By Kevin Anselmo
The 2009 film Invictus is quite inspiring. It details the riveting story of how South Africa hosted and won the 1995 Rugby World Cup. It was the first major sporting event to take place in South Africa following the end of apartheid. Against difficult circumstances, South Africa won behind the support of President Nelson Mandela and a unified country.
In one particular powerful scene in the movie, Mandela, played by Morgan Freeman, meets with captain Francois Pienaar, played by Matt Damon. Mandela encourages Pienaar to lead his team to victory, citing the Invictus poem written by William Ernest Henley in 1875 that had helped Mandela while he was imprisoned on Robben Island for eighteen years. In case you don’t know the poem, it concludes as follows:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
As the film Invictus concludes, Morgan Freeman recites these last lines as raucous fans in the background celebrate an inspiring victory that had remarkable significance given the events that had taken place in South Africa. The scene can give one goose bumps.
Captain of our Careers
The philosophy of these last two lines in the poem - I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul - is immersed into the conversation around careers. Popular lines are:
Own your career
You are the CEO of you
You are the master of your career
In many ways, we do have more control over our careers than at any point in history. Consider the fact that before the wide adoption of the internet some 25 years ago, the main ways to be aware of career opportunities was through the local newspaper’s classified section and via word of mouth. The only way to demonstrate credentials was by faxing or mailing a resume over to the employer.
Now obviously we can apply for any job in any country in the world with just a few clicks of the mouse on our computer. We can demonstrate credentials through our activity online and access educational content to grow in areas that support our career aspirations. The rise of remote work and the gig economy have further opened opportunities that would have been completely implausible to a previous generation.
Also integrated into this mix is a world of social media in which we can all go to the channel of our choice to see individuals highlight, for the most part, only the most glamorous aspects of their careers. This leads to a range of reactions. One of these may be that we should all be doing more to take control of our careers to enjoy work and life in the same way that XYZ person on social media so proclaims.
It is indeed true that we have the opportunity to be more thoughtful about our work possibilities, thus aligning to the notion of being the captain of our fate and soul.
The Letdown of Being the CEO of You
The problem is that we have gone too far in sharing a message to a generation of workers that the personal actions we take in our careers, that we control, will lead to happiness and contentment. It has backfired. The “own your career and be happy” message is not working.
Experts and scholars are trying to better understand why 2021 was the year of the Great Resignation in which more people left their work voluntarily than at any point in history. Early indications are that the pandemic forced many people to reconsider their lives and what is important. It seems there has been a disconnect between jobs and overall life satisfaction. Employee morale is increasingly on the decline, as evidenced by work engagement scores.
There are unintended letdowns that are not communicated in the “you are the master of your career and happiness” message.
It is nice to think that the outcomes of our work are 100% the result of our abilities and the hard work we have poured into our crafts. Unfortunately it isn’t the case. There are so many ways this is evident.
It starts at birth, the epitome of a circumstance that is beyond our controls. About 15% of people live in developed countries. The rest live in developing and undeveloped countries. There are obviously tremendous disparities in the wealth (or lack thereof) between the two. If you were born in a richer country, you by default set yourself up for far greater career success if income is the key metric.
Throughout our career journeys, events happen that we have little to no control over that dictate next steps. In November 2019, nobody knew anything about the Coronavirus. Within months, it would upend our way of living and working. Fast forward a couple of years and it would be difficult to find anybody whose work hasn’t been altered in some way due to an event beyond our controls. Some have benefited positively; the majority haven’t.
Those who adhere to the “I am the master of my career” ethos can be quite upended to such unexpected circumstances. Control is something most all of us crave. Raj Raghunathan, a professor at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business and author of If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy, writes about the deep seeded desire humans have for control and certainty. He points out research showing that control helps us to believe that we can shape outcomes and events to our liking. It also helps us to sense that we are not under the control of others.
Besides these examples of birth and the pandemic, there are surely hundreds upon hundreds of circumstances beyond our control that have influenced our career journeys. Looking back, I can see countless ways where situations completely beyond my control influenced my career, both positively and negatively. I trust if you do the same, you will see this to be the case as well.
Alex Trebek, in his memoir The Answer Is . . .: Reflections on My Life, shared the key to how he became the host of Jeopardy, the quiz show watched by millions. For Alex, it came down to one word which happens to be the name of a chapter in the book: Luck! He writes:
My broadcasting experience wouldn’t have mattered much if they hadn’t been producing game shows at the time - if Westerns of reality television or Judge Judy-type courtrooms had been in vogue. Yes, hard work and experience are essential. But so is timing. And luck. Don’t ever discount the importance of luck in terms of determining your opportunities and your future.
