Vocational Discernment — It’s about WE, not ME

adult chill computer connection

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

I enjoyed time at a conference on the intersection of faith and work earlier this month (see: Karam Forum).

One of the themes that arose multiple times was the importance of community in flourishing economies and in the lives of flourishing individuals. The concept of human flourishing is about growth and development. The best flourishing, however, does not happen in isolation—it happens within the context of a community where we are able to use our gifts, skills, and abilities in service of others.

It is tempting to think of our careers, jobs, and vocations through an individualistic lens, though. Consider such questions:

  • What do I want to do with my life?
  • What type of work do I most enjoy?
  • What are my passions, interests, and desires?
  • How can my passions, interests, and desired be most fulfilled in the context of my work?

These are not bad questions, they are simply incomplete. Vocation is not primarily about “I”, “my”, and “me.” Vocation—the most fulfilling and meaningful forms of vocational stewardship—is more about “we” than “me.”

Certainly, we need to reflect on vocation from a personal perspective, but the most fulfilling forms of vocational stewardship that lead to human flourishing involve deep reflection on how our work will serve others, not just ourselves. Tom Nelson referred to this as the “we-ness” of our work.

When vocation is primarily about me—what will be most enjoyable to me or what will most quickly build my wealth—work becomes merely functional and utilitarian.

We work is about we—how I can use my gifts and skills to contribute to the benefit of others—work becomes fulfilling and infused with great meaning.

In their book Practicing the King’s Economy, Rhodes, Holt and Fikkert remind us that “Every road to the economy of the kingdom runs through the creation of community.” Our work and vocation do not find their meaning and fulfillment in isolation. Vocation becomes rewarding when we consider how we utilize who we are and what we are able to do in service of others. In diverse expressions of work, we find the most fulfillment in our vocation when we see how our work connects to and meaningfully serves others.

How will your unique gifts, skills, and abilities in this life best contribute to the flourishing of both your own life and to the lives of others? The best vocational choices in life come when we thinking about “we” rather than just thinking about “me” in the context of our work.

………………….

What are your thoughts on vocational discernment? Take a moment to share your perspectives below.

The Myth of Perfection

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Photo Credit: church_up.jpg, by Elyktra, Flickr

I saw a great quote on a wall while visiting a business in Dallas this week:

Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.” – Mark Twain

I love this quote. Although I can’t speak to whether or not this is actually something Mark Twain wrote, the heart of its message captures so many important themes.

However, perfection—even delayed perfection—really is just a myth.

This side of eternity, whether we are thinking about growth and improvement individually, as a team, or as an organization, if we are waiting for perfection, we will always be waiting. Rather than waiting for something—perfection in this life—that will not come in the pursuit of excellence, we rather need to work toward ongoing growth.

Remember, excellence and perfection are not the same thing. If we are striving for excellence, growth, and improvement, the best path forward is not waiting for some unattainable moment of perfection, but rather starting the journey and then learning and growing along the way.

Another way of talking about this dynamic is to contrast linear growth and iterative growth.

Linear Growth

Traditional wisdom invites those starting a work project or large journey to engage in a process of extensive planning. The goal in this linear mindset is to do all of the planning for the project up front. Those involved with this first step must foresee all possible needs, opportunities, and obstacles, and then solidify a plan before proceeding.

Linear Growth

Image Credit: Abigail J. Irving

After this “perfect” plan is in place, it is time to move on to the second step—executing on the plan.

Iterative Growth

Experience has a way of revealing the limits in such a linear model. Once a plan is executed, reality begins to confront and challenge our plans. John Steinbeck pointed to this in his novel Of Mice and Men—the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

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Image Credit: Abigail J. Irving

In contrast to linear models of growth, many fields—like software development and design—are now emphasizing the power of iterative processes. Rather than one discrete step of planning followed by another discrete step of implementation, an iterative approach embraces a path of ongoing improvement. The process of planning and implementing is repeated again and again as ongoing learning takes place, continually informing planning and improved practice in an ongoing manner.

As you consider your own process of personal growth, and as you consider growth as a team or organization, don’t put all of your proverbial eggs in the basket of a single plan. Instead, lean into iterative learning. Make a plan; implement the plan; learn from this implementation; adjust your plan; implement this learning; and continue this cycle of learning in an ongoing plan of growth and improvement.

