One of the unique things about the time and place we inhabit is that we are given choice for so many things. Young adults have the particularly odd privilege of being able to choose their career. Think about it—in how many places, for how much of history, has a young person been able to simply choose, from a seemingly unending list, what they want to pursue as their life’s work? The answer is, that’s pretty rare.
And yet, as many of us know first hand, the experience can be pretty overwhelming. It’s like walking up to a dinner buffet a mile long. Where do you even begin?
With this post and the next I’ll post sections from Tim Keller’s book Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work. In this passage he provides some practical counsel and helpful perspective about what to think through when you’re choosing a career.
Ecclesiastes says, “A person can do nothing better than to…find satisfaction in their own toil”. One of the reasons so many people find work to be unsatisfying is, ironically, that people today have more power to choose their line of work than did people in the past. Recently David Brooks wrote in the New York Times about an online discussion conducted by a Stanford professor with students and recent graduates about why so many students from the most exclusive universities go into either finance or consulting. Some defended their pathways; others complained that “the smartest people should be fighting poverty, ending disease and serving others, not themselves.” Brooks said that while the discussion was illuminating, he was struck by the unspoken assumptions:
Many of these students seem to have a blinker view of their options. There’s crass but affluent investment banking. There’s the poor but noble nonprofit world. And then there is the world of high-tech start-ups, which magically provides money and coolness simultaneously. But there was little interest in or awareness of the ministry, the military, the academy, government service or the zillion other sectors. Furthermore, few students showed any interest in working for a company that actually makes products…
Community service has become a patch for morality. Many people today have not been given vocabularies to talk about what virtue is, what character consists of, and in which way excellence lies, so they just talk about community service… In whatever field you go into, you will face greed, frustration and failure. You may find your life challenged by depression, alcoholism, infidelity, your own stupidity and self-indulgence… Furthermore … around what ultimate purpose should your life revolve? Are you capable of heroic self-sacrifice or is life just a series of achievement hoops? … You can devote your life to community service and be a total schmuck. You can spend your life on Wall Street and be a hero. Understanding heroism and schmuckdom requires fewer Excel spreadsheets, more Dostoyevsky and the Book of Job.
Brook’s first point is that so many college students do not choose work that actually fits within their limited imagination of how they can boost their own self-image. There were only three high-status kinds of jobs – those that paid well, those that directly worked on society’s needs, and those that had the cool factor. Because there is no longer an operative consensus on the dignity of all work, still less on the idea that in all work we are the hands and fingers of God serving the human community, in their minds they had an extremely limited range of career choices. That means lots of young adults are choosing work that doesn’t fit them, or fields that are too highly competitive for most people to do well in. And this sets many people up for a sense of dissatisfaction or meaninglessness in their work.
Perhaps it is related to the mobility of our urban culture and the resulting disruption of community, but in New York City many young people see the process of career selection more as the choice of an identity marker than a consideration of gifting and passions to contribute to the world. One young man explained, “I chose management consulting because it is filled with sharp people – the kind of people I want to be around.” Another said “I realize that if I stayed in education, I’d be embarrassed when I got to my five year college reunion, so I’m going to law school now.” Where one’s identity in prior generations might come from being the son of so-and-so or living in a particular part of town or being a member of a church or club, today young people are seeking to define themselves by the status of their work.
What wisdom, then, would the Bible give us in choosing our work?…
We’ll continue with Keller’s thoughts in the next post.