Thursday, November 02, 2006

Vocation, calling and the Dilbertization of work

Here are some further thoughts about work and vocation. In college I was a biblical studies/theology and pastoral ministry double major, partly because I had an insufficient view of vocation and calling and thought that if I was really going to serve God, the only things I could be were a pastor or missionary. Along the way, I read Liberating the Laity by Paul Stevens, originally published by IVP and now republished by Regent College. Stevens was a pastor for many years but realized that his church ministry distanced him from folks in his congregation, and he did not have many natural connections with non-Christians. So he quit his job and became a carpenter. He then found that his ministry was revitalized, not only because he was now active in the marketplace but also because his church ministry shifted to an equipping ministry where ministry was done by the entire congregation, not just the clergy.

Some years back I wrote an article for the late, great Regeneration Quarterly on "The Dilbertization of America" that got me thinking about the differences between Protestant and Catholic views of work, vocation and calling. I later expanded that piece into "The Dilbertization of Work" for the vocation issue of Baylor University's ethics journal Christian Reflection. Here are some excerpts:

I’m a Dilbert fan. I have a plush Dogbert toy on top of my office computer, and one of my coffee mugs depicts one of my favorite strips. The pointy-haired boss tells Dilbert, “I’ve decided to be more of a hands-on manager.” Looking over Dilbert’s shoulder, the boss commands, “Move the mouse . . . up . . . over . . . more . . . now click it! Click it! NO!!! YOU FOOL!!!” Dilbert sighs, “This has ‘long day’ written all over it.”

Dilbert, which appears in more newspapers than any other comic, symbolizes a paradigm shift in our approach to work. Older comics had a certain work ethos, displayed in characters like Dagwood Bumstead of Blondie. Dagwood might symbolize the workers of the World War II generation: a lifelong company man whose years of loyalty had earned him his own office. Mr. Dithers may have yelled at Dagwood when he fell asleep on the job, but Dagwood never worried about job security or corporate downsizing.

Contrast this with Dilbert, the quintessential worker of the postmodern era. Despite Dilbert’s education and specialized training as an engineer, his work is meaningless and unsatisfactory. Instead of an office, he has a cubicle. And his coworkers drive him crazy.

Dilbert’s colleague Wally embodies the cynicism of the workplace; his purpose in life is to do as little as possible on the job without getting fired. In one strip, Wally rejoices because he realizes that he makes just as much money whether he works or twiddles his thumbs all day. Beetle Bailey was lazy, but that was more a statement of his individualism within the military industrial complex. In Dilbert’s world, the whole corporate structure engenders laziness, frustration and even despair.

One positive aspect of Dilbert is that it serves as a critique of workaholism. Christians can applaud this. But what about those who, like Dilbert, feel as if their jobs are meaningless? Dilbert’s vast audience suggests that a large group of disillusioned office workers identify with him. Some of us are deeply unsatisfied with our work, but we hang on because we need the paycheck. How do we think about work when we are unhappy with our jobs?

. . . While it is true that all work is potentially meaningful and significant, it is not true that all work is equally strategic. Some work may in fact be immoral or irrelevant. If a job seems meaningless and we don’t discern that our presence there is of any long-term benefit to either the company or others or our own well-being, and if the job doesn’t fit our skills, interests, personality or sense of calling, that may well be an indication that we should pursue other opportunities, either within this company or elsewhere. A plateaued career can be a sign that God has something else in store for us.

. . . Scott Adams, Dilbert’s creator, spent nine years as “a necktie-wearing, corporate victim assigned to cubicle 4S700R at the headquarters of Pacific Bell.” He quit that dead-end job and decided to pursue his love of cartooning. The rest is history. Has Scott Adams found his calling? He has certainly found a career that matches who he is, where his work is tremendously successful and lucrative. But I don’t know if he sees it as the fulfillment of a calling, or if he acknowledges his work as something that God created him to do. The cynicism that suffuses his cartoons, though amusing to a point, does not reflect the gospel hope offered by the One to whom he is called.

In contrast, another cartoonist, Johnny Hart, is known for his work on The Wizard of Id and B.C. Not only does Hart delight in his work and success in syndication, he also sees it as the fulfillment of a God-given call on his life. One of my favorite B.C. strips is posted in my office. A stone rolls away from a cave. A confused caveman sees footprints emerging from the cave and follows them. They go across the top of a pond. In the final frame, we see the footprints go right on top of a snake, who says, “Well, that was rude! Some guy just stepped on my head.”

Many non-Christian readers might not catch the biblical allusion, and some Christians may be skeptical about Hart’s evangelistic use of his comic strip. I find it a wonderful example of Christian vocation lived out in the marketplace, where a Christian cartoonist lets his Christian identity permeate his work in subtle and clever ways.

