Is Higher Education Worth It?

This post was just shared yesterday on my blog at Patheos. I’ll provide it here as my normal Monday post as well since it seems to be gaining significant attention.  …

Graduation season is upon us. I celebrated with a friend at his graduation last week. In the coming week my university begins its marathon of multiple commencement services. And, by the end of the month I will be completing a third graduate degree.

As I think about the importance of these events and the value of education in general, I’m reminded of several realities.

Education Is a Good Investment

First, education is a good investment of time and money. This is not the case for all people, but for most, education represents an investment that appreciates rather than decreases in value over time. In other words, it is more like investing in a house (that tends to appreciate in value) rather than investing in a car (that tends to depreciate in value).

Education Improves Earnings and Marketablity

Second, education tends to improve capacity for future earning and lower rates of unemployment. Again, this is not the case for all people, but generally speaking, earnings increase and unemployment rates decrease as higher levels of education are attained.

Here is a helpful table from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that illustrates this point.

ep_chart_001

Table Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics (http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_chart_001.htm)

Education Provides More Effective Approaches to Work

Third, education enables us to do better what we already must do. In most cases, employment is a necessary part of life. It is the way people are able to make a living and provide for themselves and their family. This logic might not work for everyone, but for me it does. If I’m going to be engaged in a job, I want to do it well. Education  helps me to do the work I already need to do in a more effective manner.

Education Provides A Pathway for Lifelong Learning

Fourth, education provides a natural pathway for lifelong learning. I view learning as intrinsically valuable. I also believe we are hardwired and created by God as learners. While learning can happen independently, engaging in a structured learning process allows us to benefit from those who have gone before us in a particular field of knowledge.

In my particular field of leadership studies, I’m convinced that leadership involves a deep commitment to learning (see my previous thoughts on this here). But learning is not just the work of leaders. There is both intrinsic and utilitarian value in learning for any field. Formal education is not the only path by which lifelong learning can take place. However, it is a key pathway that has helped many people.


While there are certainly examples that would not support the above, these four benefits of higher education are true for most. As you celebrate with the graduates in your life this season, be reminded that their investments and labors have not been in vain.

Purpose in Leadership on Patheos

Faith-Work

I’m excited to point you toward another channel through which I’ll be sharing thoughts. The Purpose in Leadership blog was invited to join the Patheos Faith and Work Channel, and this will allow me to share the type of reflections offered on this blog with a wider audience. I’ll continue to post regularly through both Purpose in Leadership blogs.

—  Purposeinleadership.com Blog
—  Patheos Purpose in Leadership Blog

As a faith-based blog channel focused on the integration of faith and work, I will be regularly sharing posts on leadership, work, and vocation.

Here is a highlight of the last five posts shared through the Purpose in Leadership blog on Patheos. Enjoy!

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.

Considering a Career Change? READ THIS FIRST!

Now Hiring, by Nathan Stephens, Flickr

Now Hiring, by Nathan Stephens, Flickr

Changing careers can be a risky and challenging move. This is especially the case for folks who have been at a career for 10, 20, or more years.

For most individuals with 20 + years of work experience in one field, the easiest (and often most advisable) answer is to stay put through the primary working years. While this is the easiest answer, this is not always the feasible or desirable answer.

A Question of Feasibility

The larger economy, as well as the nature of companies in general, continues to change in our day. With these changes, few organizations can assure their people that they will have lifetime employment.  For many in our day, career shifts are based on necessity rather than personal wishes.

This necessity may be due to downsizing at their current company or organization. This necessity may also be due to a larger trend in their industry in general—trends that mean fewer jobs are available in their field.

A Question of Desirability

Other times, a change in career is driven by personal desire rather than the practical questions of feasibility. As a professor teaching in the seminary context, these are the students I often meet. These students are considering a career shift to pastoral or other church-based leadership roles that typically is not driven by necessity.

Whether it is a shift toward church-based ministry along with many of my students, or another career path altogether, the question of desirability is driven by finding a vocational role in the years ahead that will be personally meaningful and fulfilling.

Practical Advice for Changing Careers

Whether driven by the feasible or desirable, what is the most effective way to pursue a career transition? I came across a fascinating article on this topic by Herminia Ibarra this past summer. Ibarra observes that there is one key differentiator between those who make a successful career change and those who do not.

This key differentiator is moving from a “Plan and Implement” approach to a “Test and Learn” approach. Here are some of my reflections on Ibarra’s broad categories that I will engage around the shift from planning to playing.

