Prologue: Since October of 2011, I have been posting a series of reflections on some of the most important lessons I learned the hard way over the past year. I published the first of these shortly after my birthday regarding the fine line separating the utterly depressing from the categorically awesome, arguing that we should relentlessly pursue the latter as if our lives depended on it (because they actually do). A few weeks later, I shared a second reflection addressing the common misconception that working hard is enough, asserting that we will only be substantially rewarded for bringing something of clearly discernible value to a given state of affairs and not for our efforts alone–a truth so obvious that we constantly miss it and suffer accordingly.
While considering which topic to address next, I received a bunch of requests for input on personal finance. I learned my most difficult lessons in this area a few years ago. Nevertheless, I’m interested in writing about stuff that is helpful to others whether or not it fits perfectly with my outstanding plans for blogging. So, I guess one can take all of the posts in this category of “Building Wealth Tips” to constitute a nice, multi-part lesson cross-listed in that category of those “33rd Birthday Reflections,” just in case anybody is keeping score.
Finally, I’ve noticed that a lot of people get spooked from substantial discussions about personal finance because so many of these discussions are 1) ridiculously focused on bean counting, 2) nowhere close to being comprehensively instructive, and 3) lacking hardcore, scientific support for the activities they so passionately promote. Instead, I’ll begin with a personal story and gradually work my way towards some nuts and bolts mechanics of the discipline, thoroughly citing the main things I want to share as food for thought. I figure that anybody reading this blog who wanted a bunch of arithmetically fixated information right out of the gate or a collection of disassociated financial pro-tips will have looked elsewhere already. There’s something else “in the way” for a lot of us when it comes to really gaining financial strength, and my goal with this post is to obliterate that obstacle as much as possible.
Also, I’ve never shared this story with anybody before. So, I hope it provides some insight for you.
I packed my last suitcase and slung two ill-fitting blazers over my left shoulder. The pine trees framing my dormitory window fragmented beams of late-afternoon sunlight, dribbling their golden rays across my face in piecemeal obscurity as the day’s events disturbed my hopes for what lay ahead. I was partway through a graduate course of study at Princeton Theological Seminary with a vaguely defined career goal, a sharply reinforced cost, and a path almost perfectly opposed to Fitzgerald’s Amory. I knew that God was still alive and kicking in my heart, that wars worth fighting abounded, and that there was some good in humanity still. But I was just moments away from the abrupt realization that I did not know myself as surely as I thought. And I was completely embarrassed to learn this lesson through what seemed like the most base catalyst possible: Money.
I had just signed a promissory note for another several thousand dollars of student loans, a process required by my school every year seminarians wanted to avail themselves of such an opportunity to offset the cost of their education. And despite the fact that I had concluded that such a thing was “good debt,” I had never come close to possessing a tenth of what I now owed. Plus, I still had another year and another round of loans to go. Having grown up just above the poverty line, nobody from whom I had received financial counsel in the past could speak compellingly to my situation. I had been taught to avoid all debt like the plague, but I recognized that the net effect of achieving a more substantial education earlier in my life, likely leading to a higher level of compensation for my labor, was the more mathematically sound way to go. Moreover, none of the people who had so thoroughly impressed upon me the importance of avoiding all debt were particularly wealthy, which either meant that it was impossible to grow legitimately wealthy in one’s lifetime that way (a demonstrable falsity) or that there was something fiscally wrong with their perspective.
In short, math and logic were picking a fight with my upbringing. And while I knew that logic and math told no lies, I hadn’t risked anything this gutturally important on them since that one time I won a bet about calculating the velocity at which a drunken friend would strike a submerged refrigerator after leaping from a bridge suspended a certain height above a river–thanks to integral calculus. Delaying my education until I could afford to pay for it out of pocket with money squirreled away from whatever job I worked in the meantime deferred an increase in my earning potential, an increase great enough to easily outstrip the cost of financing the aforementioned loan. But more importantly, such a delay prevented me from pursuing the sort of work I wanted sooner by definition, which also postponed all sorts of life-events, relationships, and complimentary endeavors connected to that work. This made my student loan a type of investment in myself enabling a swifter, more impactful benefit for the people and projects what would be positively impacted by my own growth. And since this was a federally subsidized loan under consideration, there were all sorts of advantages and protections woven into the system amplifying the smartness of incurring that debt despite the inherent risk that even the most worthwhile investments carry.
Simple call, right? Wrong–I panicked.
I looked for every feasible way I could whittle down my expenses to as close to nothing as possible. I ate fewer meals and guiltily sneaked cereal out of my dining hall for breakfast the following morning. I bought no clothes, which made me horribly dependent on the good graces albeit risky stylistic conjunction of holiday presents. I spent hours researching the most inexpensive versions of the class texts I was forced to buy when repeatedly checking them out at the library would not suffice. I rued the fact that I could not afford to take a lady I fancied on anything but an utterly cheap date–all the while not picking her up in the car I did not posses because I was too freaking penurious to purchase a decent vehicle, let alone maintain one. And while thrifting and cycling were all the rage among the graduate student set in my hometown of Chicago, this approach was not generally well received or advised at Princeton.
Deep inside, I sensed that all my efforts at frugality were insignificant. I was sure that I needed to substantially cut a major cost. And dormitory housing coupled with a mandatory meal plan was my single, largest expense category. So, I made a painful decision to mitigate that by taking a job as a resident manager of an institutionally affiliated conference center off the seminary quad, enabling me to effectively zero-sum rent, food, and part-time pay. While that probably sounds like a brilliant idea, I said “painful” because the life of an aspiring theologian at Princeton was frequently, deeply lonely for reasons I’ll probably get around to describing some other time. Healthy, robust community was rare and difficult to cultivate even living on campus, let alone removed from it, and it was not just something I craved but something I wanted to be able to give to others at the core of who I was.
Cultivating robust, healthy community where people could grow and support one another to their mutual benefit was a central, guiding principle of the life I wanted to live. Being able to engage in this project more effectively on the far side of seminary was one of the main reasons I chose to pursue that course of training in the first place. Thus, my aforementioned financial “solution” functioned as a shift of expense from finance to purpose and ethics. In fact, it risked a net loss of “wealth” defined not just as one’s fiscal wherewithal but also the strength of one’s key relationships, long term prospects, freedom, security, and so forth. My solution threatened a conflict with who I wanted to be, what I wanted to do, and what I knew that both my colleagues I needed at that stage of our lives. But there was no way to ascertain whether the benefits of this shift would be worth the cost apart from giving it a shot and finding out. And since the whole idea of a seminary education boiled down to an investment in me, my own lack of confidence in myself effected a recursive loop of irritatingly pitiful consternation.
I planned a final departure from my dormitory when most other students were taking their evening meal to avoid encountering anyone who might probe the turmoil I feared I could not keep from surfacing. I strode briskly through the autumnal dusk across the deserted quad. And while I was somewhat tired from previous trips carting boxed-up belongings to and fro, I felt something other than mere fatigue silently approach me from the darkening woods lining my path. If you’ve ever blacked out from standing up too fast, felt your stomach drop whilst peering over a momentous ledge, or sensed a tingle run through your limbs before executing an exciting but also terrifying feat, you know about the sensation. You’ve felt everything around you slow down. You’ve become hyper-aware of your own processing of whatever’s confronting you, and your mind has raced with abnormal clarity to exhaust all available options towards some eureka-like conclusion by brute-force if necessary.
And that’s when something within me finally broke.
I felt dazed and moved to tears and short of breath and stymied and somehow also somewhere else from everywhere I had ever been before. I muffled myself as much as possible until I could duck behind the closed doors of my destination and began to sob uncontrollably. I felt caged and exposed all at once. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, looked vaguely unrecognizable, and began to wonder whether professional counseling or psychopharmacological intervention were in order. I was sick of carrying the tension of trying to figure out something that should have (obviously) been so easy to resolve as a few thousand dollars owed by a young, able-bodied, single man with half a brain in his head. And that tension had finally shattered something I carried deep inside me.
I not only believed in a God commanding the floodgates of heaven but had so frequently witnessed this God provide for people in completely mundane and thoroughly surprising ways by turns that I had chosen to devote my life to guiding others to worship and be liberated and renewed and flourished through a loving relationship with that God. I had traveled the world, helped save people’s lives, witnessed vistas of penetrating beauty, loved, lost, and lived more at twenty-something than many do by the time they depart this mortal coil. I was supposed to be made of stronger stuff than this. But no matter what I knew, said, or did, I could not escape the fact that around twenty-something-thousand dollars of debt was all it took for me to completely flip out.
