“The priesthood of all believers did not make everyone into church workers; rather it turned every kind of work into a sacred calling.” -Gene Veith
“The first duty of a human being is to assume the right functional relationship to society-more briefly, to find your real job, and do it.” -Charlotte Perkins Gilman
I remember looking at retirement portfolio in 2008. I don’t get numbers, and I wouldn’t have even had a retirement plan if my more Excel fluent brother wouldn’t have forced me to. But I understood that there was a huge difference between the number of our current account balance and the balance that was there last month.
The market had crashed, like markets do, but what made this one seem so different is the widespread recognition that this crash was not just because of unforeseen market conditions, but unknown and widespread corruption.
The market crashed because we were selfish.
It’s easy to hate on Bernie Madoff and all of the bank executives with Golden parachutes, but I’ve come to look at them the way I’ve learned to look at Adam and Eve. Yeah they messed up the world for everyone else, but I’m pretty sure if I was them I’d probably have done the same thing.
Because what we are seeing is a glimpse into the human condition. Something that the Bible calls sin. And you don’t need an MBA from Harvard to be capable of that.
In fact, no matter what you do chances are you are a part of the very system that these CEO’s and exectuives were working in.
The Virtue of Vocation
Recently, David Brooks wrote an article about spending time with some Stanford students. He came away noticing that they had a pretty binary view of the world. Either you were going to make money or you were going to serve the world through some kind of non-profit or Peace Corps.
Both of these students were trying to pursue status in some form, they were even wanting to make their mark in the universe, but their imagination was too limited.
Here’s what Brooks said in his article:
“Many of these students seem to have a blinkered 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 still be a total schmuck. You can spend your life on Wall Street and by a hero. Understanding heroism and schmuckdom requires fewer Excel spreadsheets, more Dostoyevsky and the Book of Job.”
Notice what Brooks is saying? Because this is at the heart of what it means to have a vocation or calling.
Remember a calling is only a calling if someone else calls you to do something and you do it for their sake and not for your own.
A calling is a calling if you are doing it as a service and not primarily from selfish motives.
This is the virtue of a vocation.
And intiutitvely we already knew this.
Working to Serve
Remember how you felt last month when you read the story about the waiter standing up against the bully of the down syndrome boy? Or what about the article about the flight attendants and pilots who held the plane for the man trying to get to his dying mother in time?
This is the virtue of a vocation. It is to see the work of your hands as a way to have more than just to earn status or money for retirement, but as a way of making the world a better place for the people around you.
Just ask Leonard Abess.
Leonard started and built a bank in Miami from the ground up. For decades, owning and operating a bank was how he served the citizens of Florida. He saw his company as a way of providing jobs for the community and a service for people. And after 30 years Abess sold his bank to a larger organization. But it’s what he did next that has everyone talking.
Because this guy, suddenly could be in the same zip code as Warren Buffett, but instead he starts hunting down all the employees who have ever worked for him, past and present, and Leonard Abess started giving them a slice of the buyout.
Some people were receiving checks for hundreds of thousands of dollars, some of them hadn’t worked at the bank in years, but they had helped to build the bank, and so now Abess was set on making sure they got to share the reward.
He didn’t do this for publicity, in fact when the employees got their checks he wasn’t even there, and didn’t want to do any interviews.
But for some reason Abess was the talk of the world for a few short days.
Because in the middle of a cutthroat environment, we finally had a financial story worth celebrating. And yeah, Abess walked away with substantially less than his counterparts at other banks.
But I wonder who is enjoying their retirement more?
That’s the difference between a job and a calling.
That’s a better bottom line.