A Wall Street investment banker found himself growing weary of his work, and his meteoric success put him in a position to do something about it. Even though he was only in his thirties, he told me he wanted to quit work and retire. In my role as his strategic coach, I advised him to instead take time off and craft a vision for where he might flex his commercial muscles during the next season of his life.
“I will never work again,” he said confidently.
I was unconvinced. I bet him that he’d be back at work within 18 months. I collected on that $20 bet.
If you, like this banker, are dissatisfied about your work, keep this in mind: You can slow down or change the demands of your work. You can alter the structure of your work. But we are hardwired to make a contribution to society until the day we die. By that definition, work isn’t an option; it’s functioning properly.
What Is Your Ambition?
The apostle Paul touched on this subject when he told his friends in the city of Thessalonica, “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands” (1 Thessalonians 4:11).
That first phrase—“Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life”—isn’t suggesting that we move into a monastery or strip iTunes from our phones. Nor is it telling us to convert our personalities into a subdued, shrunken flower. Paul had in mind something more substantive. Bring calm instead of chaos. Be high value instead of high drama. When people see (hear) your life, it shouldn’t be a chaotic mass of noise and turmoil.
How do you do that? It starts on the inside. The “quiet” people are the ones most settled on the inside. When Jim Collins was doing research for his best seller Good to Great, he found seven great leaders who weren’t “big names.” He called these people “Level 5 leaders” and wrote: “It’s not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious—but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.”
Chaos is all about competing interests—interests competing for time, energy, money, and value. Settled people, “quiet” people, have resolved this competition.
The middle phrase “mind your own business” reminds us to own the details of our own life. Put more energy on the requirements of your own work and less energy judging the motives and outcomes or the work of others.
The last phrase “Work with your hands” is self-explanatory. Work hard. Get to the end of your day and lie in bed satisfied that you have expended a full day’s effort on something worth the effort.
Are these things your ambition? Do you aim to be about something bigger than yourself so that you fade into the background? Do you aim to be heads down on what you need to do? Do you aim to work hard—not just for the money but because that’s what workers do?
4 Ways Not To Work
I love this Seinfeld clip where Kramer gets a job. Let’s be honest, though. Kramer is saying the right things about work, but it isn’t long before he figures out that he’s not a fit at Brandt-Leland. He didn’t figure out a way to work, he figured out a way not to work.
Many people work hard their whole lives simply trying to eliminate the need for work. But if they check out prematurely, they find that it doesn’t satisfy. Are you headed that way? Even though work doesn’t define you, you were created to be a worker. It’s an important part of a balanced, flourishing life.
So ask yourself: Are you settled in your work, or is your soul full of turmoil and chaos from your work? Here are four ways not to work, or four ways work can increase your chaos (what I call “inner noise”):
- It could be that you expect your job to do something it was never intended to do, such as provide your identity or your ultimate security. Your deepest worth and value are more tied to who you are than what you can do. False assumptions about work can cause inner noise.
- It could be that you give too much of your life to work. Most jobs will take whatever we give them. Few work environments operate with balanced boundaries to guide the commitment of the associates, so you must learn to hold work in balance with the other priorities of life. Overworking can cause inner noise.
- It could be that you give too little of your passion to your work. Some workers on the payroll are looking to contribute as little as possible. At their core, they are lazy and operate with an entitlement mentality. Underworking can cause inner noise.
- It could be that your job doesn’t fit your calling and gifts. Michael Hyatt calls it an overlay of passion, competence, and market: When I am able to overlay my calling into work or even a career, I will find both my best output as well as genuine fulfillment. The wrong fit or calling can cause inner noise.
Every Good Endeavor
I’ve been thinking and writing about the interplay of faith and work and the intrinsic value of work for 30 years, so I’ve read a lot on the subject. Tim Keller’s book Every Good Endeavor is very possibly the best I’ve read. This video introduces the idea, but you can also buy the book here or here.
Keller writes, “Whenever we bring order out of chaos, whenever we draw out creative potential, whenever we elaborate and ‘unfold’ creation beyond where it was when we found it, we are following God’s pattern of creative cultural development.”
There’s that word again: chaos. Keller says one of the chief aims of work is to bring order out of chaos. It’s not about the job in particular. It’s about bringing order out of chaos. I would add that, done rightly, work can leave you with order instead of chaos on the inside as well.
The noise can be drowned out. It is possible for us to hear the inner noise like an alarm at first. Then, as we drudge on overworking, underworking, relying falsely on work, or working out of our zone, we just get used to it.
Be strategic about your work life. Sure, you may occasionally indulge in a daydream about an early retirement where you spend your days swinging a golf club or swinging in a hammock. But if you make that daydream a lone reality, or if you work in a way that isn’t as fulfilling and productive, you’ll be sorry just like my investment banker friend was. Deep inside, you’ll realize that you fell short in an important part of the way you were made by your Creator.
Make changes in your life if you need to so that you bring order out of the chaos that’s destroying your satisfaction in your work. (And as you can imagine, that change may not make a lot of sense from the standpoint of those who always equate making more money with feeling more fulfilled.)
Don’t let this slide. Take charge. Recapture your calling. Keep your passion for productivity alive. Manage your life so that work takes its rightful place in all that you do.
The world needs what you have to offer through your energy, vision, and talents. Whether you feel it right now or not, you need to offer it. And that can play one beautiful melody to our own inner person and to all those around us.
Steve is an organizational strategist, social innovator, pragmatic theologian, executive coach, and mentor. Over the past 25 years Steve has helped hundreds of organizations launch and scale, while authoring over 15 books aimed at showing business people how to flourish in their life and work.