Since perfection is ultimately a myth, learn to embrace the reality that “continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.

I’d love to read some of your reflections; take a moment to share them below.

Reflective Leadership

Photo Credit: Reflection, By Susanne Nilsson, Flickr

It’s January 1st as I write this reflection.

I took about three hours yesterday to reflect again on what I want to prioritize in the year to come. I don’t think there is anything inherently important about the transition from December 31 to January 1, but this moment in our calendars provides space to pause and hit reset on the things that matter in our lives.

I note elsewhere that I’m not a big fan of New Year’s Resolutions (see “Rethinking Resolutions). I am, however, a fan of using this season as a time to reflect and prioritize (or perhaps re-prioritize is a better term…returning to what has already been prioritized in our lives previously).

As I look back on the past two years, one of the items that has slipped more than I would like is the prioritization of reflection. There are practical reasons for this, so I’m not overly focused on “beating myself” up for the past. This is more about the future than the past.

The past two years have been full of wonderful opportunities—increased administrative leadership needs at my institution and the privilege of working on a book project that is scheduled for release in the summer of 2019. While I’m grateful for these opportunities, they did take away from a pattern of intentional reflection in my life and leadership. One evidence of this is the break from actively posting on this platform.

As I look to the year ahead, there are many new opportunities to which I’m looking forward. One of these is reprioritizing reflective leadership.

Perhaps a new emphasis on reflective leadership will be of help for you as well.

Here’s a sample from my upcoming book written with Mark Strauss. It captures some of the heart behind what I’ve raised above regarding the need for reflection in life and leadership:

Schedule Time to Rest and Reflect

While effective leadership includes honest self-evaluation, nurturing a rhythm of self-awareness and evaluation is difficult without a simple feature: time to reflect.

Do you intentionally create time in your schedule to think and reflect? In our day of continual connection to the world around us through technology, it is increasingly difficult for leaders to find time and space for deep reflection. Consider the ready access people have to you through smartphones, text messaging, a regular flow of emails, and meetings that are scheduled for us on shared calendars. While technology creates efficiencies in our work, this same technology also fills our lives in such a way that intentional reflection can be difficult.

On top of technology in the work environment, consider how technology in our personal lives also can work against time alone for reflection. For example, while there are many ways social media has the capacity to enrich our lives, social media also adds to already full schedules in ways that work against a reflective approach to life.

These realities mean that leaders need to be intentional in finding time and space in their lives to think and reflect. On this point, John Baldoni notes that organizations need leaders who first know themselves—leaders who “have an inner compass that points them in the right direction.” According to Baldoni, clarifying these dimensions of the inner life “begins with sound thinking—with taking time to think before we do.”

For Christians, time for reflection does not need to be an isolated activity. Through the practices of Sabbath and prayer, we are reminded that we are not alone in our work as leaders. Taking time for rest and prayer is a declaration of our trust in and dependency on God. Timothy Keller and Kathrine Leary Alsdorf remind us that the practice of Sabbath is an act of trust, a reminder that God is at work even in the midst of our rest, and that ultimately, God is there—we are not alone in our work.  As we recognize that we are not alone in our work, we also may receive the invitation to seek out wisdom from God: “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5). In our times of rest and reflection, we are able to not only lean into our own thoughts and convictions but we are also able to lean into God’s wisdom.

So, are you making time to think and reflect in your life? Are you taking time for Sabbath rest and prayer? For those who have full calendars and high demands in their roles, this often means there is a need for scheduling time on their calendars for this important work. Remember, being busy does not always translate into being productive. As Keller and Leary-Alsdorf remind us, “a deeply rested people are far more productive.” Sometimes pulling back from the intense pace of work is just the answer we need to the most demanding questions and challenges we face. Take time to rest, think, reflect, pray, and nurture a regular pattern of self-evaluation. Consider when this specifically will take place. When will it take place in the week ahead? When will it take place next month?

May you engage the year ahead with deep reflection on the things that matter most to you!

Take a moment to share your reflections and priorities below.