What if you hate your job? What if your pointy-haired boss is making work hell for you? On the one hand, Christians would counsel forbearance and perseverance. After all, it is still true that all work is significant. Wherever you are, be fully there. You may be there for a reason.

But consider whether your job is the most strategic fit for your identity and calling. Ultimately, we have only a few choices: We can change ourselves – either adjust our attitude, so we are happier with the job, or develop our skills, so we are better suited for it. We can change jobs and find something that fits better with who we are. If the job is fine but the environment is not, we can change companies. Or we could change careers entirely. None of these choices are easy, but this is why Gordon Smith titled his book Courage and Calling; it may require true courage to make the choices to answer God’s call on our lives.

Yes, God needs Christians in every field: he needs Christian lawyers and doctors and journalists and engineers and so on. But it’s entirely possible that he does not want perpetually frustrated Christians working in what they feel are dead-end jobs. If we suffer from chronic Dilbert-feelings, this might be an indication to us that God has something better in store for us somewhere else.


Mark Goodyear said...

"All work is potentially meaningful and significant, it is not true that all work is equally strategic. Some work may in fact be immoral or irrelevant."

I like the idea of considering the strategy of a job. I've heard about a Christian University professor who was counseling a student on his career crisis. The professor apparently grew frustrated and said, "I don't think God really cares what you do for a living."

I understand what he means--that God gives us freedom to help build the kingdom in many places. But, man, that is a tough way to say it. God does care. Our work can be part of his kingdom strategy. But sometimes it still feels irrelevant.

Al, I'd be curious to hear you talk about how strategic your job is. Surely you struggle with feelings of irrelevancy, too?

Al Hsu said...

Marcus - My original RQ article (which unfortunately is not available online without subscription at CT) talked a little about how Catholic theology generally tended to reserve vocation/calling for the clergy/priesthood, and in reaction, Protestant reformers swung the pendulum the other way and said that it doesn't matter what you do, all work is good and ordained by God. But the unintended consequence of that was this notion that it doesn't really matter what you do as long as you do it Christianly. And I worry that that swings the pendulum too far.

Better, I think, to think in terms of what Miroslav Volf calls a "pneumatology of work" where our vocation and calling is rooted in our giftedness and how God has wired us. Yes, Christians could theoretically do any number of jobs to the glory of God. But some folks are much better wired to be accountants and others are better suited to be counselors. So we can't say that God doesn't care what we do - God indeed cares quite a lot that we are good stewards of the gifts he's given us, and that we use them well.

In terms of my own job's strategicness (is that a word?) - I've had five different jobs in my twelve years at IVP, and I can honestly say that I've enjoyed every one of them, even though the different jobs used different skill sets and had different work styles. My company has the specific vision and mission of publishing thoughtful Christian books, and so for me, it doesn't matter as much to me what I specifically do as it does that I work at a company I believe in. Sure, every job has its dull parts and various frustrations at times. But when there's as much alignment as possible between us, our skill sets and personal sense of giftedness and calling with our job, tasks, company and career, then we'll get closer to the sense of "When I ____, I feel God's pleasure." The more that happens, the more strategic our work will be for ourselves and for the kingdom.

Anonymous said...

After reading the Suburban Christian, I'd like to see a new book by you, premise - reclaiming the Dilbert job, a book on why an office job won't necessarily take your soul.

I on the other hand hate my office job and it is a strategic missions based organization.

L.L. Barkat said...

My spouse always says, "figure out what you love, and find someone to pay you to do it." I've taken that advice, though I've taken a pay cut along the way too.

Anonymous said...

I just discovered this post while doing research for 2 book proposals (I'd love to talk to you about them Al!). My books are on helping people link their faith with their work and create truly faith-centered careers and lives.

I think there are a couple of reasons why we get so unhappy at work. One is because God is telling us it's time for us to take our skills elsewhere. We're needed someplace else now.

Another reason we get unhappy is because we're focused on ourselves and our pride gets in the way. Each of us was built to serve others. If we can focus on serving others in the best way we possibly can that will help us be happy.

Then, we become paralyzed with fear and feel we "can't" leave. We can leave. For many reasons, we choose not to.

I agree with Mark Goodyear's comment that all work IS meaningful and significant. Everyone plays a strategic role. It's just a matter of opening your mind to see how your role contributes to the strategic success of your orgnization.
Winnie Anderson
Career & Business Growth Strategist

Al Hsu said...

Thanks for stopping by, Winnie - good thoughts. And feel free to send proposals my way! I'm at ahsu at ivpress dot com if you want to contact me directly.