How embarrassingly weak and conflicted and immature it seemed I truly was.
Over the subsequent years, I also learned to give myself a break rather than merely suffer from one. I gradually realized that I had encountered something back then that has only lately occurred for a lot of people, and this is the interior experience of the catastrophe of a financial worldview of insidious nature, a background subroutine of total maleficence propagated as conventional wisdom. Despite achieving an undergraduate degree with highest honors in four different, bankable foci, despite gaining admission to the most selective seminary in America, I had never taken a single, comprehensive course in personal finance–nor was I required to do so at any stage of my formal education. The closest I came to something like that was a merit badge I earned along the path to become an Eagle Scout as a teenager–thank God for the BSA at least. But I had never encountered anything strong enough to course-correct for this pervasive coadunation of fiscal claptrap coupled with a progressively greater dependence on a resulting web of economic misbelief ensnaring the vast majority of people I know today.
I was a smart, hard worker in general, but that no more guarantees financial health than being born rich–a lack of soundly applied fiscal principle can easily decimate both and, in fact, does just that with cold regularity every single day. Most unfortunately, my abysmal level of financial literacy at that time is the norm for America. Unless you are one of the lucky few, you probably received a terrible financial upbringing, too. It doesn’t matter if your parents were responsible, generous, and involved with your life (like mine) or if you had to figure everything out completely on your own, either. To depart from personal narrative for the sake of statistically broader applicability, consider that:
- Just 25% of American adults claim that they are satisfied with their “personal financial condition.” Moreover, we are used to living this way; we are comfortable with being for the most part oblivious about how to improve our financial condition even though we don’t like where we are.
- About 66% of American high school students participating in a country-wide survey by The National Council on Economic Education flunked a basic economic literacy test, with 49% of adults surveyed failing similarly.
- Lacking the ability to work our way towards managing greater wealth, we try to live as if we already possessed all the benefits of this process through credit. Total American consumer debt topped the $2.43 trillion mark in May 2011, i.e. roughly 16% of our gross domestic product. This correlates with the 2010 figures for the United States’ public debt-to-GDP ratio of 102% compared to healthier economies like Germany’s at 78.8% or Norway’s at 48.9% or New Zealand’s at 30.3%. Translation: We are taking on progressively greater levels of private debt, and we are becoming statistically less likely to pay back the debt our government is incurring. Our inability to find a solution for the latter issue is precisely why Standard & Poor downgraded the United States’s credit rating for the first time in history in August 2011.
- Moreover, Americans now hold roughly $772 billion in credit card debt alone, and we typically underestimate our credit card debt by around 33% of the actual figure that we owe. That’s how accustomed we have become to poor financial principle coupled with living on credit.
- Despite the above, children’s spending has roughly doubled every ten years for the past three decades, and it tripled in the 1990’s. Paired with this trend, more than 1 in 5 youth ages 12 to 19 have their own credit cards or have access to their parents’ according to The Jumpstart Coalition’s research on the matter. Since we are becoming less fiscally adroit with every generation, this means that we are literally setting up our children for personal financial disaster, bit by bit and day by day with every ounce of negligence and penny hocked on credit.
- And out of control credit card abuse is just one indicator of the problem. In the month of December 2011 alone, total consumer credit grew by $19.31 billion, more than twice the $7.7 billion increase expected by Reuters analysts to yield the single largest jump in ten years for non-revolving credit, which covers categories of debt like auto and student loans.
- Despite the fact that almost all of us know we’re supposed to cultivate sound habits of saving, our actual rate of savings has steadily declined for over thirty years regardless of the state of the overall economy–that is the power of a weak command of building and managing wealth. In fact, our aggregate rate of savings recently dropped all the way to 0%–as a group, Americans saved nothing whatsoever–from a high of nearly 12% of our income in previous generations.
- Roughly 60% of Americans don’t even know much they need to save for retirement according to a national survey on Financial Capability in the United States for 2009. Even if all of us leaped back on the wagon of prudent practices of saving, we wouldn’t even know how much to save to cover our basic necessities in our old age.
- A large quantity of Americans do not substantially invest as part of a strategy to build wealth, and only 5% of those who do invest feel that they “know everything” they need in order to make good financial decisions.
- Ironically, our common sense beliefs about what constitutes “safe” and “risky” places to store or invest money arguably run exactly the opposite of what is actually the case. We think that saving a bunch of currency is the safest way to go in the long run, but inflation annihilates this. In contrast, we think that stocks are extremely risk despite the fact that the market overall has grown by 10% on average each year even in the case of a down economy while the average rate of inflation–i.e. a measure of the effective decrease in purchasing power for hard currency–has run about 3.43% over the past 100 years. To put this in perspective, it now takes $700 to purchase what $100 would have bought in 1965; in contrast, $100 properly invested in the S&P 500 index starting in 1965 would have grown in value to $6072 today–that’s a loss of more than 85% for currency and a gain of over 6000% for stocks.
If we live in a material world, why on earth are we so terrible at managing our finances? The experts are divided on this one, even when we limit the question to savings, but one thing is for certain: This is a terrible excuse for a way to live. Most of us are not totally disinterested in money or how it works–even those of us aspiring to an ascetic or a bohemian ideal still use money. But many of us have been trained to regard the ability to build wealth as being ancillary if not distracting or overtly poisonous to a life well lived. Everybody knows that people who focus their attention on money inevitably become consumed by it, right? Think about how many books or movies or plays or songs you’ve encountered with precisely that script.
The problem is not that we are unduly sheltered from pointed teaching about money. To return to my own story for a moment, I shared more conversations with respected teachers about personal finance than I could remember before my involuntary, gut wrenching paradigm shift as a grad student. I had read multiple articles and books recommended to me from trustworthy sources, and I figured myself for a pretty responsible, capable guy. I had already learned that managing money effectively was important–not just for my personal level of comfort but because of the broader, ethical implications for those impacted by my level of financial strength. This is probably one reason why pastors like Greg Laurie emphasize that there are over twice as many Bible verses on the topic of finances as there are for topics like “prayer” and “faith” combined. Financial aptitude is spiritually important; there is something related to universal justice and personal priorities when it comes to what each of us do with our money. In fact, there are roughly 800 passages of scripture dealing with money alone, and about half of Jesus’s parables utilize money as a teaching illustration. But here’s the problem with all this.
A bunch of conversations, articles, books, and Bible verses that are not comprehensively organized by a sound command of the basic principles of financial health for our time and place don’t amount to a pile of beans. In fact, they can inoculate us against the realization that we still don’t have a clue about what to actually do when it comes to effectively building and managing wealth. Too many of us act like a bunch of weekend warriors who know every possible basketball or baseball statistic, who religiously watch our favorite teams on television week after week, and who study the history of our sports with dutiful attention but never actually get off the couch and learn how to play the game in real life.
The way most of us are taught about wealth lacks this basic command of the discipline of personal finance. Instead, we get a bunch of fragmented pieces of data flung at us while lacking an effective, discriminating toolkit to process that data usefully, e.g. Get good credit (somehow)! Buy a house! Invest in gold! No wait, don’t buy a house! Save your money by getting a credit card with rewards points! No wait, credit cards are the devil! Want to grow rich ethically but you’re born poor? Your odds are about as good as playing the lottery–oh well! Invest in a Roth IRA with actively managed mutual funds contributing to a diversified portfolio! No wait, dump everything into bonds in a volatile economy! No wait, screw all that, work 80 hours a week, and save like crazy! Go to the best, private college in which you can gain admittance–everybody pays off student loans for thirty years! No wait, neither Bill Gates nor Mark Zuckerberg finished college; so, stay away from higher education if you really want to be rich! Oh yeah, and remember to give to charity every once in a while! And so forth…
So here are the two big ideas of this post:
- Knowing how to properly build and manage wealth is an absolute necessity for a life well lived, and we need to gain command and control now. Even if you wind up eschewing the acquisition of capital assets (like property), current assets (like cash), or investments (like stocks) for some reason, you must know what you’re getting in exchange for this trade-off and it must be worth it for the way of life you’ve chosen. Explicitly chosen or de facto ignorance of personal finance is just perpetuated foolishness layered atop a festering pile of crappy social convention that is destroying people’s lives, wreaking havoc on our families, and damaging society. As a comparison, I can chose to neglect studying literature comprehension and composition, chose to disregard developing a facility for philosophical though, and chose to pass on gaining those social graces commonly called “people skills” or “emotional intelligence.” But all of these turn out to be incredibly, demonstrably valuable for my time and place–not just for me but for the people with whom I associate, those who depend on me on a day to day basis, my friends, my work associates, my family, my community at large, and my world. So, I had better know that whatever I’m getting in exchange for not burning the time and energy it takes to acquire those skills is really worth it. The same thing applies to knowing how to properly build and manage wealth.