The Power of Vision, Part 5

Visions-of-Color_Joe-Dyndale

Photo Credit: Visions of Color, by Joe Dyndale, Flickr

I’m in a mini-series focused on the power of vision. Here’s a snapshot of where we’ve been in the series:

  • In Part 1, I began by providing the following definition of vision: vision is a picture of a preferred future. Further, I described the major work of leaders as communicating this picture of a preferred future in a manner that is compelling and unifying.
  • In Part 2, I engaged the capacity of vision to provide passion, motivation, direction, and purpose for life and leadership.
  • In Part 3, I engaged how leaders can help to make vision stick by casting the vision well, celebrating the vision well, and living the vision well.
  • In Part 4, I engaged how leaders can identify their burning passion and compelling vision.

This week, I’d like to provide a final encouragement as you consider the vision you are meant to pursue in the year ahead.

Looking to Your Future

As I write this post, New Year’s Day is just around the corner. In many ways, the start of a new year provides an opportunity for us to do what we should be regularly doing throughout the year—looking to the future and planning in light of it.

As you look out the future, what is the picture of a preferred future both for you and your organization?

First, what does this preferred future look like both personally and professionally?

  • Personally: What is your personal vision … for you, your family, and your community in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead?
  • Professionally: What is your professional or organizational vision … for you and the community you serve in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead?

Second, what does this future look like at different points along the way on the journey toward your preferred future?

  • What does it look like weeks in the future?
  • What does it look like months in the future?
  • What does it look like years in the future?

Developing a Strategy for Visionary Planning

Weekly Carve out 15 minutes at the beginning of each week in order to prioritize your schedule and insure you are working toward your preferred future.
Monthly Carve out 2 hours to evaluate the previous month and then plan for the coming month in light of your visionary priorities.
Quarterly Carve out a day (workday length) in order to evaluate progress in light of your personal and professional vision. Use this evaluation to make adjustments for the coming 2-3 months.
Annually Carve out a 1-2 day retreat (getting away to a hotel, cabin, or retreat center) where you can have focused time not only evaluating the past year, but also reevaluating your overall visionary priorities. This is an annual time to insure that the direction of your life and leadership is moving toward a preferred future in light of the things that matter most in life.
Seasonally (each 5-7 years) Carve out a week or more every 5-7 years for a season of deep rest, refreshment, and renewal. This is not about simply taking a vacation—something that likely happens every year—but rather taking a genuine sabbatical from the normal routines of life. Some professions may allow for this seasonal time to be multiple months of rest, refreshment, and renewal. For other professions and work contexts, this seasonal time may be limited to a typical vacation week. In either case, find a path for intentional reflection on the trajectory of your life and leadership.

Have you seen tangible progress toward major visionary dreams you had 5 to 7 years earlier (degrees you wanted to complete, job changes you wanted to pursue, organizational goals you wanted to accomplish, etc.)?

As you look out into the next 5 to 7 years of your life and leadership, what are your major visionary priorities for the years ahead? What course corrections need to be made now to help navigate toward this preferred future? How can you adjust your schedule, budget, and general pace of life to make space for prioritizing movement toward this preferred future?

Engaging major life questions like this takes time and space for rest, renewal, and reflection. Take time not only for vacation and recreation, but also for sabbatical in order to tackle such visionary reflection and dreaming in your life.

 Vision: the Tool for Leading from the Front

Whether thinking of vision personally, professionally, or organizationally, vision is a powerful tool for your life and leadership.

Engaging the power of vision in leadership, Burt Nanus shares these thoughtful insights:

Vision is the main tool leaders use to lead from the front.
Effective leaders don’t push or production their followers. They don’t boss them around or manipulate them. They are out front showing the way. The vision allows leaders to inspire, attract, align, and energize their followers—to empower them by encouraging them to become part of a common enterprise dedicated to achieving the vision.

Rather than simply using push and production techniques, as leaders we need to learn to lead from the front. Vision provides the essential tool for moving from extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation. Vision provides the path for painting a picture of a hopeful future that motives us personally and others organizationally. As Nanus notes, “Vision is the main tool leaders use to lead from the front.”

Taking Your Next Visionary Steps

As you look to your future, the key is to pay attention and make changes based on this visionary reflection. In the week ahead, I encourage you to take some time to pay attention to your preferred future (your vision), and begin to take steps toward this preferred future in practical, tangible, and meaningful ways.

