We're almost halfway through the six habits for really effective Christians, a collection of tips that my dad gave me for success in the workplace. This is tip #3: Work is important, of course. Try your best at everything you do. Even if it's something you don't like to do.
I must admit that while I understood this rule in theory, I didn't really understand it completely until I experienced it. One thing that became abundantly obvious to me at my workplace was that people love the limelight. When projects came around, people flocked to the high-profile ones. And the people on high-profile projects did all they could to maintain that profile. They would send out "status" e-mails with their names peppered throughout, sending copies not only to their project teams but also to every executive short of the CEO. They sat at the head of the table at project meetings, listening to status from the teams. Sometimes it seemed that their only purpose in life was to get reports from these project teams, compile them in an e-mail, and slap their name on it. When they were assigned action items of their own, they were too "important" to spend their time doing them.
In the meantime, the members of the project teams were the ones who did the real work. Some worked all hours of the day and night to get their jobs done. They did some brilliant work, all behind the scenes. They knew full well that they weren't necessarily being recognized for their efforts and their accomplishments, but they did them anyway. They knew that while their work was tedious and difficult, even the smallest tasks they did were critical for the successful completion of the project.
And a funny thing happened. As tends to occur regularly in my company, the downsizing axe came down hard. Ironically, the people who'd attempted to attach their names to the high-profile projects were the first ones to be asked to leave. When they scrambled to find new positions, they couldn't find them inside the company because of their reputations, nor could they land jobs externally because of their lack of hands-on experience. On the other hand, many of those who had quietly done the work were asked to stay. But because they now had valuable experience, many instead chose to take much better opportunities outside the company.
Humility and Hard Work
The situation made me think of a passage in the Bible:
When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: "When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, 'Give this man your seat.' Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, 'Friend, move up to a better place.' Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. (Lk 14:7-11 NIV)
Once again, humility is the key. But the word "humility" is anathema to most people in today's corporate world. Success comes from being aggressive, from crushing your competition inside and outside your company, and from making sure that your name is included in as many meetings and e-mails as possible.
But look a little closer at reality. Look at the most successful managers in your company, the ones who are respected and admired by their employees and their peers, and you'll find people who manage work successfully, but at the same time aren't afraid to roll up their sleeves and help out with the work themselves once in a while. Look at the managers of your company who are the subjects of the most derision, and chances are you'll find that these are folks who cling to their titles and lord it over their employees.
Talk to most successful CEOs in the world, and you'll often find that they have a story about how they started in the mailroom, or as a lowly salesperson, or as a dropout from school. You'll find that the most successful ones are people who haven't forgotten their humble origins, and hold on to some piece of it to this day.
If you can't find examples in your own company, look to some figures in the Bible who ruled over nations, and you'll see how their work during their humble pasts led to their success as leaders. Look at a certain prime minister of Egypt, who at one point in his life was in jail on a false charge, and yet served his captors and his fellow prisoners to the best of his ability. Look at a certain future king of Israel, who had garnered enough experience as a lowly shepherd killing lions and bears on behalf of his sheep that, when the call came to kill the champion of the Philistines on behalf of his nation, he was ready.
Jesus said it well in the parable of the talents. To those who proved themselves faithful in the little things came larger responsibilities and greater glory. On the other hand, the one who proved inept in the little things was called "wicked" and "lazy" by the master, and was not to be entrusted with anything.
The truths in this parable apply to our secular work as much as they apply to our spiritual work. Anyone who wishes to grow in his or her career and accomplish great things must do not only the things that are pleasant, but the grunt work as well.
Big Rewards for Small Tasks
A preacher once told a story of a young boy who planted some tomato seeds in his garden. Every day he went out to check how much his plants had grown. After several days, the seeds sprouted and seedlings emerged. The seedlings were growing much too slowly for the boy's liking, so he thought he could speed things up. He went out and pulled on all the seedlings. One by one, they stretched and snapped in half.
Of course, the seedlings had to mature. They had to grow strong roots, grow leaves, bud into flowers, grow little green tomatoes, and finally yield the crop. In the process, they had to withstand the rains and winds, the Japanese beetles and grubs, the burning sun, and the choking weeds. Likewise, in our jobs, we want to take the high-profile work, but we need to realize that to truly grow, we also need to do the low-profile, tedious, and thankless work.
In doing so, the reward is not only in the greater responsibilities and recognition that will inevitably come; more important for Christians, the reward is also a heavenly one. Consider the words of the two most prominent apostles in the New Testament:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. (Col 3:22-23 NIV)
Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. (1 Pet 2:18-19 NIV)
Here, Paul and Peter were talking to a decidedly secular audience about decidedly secular work. As thankless and tedious as your job is, it's probably not as thankless and tedious as the job of being a Roman slave in Paul's time. As bureaucratic and political as your company is, it's probably not as bureaucratic and political as the Roman Empire of Peter's day. And yet both apostles instructed these early Christians to do their secular work, whatever that work may be, with all their heart.
Likewise, we as Christians today are called to serve our earthly masters to the best of our abilities in all that we do, no matter how unpleasant the task or the masters. We do so with full faith and knowledge that it is the Lord we serve, whose glory we ultimately seek and whose judgment we ultimately trust. The result? A happy and successful career here on earth, and a reward in heaven. That's something they don't teach you in business school.
"In the Workforce" is a recurring column dedicated to survival tips and advice on how to shine the light as a Christian at work. If you have some advice or anecdotes from your own work experience that you feel may be edifying to the fellowship of brothers and sisters in Christ, please send it to email@example.com.