- Everybody can learn how to properly build and manage wealth better, and it is far easier to do than most people think. Why? Because it is so completely counter-cultural that hardly anybody has tried to do so who is not already one of those lucky ones raised with a comprehensive, working knowledge of personal finance. Notice that I am not saying that it is easy to become phenomenally wealthy; I am just saying that it is an achievable and worthwhile goal to gain the skills necessary to build and manage wealth better. You may be terrible at mathematics; that doesn’t matter. You may be a 100% type-B creative, artsy individual; you can and should still learn how to properly manage and build wealth more soundly–in fact, your livelihood and creative output as an artsy individual depends on it. You may conclude that you’re pretty bad at some part of the process of managing your finances; you must know why and to whom you can safely delegate that part of your overall responsibility. You may have been dealt an incredibly tough, impoverished hand in life; you should and can learn how to properly build and manage wealth still. As professors Thomas Stanley and William Danko found in their research leading to the text, The Millionaire Next Door, roughly 80% of American millionaires are “first generation affluent,” meaning that they built and managed their wealth in an utterly mundane and often broadly achievable ways, i.e. from the ground up rather than simply inheriting it in one shot of ultra-fortuitous, windfall privilege.
The way I began this post might suggest that I regret my time as a graduate student at Princeton, that I still feel embarrassed over how irrationally I responded to the simple act of taking out a student loan and moving away from my dormitory for a spell. But nothing could be further from the truth. When I look back on the day the haphazard edifice of my sorry excuse for economic competence crumbled to oblivion amidst my confused blubbering, I thank God that the lesson came across so intensely because it finally motivated me to change–no matter what.
Most of us never get this chance. Most of us become so so deeply committed to financially insolvent patterns of life that it is too late to substantially alter our situation for the better once our eyes are finally opened to the ramifications of our ignorance as we grow old and progressively less able to fly by the seat of our threadbare pants. We are vaguely uncomfortable for years on end but never so pointedly so that we do anything to really rethink and rebuild this broken way of life. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
When it comes to your financial health, depart from the herd now. Gain command and control now–not tomorrow, not someday when you’ve “grown up,” not in a couple years when you have a better job or more time to think about this stuff. Gain control and command of your own ability to better manage and build wealth starting today and every day afterwards. Dentists are fond of saying that we only need to brush the teeth we want to keep. Something that basic is true of personal finance. The cost of denial inevitably extracts its revenge, and the benefits are manifold and life enriching. So take action and be courageous.
In subsequent posts in this series, I’ll try to address some of the keys to bridging that gap from the status quo of poor fiscal practice to a future of financial health. But if you’re already feeling pretty motivated to get the ball rolling, here are some decent ways to do so:
- First, get your head in the game–apply as much diligence to gaining command and control of your ability to build and manage wealth as you would to any other important, life-impacting skill. Take everybody’s word with a grain of salt, and leverage your own learning style. If you don’t handle large blocks of new information well, then break the following down into tiny bits that you purposefully and systematically process day by day. If you hate reading, find solid resources you can listen to or watch online or talk about with others who are similarly inclined. Keep checking out the stuff below, and keep on rocking in the free world.
- In the event that the basics like budgeting or getting out of unhealthy debt are challenging for you, consider a text like Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover to present some options. If you need more help than a book, find a Financial Peace University class in your area. If you live in Chicago, you can even participate in one that some folks from my own church are going to host in April. Just email me for details, and I’ll be happy to help get you connected. If you don’t like Dave Ramsey’s approach, there are plenty of other options out there, like the Good $ense curriculum developed by the Willow Creek Association, as well as several others.
- If you’ve passed beyond dire straits and are ready to really build some wealth, a couple good volumes on this subject are the aforementioned The Millionaire Next Door and one of my personal favorites, The Millionaire Teacher, by Andrew Hallam–a regular guy who built a multi-million dollar portfolio before he turned 40 on a teacher’s salary. Again, there is no such thing as an “always applies in all circumstances,” no-brainer way to go when it comes to building wealth, but those two books present good food for thought if you want to begin to develop a lay of the land regardless of your present level of employment.
- Concerned about the ethical questions involved because of your religious upbringing (or lack thereof)? Check out Randy Alcorn’s Money, Possessions, and Eternity for an extensive essay attempting to address these topics from a biblically informed perspective. I’ve also heard good things about Craig Blomberg’s Neither Poverty nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions, but I have yet to read it and cannot personally vouch for it on that basis.
- Just want a couple good article online with immediate pay-off? Read this short post and you’ll know more about the difference between assets, liabilites, and equity than the vast majority of Americans today. Read this article from Generation X finance for the most basic, one-shot explanation of how to build wealth that I’ve encountered so far. If you’re totally up a creek without a paddle, Dave Ramsey’s Seven Baby Steps to Financial Peace summarize a substantial portion of the core teachings of his aforementioned book and class curriculum.
- Hate reading a lot of stuff but still want to learn? Try the Khan Academy’s selection on core finance and, for the high fliers out there, valuations and investing. There are a ton of open courses on these and similar topics from institutions like Berkeley and MIT, but if you’re not sufficiently motivated to Google search them, then you probably won’t click through any links I provide, either. (Okay, here’s an article with a nice, top 10 list.) Another way to go would be to check out a few of the Internet forums that have developed to promote discussion on personal finance. My favorite at the moment in this regard is /r/personalfinance, but your mileage may vary.
The American author and speaker, Jim Rohn, once said, “We must all suffer from one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The difference is discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.” In conclusion, I hope and pray that you’ll embrace the discomfort it takes to gain command and control of your ability to effectively build and manage wealth right now for your sake, for those whom you love, and for the truer dream you can live that beats the tar out of the American lie too many of us have swallowed–hook, line, and sinker. The best is yet to come…
Note: I have dedicated this post to a few of the people who helped me move towards a more mature understanding of personal financial competence than just about anybody else of late. So, here’s a big thank you to my uncle, Bruce Heverly, to my friend, Dan “realtor for life” Spransy, and to the good people of /r/personalfinance and its associated subreddit community. May God bless you to be a blessing in the days ahead more than ever before.
I usually update this blog around once a week, but I’ve been preoccupied with some exciting new ministry efforts coupled with increased preaching duties orbiting Thanksgiving over the past month or so. Incidentally, this year’s holiday reminded me yet again of the vast quantity of things for which I have to be grateful, especially my family, whose affection I do not remotely deserve. Not only did my sister take a break from her recording project in Nashville to visit with everyone else, not only did my mother single-handedly prepare the most scrumptious meal I’ve tasted all year, not only did my dad randomly install a new hard drive on my computer twice the size of my old one, they did all this purely because they love me without any pressure to reciprocate. And even though I did express my love back to them (and they probably figured that I would), the whole scene reminded me once again of how amazing freely given love is and how thankfulness prepares a place for its flourishing.
I may write more about the subject of gratitude in the near future, but the topic of this post is a bit different. In the middle of all those cool ministry pursuits and family loving this past month, I also got the chance to coach several folks slogging through some extremely frustrating struggles in their lives–job prospects gone south, precious relationships decaying beyond ostensible repair, and a lot of confusion about how to even begin to sensibly chart a course for the future. I cannot share these people’s stories here in detail without breaching confidentiality, but the experience reinforced my conviction about the main point I want to share here, a lesson I learned the hard way over the past year about what lies at heart of much of our failure to achieve the sorts of things we really want for the endeavors that matter to us the most.
Now, if you are a total slacker reading this because you think it will validate your laziness, this post will disappoint you. On the other hand, if you are someone who has ever felt frustrated when your erstwhile, conscientious efforts have gone unrewarded–someone who has put their nose to the grindstone time and again with little to show for it save a face full of sparks–this article is for you. And if you are frequently tempted to slack off because working hard all the time with mediocre results exhausts you, the following could be one of the most important things you read all week. Sectional links for ease of navigation, just like last time:
§ 1. The threshold of sufficient reward – In my last post in this series, I tried to illustrate how a fine line separates the utterly depressing from the categorically awesome, and I argued that we should relentlessly pursue the latter as if our lives depended on it (because they actually do). The focus of this article is intimately connected with the actualization of that principle on a pragmatic level. If we don’t know what constitutes a categorically awesome object of pursuit, we will miss valuable opportunities time and again–often winding up, well, utterly depressed. But anybody who has ever successfully identified such a truly worthwhile endeavor knows that victory in that skirmish is only one part of the much greater battle. There’s the challenge of the actual pursuit itself, which is is where most of us really struggle. And while a camel can outlast a horse in the desert, the former still needs water to keep going at some point. Similarly, even the most tenacious and discerning among us need concrete, positive reinforcement that the things and people and projects to which we have committed our time and effort really are worth the cost of investment, even when we are pretty sure that this is the case in theory.