God’s best to each of you as you make strides toward the things that matter most in your life.


Here are all of the post links for this series:

The Power of Vision, Part 4

Colorful-vision_Lu-Lacerda.jpg

Photo Credit: Colorful Vision, by Lu Lacerda, Flickr

I’m in a mini-series focused on the power of vision.

In Part 1 I began by providing the following definition of vision: vision is a picture of a preferred future. Further, I described the major work of leaders as communicating this picture of a preferred future in a manner that is compelling and unifying.

In Part 2, I engaged the capacity of vision to provide passion, motivation, direction, and purpose for life and leadership.

In Part 3, I engaged how leaders can help to make vision stick by casting the vision well, celebrating the vision well, and living the vision well.

This week, I’d like to take on how leaders can identifying their burning vision.

“What Precedes Vision?”

In a 2005 talk at the Global Leadership Summit, bill Hybels provided his reflections on “The Leader’s State of Mind.” The focus of Hybels’ speech was engaging the following important questions:

  • What precedes vision?”
  • What gives birth to vision?”

Most leaders understand the importance of casting a vision for their people. Just yesterday I heard about a family company that spent a part of their day focusing on vision casting. As I sat in the stands at my girls’ high school basketball game this friend shared with me that the president of the family-owned company he works for spent a couple hours with employees sharing and talking about the implications of their company vision.

This work of vision casting is vital. When leaders have a vision, the advice shared last week is critical—cast the vision, celebrate the vision, live the vision.

But … how do leaders arrive at a vision for their team, division, or organization? Or, in the words of Hybels, “what gives birth to vision?”

Finding Your Burning Vision

What an important question to engage.

As Hybels discussed this he shared the example from the cartoon Popeye the Sailor man. When Olive was threatened, Popeye would get to a breaking point where he would say:

That’s all I can stand, and I canst stands no more.”

In many ways, this line captures the heart of what passionate leadership is about. Rather than simply having a functional and lackluster vision, visions that change businesses, organizations, and societies arise from “Popeye-like” passion that sees something and says, “That’s all I can stand, and I canst stands no more.”

“I Canst Stands No More”

So what in your life raises that type of passion? In Hybels’ words, “What can’t you stand?

This is the seed from which passionate vision often arises. When you consider your life, your leadership, your team, your organization, your work, your context for life, what in your life raises the response, “That’s all I can stand, and I canst stands no more?”

  • Is it the need to see students effectively engaging in learning in the K-12 environment?
  • Is it companies providing real value through effective research and product development?
  • Is it about your industry operating ethical standards?
  • Is it about working toward justice in some tangible way due to the needs of the oppressed or marginalized?
  • Is it about creating health rather than dysfunction in organizations?
  • Is it…?

Of course the list could go on to many other areas.

The key is to think through your life, your leadership, your context.

  • What bothers you?
  • What do you see that needs to be fixed?
  • What problems can you not stop thinking about and want to contribute toward a solution?

Living into Your Passion

Identifying your passion is the first step to identifying your burning vision. If this is not immediately clear to you, take some time in the week ahead to consider what it is that you “canst stands no more,” and then find a tangible way to live into this passion in your life. What first step can you take to consider a visionary response to this area of helpful discontentment?

The reality is, you will likely have multiple passions based on the multiple spheres of your life. Consider:

  • What is your burning vision for your team, business, or organization
  • What is your burning vision for your family?
  • What is your burning vision for your personal and professional life?

Although Popeye may not be the first “sage” we think of in identifying our passion and burning vision, it is a great metaphor to spur us on as we consider our burning vision and work to live into this vision with passion.

Next week we’ll take up some final vision reflections as we think through the visions we are meant to pursue in the year ahead.

As always, I love to hear your thoughts. Please share your reflections below.


Here are all of the post links for this series:

Leading on Gratitude Road

Gratitude Road, by Bart Maguire, Flickr

Gratitude Road, by Bart Maguire, Flickr

This past week I had the opportunity to share briefly in a chapel service at our school. The theme was thankfulness and gratitude. Whether in the Thanksgiving season or beyond, learning the art of gratitude is important for leaders and followers alike.