Traditional Advice—Plan then Act

Typically, people consider a career change by thinking through options, deciding on one, and then taking the plunge by acting on that knowledge. In other words, the process moves from planning to acting. This seems like a logical and helpful approach.

The only problem with this is that it is disconnected from the way life typically works!

Consider the way infants, toddlers, and children learn. Toddlers do not typically spend weeks thinking through their future walking strategy and then all of the sudden start their walking journey with perfection. Most toddlers spend a lot of time trying things out—“playing”—and typically take lots of spills along the way. Over time, though, they learn a new skill and it becomes an integrated part of who they are.  In this example, planning is not the key, but rather playing.

Often this is the way various sports and hobbies are selected as well. Children and teens try on a lot of options and slowly figure out both what they are good at and what they enjoy. The initial career process often follows this path as well.

Better Advice—Play then Act

However, the further along we go in our career, the less likely we seem to follow this path of play. We become more risk adverse in career selection, and this often leads to making very thoughtful, methodical, calculated, and slow decisions. In Ibarra’s words, the plan and implement approach “sounds reasonable—but it actual fosters stagnation,” and keeps us “mired in introspection.”

While there is wisdom in thoughtful and slower decisions, it is important to go back to our earlier days to drawn insights we once knew about playing that leads to proficiency.

Because developmental learning is often tied to trying things out first—playing—experimenting with career transitions by trying things out is key to the success of many pursuing career transitions.

Ibarra calls this the test and learn method to career transitions: “You put several working identities into practice, refining them until they’re sufficiently grounded in experience to inspire more decisive steps.” Putting these identities into practice is vital because careers are closely connected with people’s identities. On this point, Ibarra writes:

The test-and-learn approach recognizes that the only way to counter uncertainty and resist the pull of the familiar is to make alternative futures more vivid, more tangible, and more doable. We acquired our old identities in practice. Likewise, we redefine them, in practice, by crafting experiments, shifting connections, and making sense of the changes we are going through.”

Finding Ways to Play before Acting

In light of such advice, the key to considering a career transition is finding ways to try things out first before taking a plunge. What is the possible career transition you have been considering? How can you find a way to experiment with this career before releasing your former career?

Ibarra recommends trying out “new activities and professional roles” on a small scale before making a commitment to a different path. This likely means making some form of sacrifice in the short-term:

  • Trying out freelance work in a new area
  • Considering an educational option that will give you on-the-job experience
  • Doing some pro bono work to get experience
  • Engaging in a new area of work as a volunteer
  • Using some evenings or weekends to try out a role through a second job
  • Taking some vacation time to explore the new role over a concentrated period of time

In all of these examples, the key is to find a way to “play” rather than just “plan.” Try things on. See if the role is a fit. Use the “play” time to see if you are (1) good at the role, and (2) enjoy the role.

As you play in this new role (or roles), be open to the fact that this role may actually affirm that you are already in a good fit already. Whether the play affirms a new career direction or reaffirms your current career, this vocational play will be well worth the investment.

Enjoy the Planning and Playing

Bottom line, a career change is a big decision. It is worth taking the time necessary to make sure it is the right decision. Taking time is not just about planning, though. It is also about playing. Take time to play in these new roles, try them out, and see if they are the right fit for you at this season of your life.

11 Lessons for Those Feeling “Stuck” or “Trapped” in their Careers

Limitless, by David Melchor Diaz, Flickr

Limitless, by David Melchor Diaz, Flickr

Have you ever had the feeling of being “stuck” or “trapped” in a career or job? Most people have at one time or another.

The question of what to do with this “stuck” feeling is vital for anyone facing a challenging season, and is at the heart of what I’d like to engage in this brief reflection.

Changing Your Work Context

Sometimes this experience or feeling leads toward a shift away from one’s current role, whether this shift is dramatic or more subtle.

One expression of this might be the bold step of quitting a job even though a next step is not in place. Another expression of this might be putting your résumé out and getting a feel for other options. Still another expression of this might be going back to school in order to eventual make the jump out of a current role.

Changing Your Perspective on Your Work Context

Other times, the answer is not a shift away from a role or organization, but rather a shift in perspective within that role or organization. This path is about taking a proactive posture toward the stuck feeling. Rather than seeing this as something brought upon you by the organization or others, this is about shifting to take ownership and responsibility for what you have control of as you face this feeling.

Advice for Getting Unstuck

On this point, Robert Steven Kaplan provides thoughtful reflections in his HBR article entitled Reaching Your Potential. Here are some recommendations and reflections drawn from Kaplan’s work for those desiring to move out of this feeling of being “stuck” and “trapped.”