Garnering such positive reinforcement is easy by definition when the course of action we select is immediately, satisfyingly rewarding. But not much of life is like that. Indeed, a number of the most important, good decisions we make do not yield immediately satisfying results. And complications can arise in the middle of a given endeavor just as much as they may at the beginning. How many promising opportunities have you watched people decline because risking experimentation seemed to cost too much to them? We will stick with a given state of affairs, even one where we are dissatisfied and uncomfortable, if the alternatives do not seem like they will yield a substantially better outcome balancing out the potential cost. And even if we do embark on some experiment because the probable results seem worthwhile enough to warrant the risk, we will not remain robustly committed to the matter for very long if our efforts become too disconnected from a palpably experienced reward.
It is normal not to try something novel unless it promises a better outcome than the way we have already chosen. It is difficult to delay gratification when a newly selected path forward does not deliver on its promises as swiftly as we hope. But it is pitiful when we repeatedly do the same, inadvisable things over and over again that yield the same, lousy results–especially when we don’t have a clue about how to achieve anything better. Nevertheless, we make these sorts of decisions often, and we do so in a multitude of extremely costly ways.
For example, the United States Department of Justice conducted a study across fifteen different states finding that 67.5% of prisoners released after being convicted of felonies were rearrested within three years. That is not just an indictment of our criminal justice system’s inability to achieve restoration, as I’ve previously alluded in my analysis of Troy Davis’s plight. That ridiculously high rate of recidivism is also a painfully accurate illustration of humanity’s difficulty breaking cycles of poor behavior with obviously severe ramifications. In fact, the 2003 Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics reports that the rate of repeat felony climbed as high as 75% and above for those convicted of stealing personal property or possessing / selling stolen goods, with nearly 80% rate of repeat offense for those arrested for auto theft. Evidently, we’ll take a flying leap after carrots that we already know are forbidden and demonstrably out of reach provided they look juicy enough.
You might chalk that sort of behavior up to a symptom of delinquency, but law abiding citizens do the same sorts of things in their relationships, their jobs, and in setting the courses for their respective futures. We far too often wind up in the same sorts of vacuous friendships and romances, pouring our hearts into what is not built to last or else cutting our loses and screwing whomever we can to get a mere taste of what we really want despite the lack of substance. Similarly, many of us habitually sabotage our own careers. If we stay employed, we tend to do so in jobs that we do not enjoy working for people who do not understand us. A 2004 study conducted by Harris Interactive, Inc. found that roughly 55% of employees across America are unsatisfied with their jobs, and they are working for bosses who think that twice as many of them are “extremely satisfied” with their situation than is actually the case according to a 2009 study conducted by salary.com.
Instead of taking an honest look at why we keep winding up in these situations, we tend to blame others. And if we do accept responsibility for our circumstances, most of us apparently do not know how to qualitatively change matters in the final analysis. Why?
§ 2. The principle formally expressed – For those of us who are not chronic slackers, the source of this problem is not an obvious character flaw or a socially reinforced vice. In fact, many of us suffer from a virtue gone awry, and that is the pervasive misbelief that hard work is enough.
Many of us are convinced despite strong evidence to the contrary that if we just keep plugging away at this lackluster gig or that disappointing relationship, things will get better by sheer force of effort. And so we do just that, we keep committing our time and energy until we accrue a sufficiently large quantity of poor results such that the thing occupying our attention falls apart of its own accord or frustrates us to the point that we bail to a different field of endeavor. Where we usually repeat the same, ineffective behavior predicated on the truism that working and working and working will get us what is good all by itself.
And those of us who luck out, who achieve a better state of affairs despite living according to this mistaken approach gild that freaking carrot for the rest of us such that we keep trying in vain. In contrast, here is the tough but ultimately liberating truth I learned this year:
33rd Birthday Lesson No.2 – Working hard is not enough. In the long run, you will only be substantially rewarded for bringing something of clearly discernible value to a given state of affairs and not for your effort alone.
§ 3. Why we constantly miss this lesson – If this principle sounds counter-intuitive, let it sink in for just moment. Most of the time, you will not get what you want simply by working hard. Now, the capacity to work hard is itself immensely important. And since it is difficult to build the endurance necessary to work hard along with the the diligence to apply ourselves time and again, a lot of us are distracted from the truth that fortifying these character traits in no way guarantees success all by itself.
Thus, we tend to attribute an inability to achieve a certain goal to an insufficient quantity of effort, or else we conclude that the desired outcome just was not in the cards for us this time around. Unfortunately, many of us layer these interpretations of our lives with a sort of creeping, statistical fallacy, one where we believe that continuing to work hard somehow makes us progressively more worthy to encounter success. And while this may be true in one sense, we take things a step further to presume that we not only deserve success in our endeavors but that we will actually be rewarded with it by some external guarantor–the universe, a boss, God, our colleagues or clientele–some day in the future.
As a result, we possess a dangerously crude understanding of what our work is in the first place. Far wiser minds than mine have reflected on this matter for centuries, but I am going to define work here as “any effort or activity directed toward the production or accomplishment of something.” Now, that’s a pretty general definition, but it immediately illustrates why efficiency is so great: Achieving more productivity for less effort is the bottom line of what everybody means when they say it is better to work smarter than harder.
Framed this way, work is a somewhat different concept than employment, which I could define as “the self-determined state of exchanging work for some form of compensation.” That compound word “self-determined” helps us draw a line between employment and slavery, in that people who are enslaved may very well be compensated for their labor, but they have this arrangement thrust upon them rather than enjoying the opportunity to chose or reject it with some measure of autonomy.
Our distinction between work and employment is helpful because it emphasizes that third term, compensation, which provides a means for us to grasp what we so often miss when it comes to working hard. Namely, we are compensated over the long run for the productivity of our work and not for the effort required to yield this productivity. Furthermore, there is a perspectival quality to compensation for productivity; in other words, we are not compensated for our actual productivity but for the value that others ascribe to the things or the ideas or whatever it is we happen to produce for which they are willing to exchange some other thing of value.
So, there are actually three different methods to optimize the rewards for one’s labor: 1) find ways to produce things of greater value, i.e. work more innovatively or with greater skill, 2) squeeze more productivity out of the same quantity of work, i.e. work more efficiently, or 3) find ways to amplify the perception of the value of one’s productivity for the sake of those with whom we are trying to exchange the product of our work for something else of value.
The above might seem ridiculously technical, but this is what makes it possible for a twenty-four year old football player or a seventeen year old pop star to achieve literally hundreds upon thousands of times the compensation for their work when compared to a veritable army of school teachers, social workers, and the like. The world’s working poor and scores of starving artists may curse a system that impoverishes thousands of us while awarding Justin Beiber $53 million in a single year for stuff like “Baby” and “Eenie Meenie,” but there is actually a really good reason for this. Our society as a whole simply attributes greater value to the products of Justin Beiber’s work, and so we will collectively exchange more stuff of value for it.
Notice also that I am using the term, “compensation,” pretty generally here, too. When Tim Tebow inscribed “John 3:16” on his eye black for the 2009 BCS national football championship game as a student at the University of Florida, he received no direct, financial compensation for his labor; however, his activity yielded a disproportionately greater social effect than would have been the case if hundreds of pastors or lawyers or dishwashers had done something similar in their lines of work. Tebow’s singular action rocketed Google searches for “John 3:16” above every other term the night of that game, prompted multiple forms of commentary across traditional media outlets as well as the blogosphere, and landed Tebow numerous speaking engagements where he has been invited to discuss his perspective and share his message about God’s love, as this fan-made, April 2010 clip from the Don Meyer Evening of Excellence at Lipscomb University illustrates.
Listen, social workers and school teachers most assuredly perform a more categorically important function for our society in general than sports stars and pop idols; their work is not only more taxing, it more substantially impacts more people’s lives for the better. Nevertheless, our society ascribes a disproportionately greater value to the productivity of a teenage heartthrob or an NFL-bound Heisman trophy winner than the productivity of the other sorts of people I mentioned. And as frustrating as that may be for many of us, there is a logic behind this seeming irrationality.