He goes on to detail in the book how a series of random events led to him becoming the host of the popular show.
A Better Approach
While I think the notion of “I own my career” is perilous, I also don’t think we should do the opposite and not take action because life is a random series of events. There is a better, more realistic approach that sits somewhere in the middle of these two philosophies. From a Christian perspective, I think it should go something like:
From “own your career” to “co-own your career (with you having minority ownership).”
From being the “CEO of your career” to “Being the CEO of your career, reporting to an almighty and powerful board”.
From “You are the master of your career” to “You are the faithful servant to the ultimate master”.
In actuality, a co-owner with minority ownership, the CEO reporting to the powerful board and the faithful servant all need to work hard and give their best effort. Obviously, with this analogy, the majority owner, powerful board and ultimate master is God. Hard and great effort are also required.
This sentiment is expressed both in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. In Genesis, following the Creation account, we read in chapter 2 verse 15: “Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and to keep it.” Most all of us can appreciate the amount of work and effort that goes into keeping our homes and properties maintained, clean and orderly. Adam and Eve were given the task to cultivate and keep the Garden of Eden. While we are not provided specific measurements of this space, we can certainly presume that cultivating and keeping this garden would require responsible and thoughtful work.
In Colossians 3:23, the apostle Paul writes: “Whatever you do, do your work heartily as for the Lord rather than for men.” The New International Version of the Bible uses the term “not for human masters”, wording that connects well to the analogy highlighted in this article.
There are numerous benefits to both knowing and acting upon this hierarchy of God as the ultimate master of our career development.
It gives us the opportunity to reconsider the idea of control. For me personally, it is comforting to know that an all-knowing God who knows what is best for me and the world is in control of every aspect of society and our personal lives. Knowing we are just pawns being used as part of God’s master plan provides perspective. We can work giving our best efforts, knowing that a higher being is in control. We can do what we can control, trusting that God has a reason for the unexpected circumstances that we might not be able to understand with our human way of thinking.
Having God as our majority owner of our careers can help us to have a holistic approach in our decision-making, both large and small.
For the big choices, let’s say there is a person deciding to take a job offer. The role is right up this person’s alley in that it is a prestigious company that pays very well and offers terrific benefits. It looks great on a resume and will be an interesting job to talk about at different social settings. However, the person has learned about some inappropriate behavior that takes place at this organization which management has repeatedly ignored. The person whose identity is solely consumed by status will probably weigh the pros and cons quite differently than the person who reports to the powerful board of the Lord and thus is factoring in a set of variables that is focused on advanced the work of the Kingdom of God. At least that should be case!
It can also impact day-to-day “smaller” decisions, such as the tone to use in email to a colleague, taking credit ourselves or praising others for an achievement, the way in which we use our time each day and countless other scenarios.
With God as the all powerful board of our career, we can reconsider our work successes and failures through a comprehensive set of metrics that is probably far more encompassing than what we might establish if left to our own devices. Those metrics will probably look different for each and everyone of us. This obviously has a number of ramifications. Among the most important is that we can realize that we are loved regardless of our work performance, thanks to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Let me apply this advice to myself in the writing of this article. I hope it will be a useful contribution that I incorporate into an influential book that can be a springboard to launch other income-generating related business services. If this doesn’t happen, I might become distraught by my failure.
With God as my co-founder and majority owner in this project, I can still have these same goals. But I can realize that if this article is read by just two people, then I am not a failure. At a minimum, thinking through these matters helps me individually. Maybe that one other person who reads the article will think about God and their work differently. That person might never pay attention to the author of this piece, but will act on the points above and approach work differently than he or she may have in the past. I might not ever see or be aware of the impact, whether big or small. As opposed to being upset that just two people read this article (counting myself), I can take satisfaction in rethinking the success metrics of these efforts, realizing that an all-knowing God is at work even when I can’t see or understand it.
Ready to rethink the hierarchy of management within your career management? I can’t promise that it is easy to do. Nor can I assure you that it will always be a seamless process. But I do think it will bring far greater peace and also motivation than just relying on our human powers.
Time for me to conclude this piece. Hope it is helpful for many. I will do what I can to disseminate this message in different ways. Then, I will leave it to this project's co-founder and majority shareholder to do with it what He pleases. It is quite reassuring.
If you think others need to hear this message, please share this content on your social media channels! This article is based on a chapter of the Reframing Career Success book.