The Good and the Bad of Future Focus

But nurturing a spirit of gratitude comes more naturally for some.

As I consider my personal tendencies and strengths, one of the tendencies that can work against a spirit of gratitude is an orientation toward the future.

Future focus has many benefits. As leaders, a focus on the future is important for planning and strategic thinking. I take up the importance of this theme in another post (see Strategic Foresight).

But future focus has a down side as well. At times, this future orientation can work against nurturing a spirit of gratitude. Sometimes gratitude and thanksgiving are not primarily about looking to the future, but rather reflecting on the past and being present in the moment.

Thankfulness through Remembering

The Bible affirms the value of remembering throughout the pages of Scripture. Remembering what God has done in your life and in the lives of those around you is often the seedbed from which thanksgiving and gratitude arise.

One example of this is in Psalm 105 where the author calls the reader to give thanks to God by remembering well:

Oh give thanks to the LORD; call upon his name….
Remember the wondrous works that he has done

(Psalm 105: 1 & 5).

If you are like many leaders, it is easy to have your sights set on the future and where your team and organization are headed. But are you taking time to pause for gratitude? Are you taking time to pause and be present in the moment and to look to the past with thankfulness?

Walking Down Gratitude Road

As you consider nurturing a spirit of gratitude, perhaps you may need to join with me in taking time to pause and look at the present and the past. In this act we have the opportunity to see the faithfulness of God in our lives. As we look back and remember well, we begin to see that through both the joy-filled and difficult days, we have much for which to be thankful.

I hope you will be able to take some time in this season to nurture a spirit of gratitude in your life and leadership. Learn to remember well; learn to remember with gratitude.

David Brooks on Vocation and Making Commitments

The Graduates, by Luftphilia, Flickr

The Graduates, by Luftphilia, Flickr

I spent some time today reading a commencement address by David Brooks to the Dartmouth Class of 2015 entitled “The Ultimate Spoiler Alert.”

In it, Brooks sought to provide a picture of what the decades of life beyond college will look like for these graduates and presented an argument that their “primary mission in life is to be really good at making commitments.”

The Importance of Commitments

On this point, Brooks notes:

“Making commitments sounds intimidating, but it’s not.
Making a commitment simply means falling in love with something,
and then building a structure of behavior around it
that will carry you through when your love falters.”

What a powerful observation about the nature of commitments.

Brooks goes on to argue that these students will end up needing to make four major commitments in their life. A commitment to:

  1. Their spouse and family,
  2. A career and a vocation,
  3. Their faith or philosophy, and
  4. A community and a village.

Though it would be great to engage any of these commitments, I’d like to focus on Brooks’ observations around the commitment to a career and a vocation.

Vocation is Something that Summons You

Brooks’ provides a thoughtful comment regarding the difference between a vocation and a career. He notes: “A vocation is not a career. A career is something you choose. A vocation is something that summons you.”

That’s not always the way people think of vocational discernment; personal choice is often the point emphasized.

But Brooks sees vocation as more of something that calls from outside of us rather than arises from within by simple personal choice. Explaining further, Brooks continues:

“People with vocations don’t ask: What do I want from life? They ask: What is life demanding me to do? What gap is there in my specific circumstances around me that demands my skill set?

It’s not found by looking inside you for your passion. People have studied this. Eighty percent of you don’t have a passion. It’s found by looking outward, by being sensitive to a void and need, and then answering the chance to be of use.”

Looking Outside to Find an Opportunity to Provide Value

If Brooks’ observations are accurate and vocation is found by looking outside, this calls for answering a few key questions:

  • Are you paying attention to your surroundings?
  • Are you being sensitive to the voids and needs around you?
  • Are you responding to the opportunities to be of use?

In business, people understand the priority of providing value. Rather than asking “what do I want to do in life?” the more fulfilling line of inquiry is “what is the vocational path on which I may contribute the most or best value to those around me?”

In other words, vocational fulfillment is not just an individual pursuit. Vocational fulfillment is found within the context of community. At each stage of life ask: “Am I looking outward to see how I may be used to provide meaning and value to those around me through my vocation and service?

God’s wisdom to each of you as you engage such significant questions and pursue the vocational path that lies before you at each life stage.