But we can do better than simply suffer though this situation, like so many heartbroken hipsters overwhelmed by legions of “beliebers” (as Justin’s fans like to call themselves for some crazy reason). We can use use these facts to jolt ourselves beyond the web of misbelief threatening to hold our futures captive the minute we deal with the matter squarely. Instead of getting frustrated when our efforts fail to pan out in the ways we hope, we should ask three absolutely critical questions and respond accordingly:
- Are my efforts actually producing anything of value in this situation, or am I basically killing time and energy?
- Am I getting hung up about squeezing more effort out of myself, or are there ways that I can succeed in extracting more productivity from my labor–either by working more efficiently or else by gaining or tapping into more skill so that the things I produce are more valuable?
- Is there some person or entity who needs to recognize the value of the things I am producing in order for me to obtain the sort of compensation for which I am hoping in exchange for my work? If people do not seem to care about all the great stuff I produce, how I can I go about raising the perception of its value so they take notice?
Unfortunately, most of us do not pose these sorts of questions to ourselves; perhaps we have difficulty dealing with the weight of freedom and responsibility they remind us we possess. If we take those three questions seriously, then we almost never have anybody to blame for a state of affairs that displeases us over the long haul but ourselves. We cannot blame poor parenting, misunderstanding teachers, cheapskate bosses, no-good lovers, loser friends, or bad hands dealt by life for absolutely ruining everything. Accidents do happen and fortunes are found. Some people suffer low blows, and others reap windfalls. Yet, with rare exception, none of those more negative outcomes can completely inhibit us from increasing our ability to produce things, ideas, or states of affairs of value over time as well as achieve greater recognition for the value of our productivity day by day. Again, an unanticipated stroke of luck can actually numb us to learning these critical lessons, which is probably one reason why so many people who win the lottery actually wind up in worse financial shape in the long run.
Additionally, many of us who aren’t winning the lottery cope with a sense of inadequate compensation for our labor by adjusting our expectations rather than our activity, by seeking refuge from the weight of our freedom and responsibility in pseudo gratitude predicated on the possibility that things could be even worse. In other words, we are often not truly thankful for the blessings we receive; instead, we use fear of an unrealized, potentially more negative future that could befall us to resist the impulse to take a shot at changing our situation for the better in tough but trustworthy ways.
It is easier to reconcile oneself to disappointment than it is to go through the hassle of altering such a fundamental part of one’s worldview, something affecting essentially any sort of relationship we might share with others, from romantic partners to friends to business associates. Philosophically, these are some of the reasons why we tend to miss the lesson that we will only be substantially rewarded for bringing something of clearly discernible value to a given state of affairs and not for sheer force of effort alone.
§ 4. The Divine Connection – I have consciously tried to develop this essay using general terms, without limiting discussion of things like work, employment, compensation, value, reward, efficiency, freedom, and responsibility to a strictly financial context because I am convinced of its broad applicability. In fact, the experience that really drove this point home for me this year personally had virtually no financial component to it whatsoever.
Back in March of 2010, the father of my senior ministerial colleague, the Rev. Dr. Bill Shereos, passed away. I had worked beside Bill for about two years serving the people of First Free Church and the greater Chicago area, and I watched him overcome immense obstacles during this time. But the death of Bill’s father hit him hard, and as a result, I offered to preach the sermon on a particular Sunday to give him more time to mourn with his family without having to be concerned about the affairs of the church quite so much.
There was just one catch: Bill had already developed a topic for this particular sermon that linked with several other messages scheduled to precede and follow it on adjacent Sundays that month. Moreover, two different volunteer teams at First Free had put in a lot of effort to shape the rest of the parts of the worship service around the topic Bill selected, including a bunch of songs that had been carefully rehearsed and other creative elements on the agenda. Finally, since all this happened rather unexpectedly, it meant that I had relatively little time to whip together a solid sermon on a topic that I could not really change all that much. And since I was doing all this to try to give Bill a bit of a break, I obviously could not ask him for help without undercutting the very way I was trying be helpful myself!
So, I totally altered my usually approach for developing a sermon. Instead of reading a bunch of scriptural texts on the topic, cross-referencing various scholarly essays and commentaries, looking for some key illustration or metaphor to unpack, and collecting a handful of application points, I began by simply listening in earnest to the passage of scripture Bill had chosen weeks in advance. During my other duties leading up to my delivery of this sermon, I had an audio clip of the context for that passage running on my computer constantly, which helped me lock on to the part of the text that harmonized strongest with my own heart as well as the topic with which I had to work. I even listened to this clip right before I went to sleep and when I woke up! I crafted my sermon with a heavy bias in its delivery towards simplicity rather than sheer volume of material to cover, and I listened to sermons other solid preachers had developed on the specific parts of my message where I kept getting hung up in preparation.
Now, I do not suggest this approach for every pastor out there, and I do not utilize it myself much today. But when the time came to preach that sermon, it turned out to be one of the best I ever had the honor of delivering at First Free Church. It was uncomplicated, both simple and rich; it was poignant, both hard-hitting and comforting. That sermon was firmly rooted in the Biblical text, addressed the topic I had been given, but was also spoken forth in my own voice. It was comprised primarily of “original thought,” but it effectively drew from the wisdom of pastors and theologians many years beyond my level of experience and homiletic acumen. I readily admit that God may just have decided to cut me a break given the circumstances and plopped a great sermon in my lap, but the bottom line was that I wound up producing something of categorically greater value and with substantially less effort (due to the fact that I simply had little time to devote to preparation) than was usually the case for my preaching up to that point in time.
Now, this sermon may not seem like that big of a deal to you, but it sure was for me. While I do not preach many sermons under the circumstances I encountered back in March, I have also been able to prepare and deliver several other messages even more effectively ever since. Better yet, this experience caused me to reflect on all the other ways I may have been burning away my efforts fruitlessly because I had become numb to the perception of a surplus of resource and a certain way I basically figured I had to work hard–factors that made it easy for me to forget my opportunity to be more efficient and more creative in preparation.
Best of all, I have found that the modus operandi of this approach is absolutely transferable. The people I have coached and counseled since then, men and women facing immensely more difficult circumstances than what I related above, have been able to powerfully apply this same lesson to difficulties with romantic relationships, stalled job enterprises, acquiring adequate financial aid in college, plotting out a course for their lives, embarking on a new career path, and multiple other circumstances fraught with danger and opportunity. The key in all those real life examples for growth and forward movement was identifying how to increase the clearly discernible value each individual brought to a given state of affairs, not just how to redouble their efforts, snooker some other party, or plead for mere handouts.
To radicalize while also generalizing this point, notice that Christ Jesus himself emphasizes a similar approach in the gospel according to Matthew–my emphasis added:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21 NIV)
Notice that Jesus does not say that accruing material wealth is flatly worthless or that the pursuit of riches is categorically wrong but that we should direct our efforts towards that which is of even greater value still, towards “treasures in heaven.” He makes a similar point earlier in the chapter when it comes to reframing people’s understanding of even more spiritual or altruistic pursuits when he teaches his followers how they should pray and give charitable donations. In this case, Jesus emphasized that these things should be done in secret such that they are acceptable to the only Person for whom it really matters, God our Father; he was directing them to not just focus on greater quantities of prayer or more voluminous donations but on a way of prayer and giving that really count towards what is lasting by virtue of whose opinion really matters (i.e. not our friends or colleagues who might notice our prayers or see us give). Again, my emphasis added:
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you…” (Matthew 6:1-4 NIV)
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6-7 NIV)
We all know that there are people who blow a lot of time and effort on pursuits for which they are highly rewarded in one sense, but not with things of truly, lasting value. (Yup, I’m thinking again of the Beibster here…) The only way I know to be certain that we select the sorts of relationships and jobs and courses of action that are truly valuable–to “hedge” for the limitations in our own power of discernment when it comes to assessing the worth of this or that thing–is to commit ourselves to a progressively deepening relationship with the One who created and knows all things best of all. And when we do that, we enjoy the added benefit not just of laying our hands to work that will yield products of actually greater value but also being able to draw the strength, the encouragement, the positive reinforcement we need in order to keep going due to the omnipotent power of the Almighty Living God who can not only guide but sustain us beyond our best wisdom and efforts alone could accomplish.