  1. Understand Your Strengths and Weaknesses
  2. Use this Understanding to Guide Your Career Choices and Goals
  3. Identify Three or Four Tasks that Are Central to Your Work Responsibilities; Make Sure You Excel at These
  4. Show Character and Leadership within Your Role and Organization
  5. Put the Interests of the Company and Your Colleagues ahead of Your Own Interests
  6. Be Willing to Speak Up, Even Voicing Unpopular Views
  7. Don’t Play It Too Safe
  8. Identify Your Dreams
  9. Develop Skills to Realize these Dreams
  10. Demonstrate Courage to Pursue these Dreams
  11. Remember their Will be Bumps Along the Way

What Are Your Next Steps for Getting Unstuck?

Although we could identify other recommendations to add to these, Kaplan provides great insight here for those wanting to move forward from this place of feeling stuck. The key is to move away from a passive posture and on toward an active posture of taking ownership in moving toward your career potential.

What steps have been most helpful for you in getting “unstuck” in the context of your job?

How to Pray for Your Work

the prayer continued, Flickr

the prayer continued, Flickr

Do you pray? Do you pray about and for your work?

For some, your work may be in a church, school, or organization where prayer is encouraged. For others, your work may be in a place where prayer is simply for personal and private expression.

Regardless of your work context, it is important for us to remember that we are not alone in our work. God cares about you. God cares about the challenges you face in your work.

I’d like to provide some brief reflections on prayer and work

Prayer for Work

First, it is important to recognize that the Bible encourages us to pray for our work. Consider for a moment the example of Moses’ prayer in Psalm 90:16-17. In these verses, both the work of God and our work is addressed. Moses prays:

Let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!

This is a verse I frequently return to as I begin and go throughout my work days. As I put my hands to the work of my day, I want to be mindful of where God is at work (“Let your work be shown to your servant”), and I want to ask for God’s favor and presence to bless, guide, and establish my work (“let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands”).

A friend of mine who served as the director of a major international airport would often use his commute time at the start his day to pray about his work. He looked to verses such as James 1:5 to guide him:

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.

If you are like most people, you have concerns and challenges in your work. The Bible invites you to bring these concerns and challenges to the Lord in prayer. Ask for God to give you wisdom for the work of your day. Ask to be mindful of His presence with you in your work. Ask for his guidance and favor to establish and make successful the work of your hands.

Why Prayer for Your Work Matters

As you bring your work and your prayer together, here are some final thoughts on why prayer matters:

  • Prayer reminds us that we are not alone
  • Prayer provides a place for us to bring our worries and concerns
  • Prayer reminds us that while our work matters, our work is not the final word (God is at work even when we are not … see my previous reflections on this theme here)
  • Prayer provides a moment of pause to reflect on core needs and what matters most in our work and in our life
  • Prayer helps to align our will and desire with the will and desire of God
  • Prayer helps to align the resources of heaven with the needs of this world

Enjoy the journey of praying in and for your work. God cares about you. God cares about your work. He wants to hear what’s on your heart and mind in prayer.

Whether for the first time or the thousandth time, share your heart and thoughts with God in prayer. No special words are required. Share with Him what you are thinking in your own words. Ask for his guidance and direction where you are confused. Bring your concerns and challenges to God in prayer.

Let Your Life Speak — How to Understand Your Vocational Call

Artist at work, Jean-Francois Phillips, Flickr

Artist at work, Jean-Francois Phillips, Flickr

How do you discern your vocational path? How do you decide what your contribution to the world will be? What is your vocational calling?

These are big questions. How we understand our work and the contribution we make to the world is vital from our earliest days of vocational discernment on through adulthood.

  • It is vital for teens as they consider potential pathways for further education and future work.
  • It is vital for adults as they work to make ends meet for their family, and particularly as they seek to do so in a manner that is fulfilling to them personally and meaningful to others societally.
  • It is vital to all engaged in any form of vocation because our work lives occupy the majority of our waking hours.

Understanding the importance of vocational discernment is one thing. Understanding how to approach this process of vocational discernment is quite another.

How to Engage in Vocational Discernment

As I have spent time teaching in the area of leadership and the inner-life, one of the core principles I come back to with students time after time is a rather simple one—the importance of listening. At the core of vocational discernment is the art of listening.

1. Listening to Heroes and History

In the book of Hebrews we are instructed to “Remember [our] leaders, those who spoke to [us] the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7). This charge to look to our leaders is not simply referring to the contemporary and living, but rather also to those who have gone before us.

