of these things are ends. They are so often outside our control, even if we'd like to pretend that hard work and talent will bring us the goods. These byproducts--they come if they come (or on occasion, if you have the money to buy them), but if they do not, c'est la vie. Sometimes vocational success isn't in the cards.
So, I can't make you confront your lesser angel of ego, but I can lead you to purer water. And here's how I'll lead: I'll be honest with the ways my ego drives my work, and I'll say the true thing even if it's not the thing I should say. In that confession, I'll try my best to reach toward what Frankl calls serving a cause greater than myself or surrendering to a person other than myself. Maybe this will set me (even you?) on the proper vocational course. What is that course?
Let's explore that tomorrow. See you then?
As I work through this short series on vocation, please feel free to invite others along. I know I'm not alone in my questions on this topic, and I'd love to hear how you and your people are processing your own vocational questions.
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