As Jesus says to his followers in John 15:16 shortly before sacrificing his life on the cross for our redemption, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit–fruit that will last.” And when Christ was about to ascend to heaven after he rose from the dead, he added, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Not only did Jesus promise his disciples that they would be guided towards work of true value, producing “fruit that will last,” he promised they would receive the strength they needed to accomplish this despite all the hardships they would face, receiving “power when the Holy Spirit comes on you” to complete their specific mission, to be Jesus’s “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Remember, these were regular people, just like you and me. And while you may not have had the opportunity to literally walk beside Jesus in the flesh like his disciples did at that time, God still offers you the chance to receive strength from his hand when you pursue the relationship with him that he so desires. As Psalm 29:11 puts it, “The LORD gives strength to his people; the LORD blesses his people with peace.” Or as the psalmist puts it even more personally in the previous chapter, in Psalm 28:7, “The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and I am helped. My heart leaps for joy and I will give thanks to him in song.”
Consequently, the single most effective way to ensure that we will acquire solid rewards for work exercised by truly adding value to a given state of affairs is by making our relationship with God the absolute, top priority. That’s it–that’s what enables us to both identify the pursuits that are most worth the risk of pursuing as well as receive a sufficient level of positive reinforcement we pragmatically need to keep on going when we face hardship and confusion. That’s why scripture repeatedly directs us to put our focus on God in general and Jesus in particular, the “author and perfector of our faith” (cf. Hebrews 12:1), because it is ultimately God “who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (cf. Philippians 2:13). That is why Romans 9:16 strongly emphasizes that, in the final analysis, even our spiritual salvation itself “depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.”
Merely working hard is not enough; we are meant to work alongside our loving and awesome Creator. That’s why Jesus implores us in Matthew 11:28ff to come to him when we are weary and burdened rather than just keep toiling away. That’s why he invites us to take his “yoke” upon him while learning from him, saying that we will therein find rest for our souls since his yoke is “easy” and his burden is “light,” i.e. because he is the one standing beside us doing the lifting and the pulling with the Holy Spirit working within us rather than our having to go it alone. There is no more liberating, rewarding way of life than this. And that’s why Matthew 6 ends on the following promise–my emphasis added:
“Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:31-34 NIV)
§ 5. Concluding, personal notes – This post is a bit more theoretically toned than the previous one, and that is because understanding the principle I’m trying to unpack requires some nuance when it comes to those aforementioned concepts of work, employment, compensation, value, reward, efficiency, freedom, and responsibility. Fortunately, it is not that difficult to begin to apply this lesson on the personal level. After asking those three, critical questions I mentioned back in section 3 to assess your state of affairs, after getting honest with yourself about the state of your relationship with God and doing everything possible to put that first in your life, the following responses are almost always effective at increasing the clearly discernible value of whatever you are attempting to bring to a given situation:
- Jettison whatever is wasting your time or holding you back – I’ll start with a more spiritual example here, just to underscore once more that we’re not just talking about finances alone. As Hebrews 12:1 puts it, we should “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” and “run with perseverance the race marked out for us. ” This post is not written for the merely lazy, but all of us could stand to take a cold, hard look in the mirror to assess the ways we may be choosing paths predicated on false entitlement, fear, inhibition, irresponsibility, frustration, selfishness, and other malignant ways of life. A similar thing is true for endeavors that are not necessarily bad in and of themselves but that function to distract you from more worthwhile pursuits, simply drain your energy, or ultimately waste your time.
- Embrace and find inspiration amidst limitation – Don’t just sit around waiting for windfalls before getting productive; find ways to bring clearly discernible value to what you are going to do right now. The New Living Translation’s treatment of Ecclesiastes 11:4 is instructive here, “Farmers who wait for perfect weather never plant. If they watch every cloud, they never harvest.” For an amazing, positive example of the utility of finding inspiration amidst limitation, check out this TED talk delivered by Amy Purdy, a double-amputee world champion snowboarder, who emphasizes that truly successful innovation is “not about breaking down borders but about pushing off of them.”
- Get honest and creative by doing the inner work – Even if you know that merely working harder is not enough, it can be difficult to gain any traction in working smarter. The first step to doing so is to try to get some perspective about whatever endeavor is under consideration, honestly asking, “Do I really believe this is worth the expenditure of my time and energy to begin with? Will it either deliver a product of lasting value that I care about directly or else help serve as a means to such an end?” In the short term, this may ride on whether a given endeavor is sufficiently enjoyable for us, but in the long term, this will require that what we are presently considering contributes to those things that are of greatest value, the things that matter the most of all. (Remember that point about laying up treasures in heaven from Matthew 6…)
- Close the gap between your view and others’ when it comes to perceived value – Presuming you’ve identified something of true value that you can increase in some way, the next step is to determine two, subsequent matters, 1) “Is this project valuable to the people whose opinion matters, or am I running a wild goose chase?” as well as 2) “How can I help those particular people whose opinion does matter in this case to be more likely to recognize the worth of my contribution?”
Until next time, may you learn to bring greater, discernible value to the jobs and relationships and endeavors to which you have been blessed with the opportunity to apply yourself. May God deliver you from fruitless toil and develop in you greater discernment, teaching you how to most effectively pursue the things that really matter while you put his kingdom and righteousness first in your life. May you overcome frustration, fear, selfishness, inhibition, and irresponsibility as you continue your journey through life, eschewing toilsome and fruitless pursuits for God’s ways by virtue of a growing, saving relationship with Jesus. Most of all, may your work be poured out from an overflowing heart, blessing those with whom you come in contact even while laying up for yourself “treasure in heaven, where moth and vermin do not destroy and thieves do not break in and steal.”
Last Wednesday, I celebrated my thirty-third birthday. Insofar as natal conviviality goes, the proceedings balanced partying so hard you regret it the next morning and throttling back so far you regret it just as much, albeit for different reasons. Between multiple projects at work plus a weekend booked for a men’s retreat lead by The Restoration Project at Lake Geneva with my ecclesiastical tribe, I didn’t have much time to plan a midweek celebration very well. Fortunately, my awesome sister, Adriel, was taking a week off of her usual, breakneck paced of conquering the world of rock and roll to lend a much appreciated hand, and this woman is anything but a stranger to throwing together an epic party with a moment’s notice and a beggar’s dime.
Between dinner with childhood friends at home and evenings out with college buddies, during relaxing runs along the lakefront and dancing classes downtown, I paused to reflect on the things I learned over the past year that I want to bring forward with me into the future. This series of posts touches on some of those lessons; so, I hope you enjoy the read because it cost me a whole year to come up with the content! This time, I’ll start with one of the most fundamental principles I learned, but before I do so, be forewarned: This series of posts is for thinking adults, and I’ll speak at a level of analysis and with a choice of verbiage appropriate to that audience. (Any kids reading this, you rock for perusing essays unforced, but ask your parent or guardian to transmit this one for you and filter the most relevant parts.) Alright, the first principle I want to share is the following; you can use the little sectional markings to leap around in the post:
§ 1. My context for the lesson – I have long lost count of all the ways I have been instructed by recovering the categorically awesome from the utterly depressing over the past year, but just in case this principle sounds a bit too ephemeral and detached, I’m going to unpack it by sharing some highly personal details apart from which this lesson might never have really stuck with me. The most difficult, painful thing I experienced in my thirty-second year was the loss of the single most important, long term, romantic relationship I have ever experienced–the only one that crumbled just short of marriage. And if I had not found a way to grab a hold of the importance of willing the categorically awesome from the utterly depressing, there’s no way my life would have turned out remotely as well as I have been blessed to live it at thirty-three.
Some guys treat getting married like a mere expectation of their social strata. Others regard it as an outmoded artifact of a bygone era thankfully eclipsed by late modernity’s prevalence of hooking up or indefinite cohabitation. Screw that. I want to get freaking married, man. I don’t want some passing phase jollies to stave off the lonesomeness of my immaturity; I want something more like 70+ years of marriage where we die holding hands. And I have been working my butt off for a long time towards becoming the most epic version of myself possible while seeking the person I will love with all my heart and to whom I will commit with all my soul and strength until death parts us. I really, really thought I had finally discovered that, but I was wrong. This person I lost filled me with more joy yet caused me more hurt, stretched me further yet supported me more greatly than anyone else I had ever known, much less seriously dated. I threw everything I had into our relationship with greater gusto than I have ever done with anything else I have attempted in my life for about two and a half years solid, but it just did not work out in the end.