In Hebrews chapter 11 the author highlights over a dozen persons of great faith such as Abraham, Sarah, Moses, and David. Reflecting on their lives, we are instructed: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1).

As we look to such stories of courage and faith, this becomes one pathway of listening for our own vocational discernment. What is “the race that is set before us”? As we run our own race, we have “so great a cloud of witnesses” surrounding us and cheering us on. Some of these are individuals we read about in Scripture. Some of these are courageous individuals we read about in other historical literature. We can learn about our own vocational race as we look to others. We can reflect on our life and calling as we consider the lives and callings of those throughout history. Historical examples, for better or worse, provide thoughtful insights for our own vocational discernment process.

2. Listening to Your Community

Not only can we engage in vocational discernment through listening to heroes and history, we also must learn to listen well to those in our immediate communities. Are we listening to our family, our friends, and maybe even our foes as we consider our vocational path? There is great value in a contemplative approach to vocational discernment (something I will highlight below), but calling is often best discerned not in isolation but rather in the context of community.

Are we listening to the voices around us? Are we listening to the perspectives of supervisors? Are we listening to feedback from coworkers and those who work for us? Are we listening to what our friends and family share? Are we listening even to our critics when they bring constructive rather destructive reflection?

In the context of community we find a place to listen to others in our own vocational discernment processes.

3. Listening to Your Life

In his book Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer points us to an old Quaker saying that became the title of his book—let your life speak.

Speaking to Your Life

Parker begins his reflections by contrasting two approaches to life. I’ll call the first approach speaking to your life. On this approach, Parker writes, “Vocation, the way I was seeking it, becomes an act of will, a grim determination that one’s life will go this way or that whether it wants to or not.” This is the path many pursue for understanding and seeking their vocational goals.

This path is characterized by setting our course, clarifying our values, and identifying and implementing things such as our S.M.A.R.T. goals. Certainly there is a place for these principles.  But Parker is pointing us to something more. He refers to this something more as letting your life speak.

Let Your Life Speak

Rather than planning out and dictating to our life, Palmer reminds us of the importance of listening to our life and letting our life speak to us. Parker writes, “Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about—quite apart from what I would like it to be about—or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions.”

Such insights remind us of the value of contemplative reflection. They remind us of the importance of stopping, listening, and paying attention to what is happening in and through our lives. Though contemplation is not the only solution, it is a particularly important message for this season in time and history. There are so many potential distractions around us. Although contemplatively listening to our lives has always taken intentionality, in the days of smartphones, email, Facebook, and countless other barriers to contemplation, we are reminded that listening to our lives takes focus and intentionality.

4. Listening to God

For persons of faith, listening to God is the most important consideration. Understanding and living out God’s will for us is a primary concern, and a conversation for which the biblical authors provide key insights (e.g., Romans 12:1-2). While the discussion of understanding God’s will and listening to God’s heart for us warrants a substantial treatment, at this point I’d simply like to make the connection between listening to God’s voice and what has been noted above.

Listening to voices from history, voices from our community, and the voice of our own life are some of the primary ways we hear the voice of God in our lives. The biblical phrase “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28) reminds us that through seasons of discernment and prayer, often the will of God is discerned in the context of the communities within which we are placed.

Certainly God can speak in very direct and dramatic ways. Moses experienced this in the burning bush of Exodus 3. But more often, we hear the voice of God in quiet ways through the people, events, and circumstances that shape our life. We tend to hear God more like the “gentle whisper” Elijah experienced (1 Kings 19:11-13) than the burning bush Moses experienced (Exodus 3).

What’s Next — Moving from Listening to Action

While listening is often the headwaters of discerning vocational calling, action is also important. Engaging the question “How do you get where you want to go,” Michael Hyatt reminds his readers of the importance action: “Just start. Once we had our direction all that was left was to move toward it. … Clarity is composed of knowing and doing.”

As most can affirm through their life experience, sometimes the best way to figure out what is vocationally fulfilling is to experience a number of options. As you “try on” these vocational options, what is a good fit for your skill set and gift mix? What is consistent with your personal passions and purpose? What options are also aligning with opportunities?

While vocational discernment begins in contemplation, it doesn’t end there. Find a rhythm of moving between contemplation and action. There is a cyclical or helical relationship between reflection and action where contemplation gives birth to behavior, and those actions once again lead us back to further reflection.

What Has Worked for You?

As you’ve engaged in your own vocational discernment journey, what has been the key for you? What acts of listening have been of help to you? What other steps do you recommend for those engaged in their own vocational discernment process?