After months filled with the spectrum of experience that a real, romantic relationship involves, everything finally ground down to a definitive halt. Despite multiple attempts to move forward together, I was ultimately left rejected and alone. And that loss hurt. Deeply. I was a lousy friend for a while, my performance at work suffered, and I came close to a full blown depression. Just about every form of music seemed fanciful, enervating, or contrived; in fact, the only tunes that seemed remotely credible to me were Johnny Cash’s repertoire after his wife died and old school, African American gospel. I fought the compulsion to give up across the board some days and lash out at everything and everyone other days. You get the picture; it wasn’t pretty. And yet, there was an unexpected upside to this state of affairs, and that was knowing beyond the shadow of a doubt that I had really put it all out there, that I had gone beyond the stereotypes of flippancy, lack of vulnerability, and pseudo-commitment to risk a real relationship over the long haul. The only way to climb back from losing something on that order of magnitude is one inch at a time, in frequent solitude and with savvy journeymen by turns. And the strength and groundedness that results from this process, even when the relationship does not work out, is something that only those who leap off the precipice of love and live to tell the tale ever know.
This might sound jejune, but moving through this loss in my life–swimming beyond a seeming ocean of sorrow and anger and the temptation for apathy and mere selfishness to a distant shore I never knew–helped make me more joyful, winsome, and bad ass than just about anything else I have ever done. (And, yes, I am using that term “bad ass” in the technical sense and not for mere shock value; words like “intrepid,” “precocious,” or “baleful” just don’t get the same point across.) It motivated me to get more disciplined with my physical health, and I am now stronger and more fit today than I have ever been before. It challenged me to plot out my career more diligently and make insightful, appropriately risky decisions that have probably saved me years worth of unnecessary wrangling and greatly benefited those with whom I have been blessed to partner. My relationship with God and other people deepened and blossomed in new, profound ways. I rediscovered my love of cycling, I developed a more refined expression of personal style, and I finally signed up for that swing dancing class I always wanted to take–discovering that I apparently rock at all three of these things. In the long run, my response to this loss of a relationship even kicked my romantic self in the pants to a new level of attraction. I never figured myself for a Casanova, but I have evidently been getting more confident and (dare I say?) hotter even as I have aged this past year, perhaps as a combined result of all those other points of growth.
§ 2. The principle formally expressed – But none of those things might have resulted from the loss of this relationship at all. Every single, positive point I just mentioned was just a hair’s breadth away from an even more likely failure–my slacking off even more physically, simply rowing the boat at work, flipping God the bird in protest for the seeming garbage he let me and someone I loved go through, and so forth. What’s the difference? What separated my experience over the past six months or so from what might have been and so often is the case for so many of us? One way to wrench the potential for meaningful greatness from suffocating mediocrity is through the will to believe the better and pursue the brighter horizon as if your life depends on it. Because it actually does. The life each one of us desires in our truest and most sound parts of ourselves will not magically happen one day while we’re walking through the park and then last for the rest of our lives without any effort on our parts. We have to commit ourselves to chasing that life down on the one hand and enticing it to us on the other, of rejecting passivity on the one hand yet finding peace and contentment and thankfulness on the other. That may sound so obvious as to be hardly worth expressing, yet time and again I have watched myself and others miss this lesson to quiet, catastrophic results. And that’s why I’m starting with it here as the first principle that I want to take with me into the future at the dawn of my thirty-third year.
I don’t think it’s by accident that I learned this lesson in a way that really stuck with me shortly after losing the person I loved so deeply and was so convinced I would marry. In fact, it is often hardship that draws the best out of us when we respond hopefully and courageously. The Roman lyric poet, Quintus Horatius Flaccus, put it this way, “Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents which in prosperous circumstances would have lain dormant.” Unbroken and unchallenged abundance tends to produce a dangerous sense of ease, a sense of having arrived completely that far more often leads to indolence and apathy than industry and altruism. Helen Keller, the first person born both deaf and blind to ever earn a baccalaureate degree, put it this way, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” And it is those character traits and experiences that provide each one of us with the foundation for a truly full and deeply satisfying life.
Going through adversity isn’t just good for us alone; it turns out that it’s good for the way we conduct ourselves with others, too. Dr. Anne Harrington, Harvard University’s Professor for the History of Science, found a strong correlation between coping with one’s own suffering and the sort of generosity that goes beyond merely empathizing with another’s difficulty to doing something substantially helpful in response. Her essay, “A Science of Compassion or a Compassionate Science?” in the volume, Visions of Compassion, defines this virtue as “a process of external and internal reorientation that softens our sense of individuality by bringing it into a felt relationship with the pain and needs of some other.” It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to figure out that the more one has dealt with one’s own sufferings, the better equipped one is to share relationships with others that includes their needs and pains, too. Maybe that’s one reason why so many of us do such a terrible job at sustaining real relationships; we’ve insulated ourselves so well from experiencing our own pain that we are at a total loss in knowing what to do with others’ hardship. Consequently, we quarantine one another until whoever is hurting gets help or buries their pain enough for us to return to our little playhouse, so-called life without being bothered by anybody with a proclivity for being a downer.
§ 3. The divine connection – I develop most of my writings from an explicitly Christian perspective for good reason. The key detail that my relationship with God through Jesus brings to bear on the topic of this post is that all of the above involves far more than merely pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, far more than “not sweating the small stuff” or forcing oneself to regard every glass as half-full in a sort of aggressive optimism that enables one to gradually transcend self limitation. In fact, there’s a real danger lurking in our success at wrenching the categorically awesome from the utterly depressing. On the one hand, we can become prideful and relate to others with an attitude of arrogant triumphalism, you know, because we rock so hard for having pulled off such a difficult stunt day after day in comparison to mere mortals. On the other hand, we can white-knuckle our way through all of life, surviving and even growing in strength but never being able to appreciate it or move beyond anxiety, you know, because everything depends on our continual, unbroken pursuit of greatness versus settling for an inanity that not-so-secretly nauseates or terrifies.
The only way I’ve been able to surmount this conundrum is by continually living in light of the fact that the process of dividing awesome from depressing is predicated on the being of an omnipotent, magnificent, transcendent God who is completely beyond myself, my aspirations, my failures, and my success. And this God has, for completely mysterious reasons, continually, relentlessly chosen to draw near to us fragile, mundane, limited creatures in such a way as to not just take us from bad to better but from dead to alive, to move us quite literally beyond anything we could ever hope to do or be into something 2 Corinthians 5:11 and following calls “new creation.” Isaiah 57:15 puts it this way:
For this is what the high and exalted One says—
he who lives forever, whose name is holy:
“I live in a high and holy place,
but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly
and to revive the heart of the contrite.”
It is this relationship with God–a relationship God initiates in total freedom even though we don’t deserve it–that serves as the ground for everything I am talking about in this post. This is not about merely willing a better you that could exist tomorrow if only you commit yourself to the process of bettering yourself today; this is about responding to the better you that, in some sense, already is right in the midst of very real difficulty and pain.
Of course, it’s not just random circumstance but often other people who are the source of our pain. Not everybody is a generally upstanding individual, like the girlfriend I lost, whose heart also hurt in letting me go. A lot of people treat others with purely intentional malice and appalling wickedness. And that’s probably one reason why we see so many places throughout the Bible where righteous people are really struggling not just with their own challenges but with the apparent ease of the wicked. In fact, the scriptures record serveral folks directly confronting God on this matter, such as the prophet Jeremiah in the twelfth chapter and first verse of the book that bears his name, saying, “You are always righteous, LORD, when I bring a case before you. Yet I would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?”
The Bible gives no pat answers for the process by which God executes justice; so, I’m going to focus on what results from presuming that God’s justice holds in this post and direct the skeptical reader towards more lengthy texts that dig into the question helpfully, like N.T. Wright’s Evil and the Justice of God. Continuing as described, it is God’s justice coupled with God’s love that enables us to relentlessly pursue the better without getting sidetracked by resentment or frustration, without thinking that it is all up to us, and without becoming arrogant when we succeed since we know that it is ultimately God drawing us to our destiny rather than us hunting that destiny down on our own and beating back those jerks who ruthlessly get in our way. There is peace to be found in the fact that God not only strengthens those who are downtrodden but will ultimately hold accountable those who are doing the treading down.
The basis of our pursuit of the categorically awesome is the being, activity, and plans of an all-powerful, loving, and also just God. And if that is the case, we do not proceed with this pursuit alone or haphazardly; in fact, we should do so reverently, in relationship with the God who enables us to act in the first place. All our efforts should take place in an overarching context of worship, not as a deluded flight from reality with all its messiness but as a seeing beyond, an embracing, a celebrating, and a living into an even more substantial way of being that connects our stories with the greatest story of all told by the same Author who is weaving it all together. That’s why there’s nothing melodramatic nor cliche going on in the admonition of Proverbs 23:17-18:
Do not let your heart envy sinners,
but always be zealous for the fear of the LORD.
There is surely a future hope for you,
and your hope will not be cut off.
And that’s why Paul writes in his letter to the church in Rome that we not only benefit from this hope on the basis of what we expect to occur in the future but on the basis of what we can experience right now, the growth and victory predicated on God choosing to be good to us in the midst of all the turmoil of life regardless of what we deserve. The good that God invites us to receive and share doesn’t merely anesthetize our wounds while leaving them festering, it doesn’t just psych up our souls but leave our frames limp and lifeless. No, the love that God desires to pour into us right now is every bit as substantial as God’s own omnipotent, bad-ass-beyond-all-bad-ass Self that brings peace and wholeness to ourselves and others right in the middle of circumstances marked by suffering and pain. Thus our hope is both beyond us but also within our grasp; it is something that effectively buoys us in life’s storms due to both its proximity and its substance apart from our subjective experience. It is trustworthy and not merely wishful thinking; as Paul puts it in Romans 5:1-5:
We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
As a result, I can find a greater strength than Sinatra recommends by merely doing things “my way.” I don’t channel my frustration from life’s disappointments in one arena to some poor, unsuspecting target in another arena. I tap into a more substantial reservoir of power than some allegedly mystical but ultimately impersonal spirit-force, and I don’t just sit around waiting for things to get better when there is a course of thought and action I can and should take now. The twelfth chapter of the book of Hebrews teaches us that it was “for the joy set before him” that Jesus endured both the sufferings and the shame of crucifixion on my behalf, and Nehemiah 8:10 teaches that is this same “joy of the Lord” that can serve as the source of my strength today.
§ 4. The principle applied – Lest this all this smack of grandiose religiosity, here’s just one everyday example of this principle at play in my life less than a week ago. It was the the morning of my birthday, Wednesday October 19th, and I found myself at work about two hours earlier than normal. Since I currently lead a weekly, Wednesday night gathering for men and women focused on learning more of who God is and what this means for our lives with a similar commitment on Tuesdays, I usually take Wednesday morning off so it’s not a straight, forty-eight hour block of labor week after week. But a colleague of mine was depending on my preparing some important data for a time-sensitive project that would impact our entire team’s labor; so, I got up early and started to work. Since I was planning to go out with my sister and our compadres later that evening after the group I lead had disbanded for the night, this also meant I had to shift my normal workout time to occur before lunch, before I would normally have started working at all.
I don’t like to do things that way. I like to either workout last–healthily burning frustration that has accumulated over the day–or else I like to breakup a longer workday by going running or doing some calisthenics just before the final, couple hours worth of work to regain the wherewithal to finish strong. Instead, I was pretty much stuck working out just after an initial block of work, meaning I had the majority of the workday still ahead. And since we’re talking about Chicago in October, it was cold, it was raining, and nearly gale force winds where beating the tar out of my lakefront running route. So, I put on few extra layers of clothes, cued up the most intense track I could find on my mp3 player, and ran for over half an hour with the wind and rain blowing at me right in the face. That’s how I started my birthday–getting up earlier than normal to work on somebody else’s project and then running in the rain. Still lacking a girlfriend!
And it absolutely rocked. I tell you, I felt the presence of God. I was grateful for everything in my life that had lead up to that point, even the lessons I had learned from being dumped half a year ago by the woman I had loved the most. I even stopped to take a photo with all the sand whipping around me on the beach to commemorate the occasion. That ridiculous sign I’m making with my hand is supposed to look like a wolf, because I felt like I was not just coping with my circumstances but diving headlong right into the fray to tear them apart and journey onward. When I returned from running, my lungs were burning, my legs hurt, and my clothes were soaked. I had sand in my hair and just about every exposed orifice. And I felt like I could tear apart the Rock of Gibraltar and fabricate the Arc de Triomphe with my bare hands. What could have been the most depressing birthday morning of my life turned out to be the only one I have ever committed to written memory so far, and that is because I refused to let all the negative pieces I mentioned above determine the tone of the day, because I was able to yank one more sliver of categorically awesome results from utterly depressing conditions. I felt more than alright; I felt like I could take on the world. And so I confronted the rest of the day with both resolve and joy, and when I finally made it through that bizarre combination of fruitfulness and frustration that so typically marks the afternoon and evening of the average, urban pastor, I was ready to party in celebration of a full life that I had been given and that I had also pursued, that I had found and yet had also helped to build.
§ 5. Conclusion and resources – It has taken me several hours to write this post. And taking stock of this lesson and applying it to my life is what helped me to do so rather than pitch everything to the wind and watch television. It’s the thing that motivated me to throw out the Victoria’s Secret catalog I received in the mail today rather than ogle its contents or take a break from writing to plow through some porn online for a couple hours. This lesson is what I applied this afternoon when I worked out, and it’s the same lesson I will apply later this week when I meet new people and get in touch with a couple ladies who have caught my eye despite the fact that not a single person has reciprocated a romantic advance of mine for more than half a year.
Wrenching the categorically awesome from the utterly depressing is what is going to help me wash the dishes, clean my room, and straighten up my office. It is what enabled me to go deep with my brothers this weekend during our retreat together rather than just throw out the pat answers and mentally disengage from the opportunity to bond with and be challenged by other men pursuing Jesus together in person rather than posting quips on facebook. This principle is going to help keep me humble when I start to feel high and mighty, and it will help keep me from beating myself down when I don’t measure up to the standards I wish I could attain on my timetable. It will help me to treat others with compassion, as people of beauty and wonder who God loves and for whom Christ died and not just bags of meat that make demands of my time or exist to serve as means to my ends. This lesson will help keep me from curving in on myself and instead draw me towards the One who loved me first, who loves me still, and who will lovingly guide me to the very end by the grace and power of God.
I might have shot wide on some things I shared in this post, but I hope you have taken a moment to ponder the one or two things I wrote that bear an eternal worth beyond the murmurings of the messenger. Really learning this lesson cost me something dear, but it is also paying off in simple, complex, slight, and substantial ways all at once that continue to surprise me, enrich me, and make me stronger, more grateful, more joyful, and more dangerous. To conclude, here are a couple resources that have been helpful for me to implement some changes in my life along the lines of this lesson. A few of these are Chicago and dude-specific, but the fairer gender and those living elsewhere shouldn’t encounter too much trouble extrapolating. Until next time, may you learn to wrest the categorically awesome from the utterly depressing for God’s glory and your continued growth. Remember, your life depends on it.
- The Restoration Project – Website for a ministry based out of Colorado focused on catalyzing “the restoration of every man’s heart by calling him to rediscover the dignity bestowed upon him by his Creator, initiating him into masculinity as it was meant to be.” These guys did an outstanding job running the men’s retreat I mentioned at the beginning of this post, and I’m really looking forward to checking out more of their resources since I’ve returned.
- Rootstock Wine and Beer Bar – Gorgeous establishment run by my college buddy, Johnny Hap, and his two business partners. My favorite, relatively new wine bar in all of Chicago with lots of character; bring some friends the next time you’re looking for a bacchanal spot to celebrate the categorically awesome in your life.
- Simplefit – Hands down the most effective calisthenic program I’ve ever encountered. Doing this plus three days of high-intensity interval training cardio each week has given me a body I never thought I would experience. Best of all, it takes around fifteen minutes a day and is completely free.
- Esquire Barber – Our culture has forgotten what a legit barber shop does to a man’s soul. Rediscover it here, complete with straight razor shave and resident French bulldog. Love this place…
- Accountability – Get some–you are not meant to travel alone. This is so important, I’m going to dedicate an entire post to the principle. In the mean time, check out websites like this or this to see what I’m talking about from an explicitly Christian perspective and websites like this to explore accountability in a more general fashion in the work place.
- Big City Swing – There are several great places to learn to dance in Chicago. I picked this one because I liked the instructors and it was far enough away from my flat that I could sort of make an event out of going there. Fewer things make me feel more like a dude with pro skills that learning to dance better and better every week…
- Music for your soul – I recommend Johnny Cash’s 2002 “American IV: The Man Comes Around” or Pastor T.L. Barrett and the Youth for Christ Choir’s 1971 “Like a Ship (Without a Sail)”. I’m a bit of a unique bird and also get fired up by Daft Punk’s 2001 “Discovery”. (I blame it on this appeal to my youth.) Of course, I would be remiss to suggest the fine song-smithery of my sister’s rocking band; since they’re recording their latest album right now in Nashville, try 2010’s Death Won’t Send a Letter. You’ll be glad you did.