Finding Success in Your Job and Career
In a world that has changed tremendously in recent years, it seems few things have changed as fast as employment and economic situations.
Not that long ago it was common for a person to work for himself or learn a trade and work for one employer for most, if not all, of his working life. Most people started working for one company, and it was virtually a partnership for life. But no longer. That kind of security and loyalty—from employer to employee and vice-versa—is a thing of the past. It's now much more common for people to work for several employers over a lifetime and to learn many skills and hold several kinds of jobs over the course of their career.
In an increasingly competitive world of business mergers, acquisitions and bankruptcies, seniority and experience no longer necessarily equate to job security. People can lose their jobs through downsizing and layoffs with little or no warning. In many advanced nations, entire categories of jobs have been eliminated, replaced through computers and automation or exported to poorer nations where workers will perform the task for a fraction of the cost.
In a world that is so far removed from the life and times of the Bible, do the Scriptures offer any help in how to be successful in our job and career?
Versatility in a changing world
Obviously, one key to economic survival is versatility. Only in recent generations have we seen such a remarkable move toward specialization, and that driven largely by technological advancements. These advancements constantly alter our world, creating new business and job opportunities virtually overnight while just as quickly rendering others obsolete.
We might liken our world to the Bible world of 2,000 years ago in terms of versatility. In Bible times most people were self-employed and had to learn many skills out of necessity. Theirs was not a throwaway society in which if something broke you simply went to the store and bought a new one.
People made most of what they needed, then repaired it when necessary. Of necessity they learned many skills to provide for themselves and their families.
Similarly, people today often have to learn many job skills out of necessity in a fast-paced, fast-changing world. Those who don't learn, grow and change with the times can fall behind and have to fend for themselves.
Timeless principles for success
Even though we live in a world of constant change, some things have not changed for thousands of years. Our world is far removed from that of the Bible, yet its pages reveal timeless principles that apply just as well today as they did when they were first written thousands of years ago.
The book of Proverbs is especially helpful, not just in offering us guidance for how to be successful on the job but in advising how to succeed in all areas of life. Notice how, in the first few verses, King Solomon expresses the purpose of the book of Proverbs:
"The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: for attaining wisdom and discipline; for understanding words of insight; for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life, doing what is right and just and fair; for giving prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the young—let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance" (Proverbs 1:1-5, New International Version).
Simply put, the book of Proverbs is a book to teach us wisdom. It records hundreds of observations on all aspects of life and our relationships with one another. It offers hundreds of gems of advice that have been proven over time. Let's examine some of the advice it offers to help us succeed in our jobs and careers, whether we work for ourselves or others.
A tiny teacher from nature
Solomon was a multitalented man. He was not only a gifted writer, teacher and composer but a student of nature, recording his observations about the natural world around him (1 Kings 4:30-34). One of his first recorded principles for success on the job, and in all areas of life for that matter, came from observing one of the tiniest of God's creatures: the ant.
"Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise!" advises Solomon. "It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest. How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man" (Proverbs 6:6-11, NIV).
Solomon tells us we can learn much about how to be successful in life from the lowly ant. First, the ant doesn't have to have someone tell it what to do. It recognizes what needs to be done and takes care of it.
Any supervisor recognizes the value of an employee with such an approach, someone who learns his job, does it and doesn't have to be reminded what to do. Those who must constantly be told what to do are rarely successful because they not only drain the time and energy of their managers, but they show little or no initiative or potential for advancement.
The ant in Solomon's observations instinctively recognizes the need to plan. When the opportunity is there to gather food, it willingly and diligently works hard to store up provisions for lean times ahead.
Likewise we should recognize the need to make plans. When circumstances are good, make the most of them, recognizing that it won't always be this way. When opportunities present themselves, we should learn to recognize and act on them while circumstances allow. Otherwise they might not present themselves again.
The value of hard work
One lesson from Solomon's meditations on the ant's behavior is unmistakable: To be successful requires hard work. The ant seems instinctively to know it must work hard to survive. Too many people have yet to figure that out.
No one wants to hire (or keep) a person who is lazy, passive, not dependable and always looking for excuses or ways to get out of work. Such people usually are more trouble than they are worth. Solomon points out where such people usually end up—suffering from poverty and scarcity.
Curiously, Solomon's comments imply that these consequences strike the lazy person unexpectedly, like a bandit or robber who strikes suddenly and without warning. Apparently at least some such people lack the foresight even to see the inevitable consequences of their laziness. Perhaps you've seen incompetent employees go their merry way, unaware of their behavioral problems until they were fired. Solomon even notes that some people are so oblivious to their own shortcomings that they seem impervious to reality (Proverbs 26:16).
Solomon adds that we should learn from the examples of behavior we see around us. We should recognize cause and effect, he tells us, to learn what leads to success and what leads to poverty. "I went by the field of the lazy man, and by the vineyard of the man devoid of understanding; and there it was, all overgrown with thorns; its surface was covered with nettles; its stone wall was broken down. When I saw it, I considered it well; I looked on it and received instruction: A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest; so shall your poverty come like a prowler, and your need like an armed man" (Proverbs 24:30-34).
The Proverbs repeatedly tell us that, when it comes to success, there is no substitute for diligent work. "In all hard work there is profit, but talk only makes a man poor" (Proverbs 14:23, Bible in Basic English).
Talk by itself, as Solomon pointed out, produces nothing. Good intentions are just that: intentions. "The soul of a lazy man desires, and has nothing; but the soul of the diligent shall be made rich" (Proverbs 13:4). Good intentions without follow-up actions bring nothing. Diligence, however, pays off. Solomon noted that those who don't want to work can always come up with creative excuses. "The lazy man says, 'There is a lion outside! I shall be slain in the streets!' " (Proverbs 22:13). Excuses, too, are no substitute for getting the job done.
Diligence delivers dividends
Hand in hand with hard work is a trait the Bible often refers to as diligence. We might call it many things: initiative, motivation, enthusiasm, drive, foresight. Curiously, the Hebrew word translated "diligent" is translated "sharp" in several verses. Today we refer to someone as sharp if we think he is intelligent, productive and effective—in other words, if he's diligent.
Diligence and hard work are the opposite of laziness. The fruits of diligence and hard work are also the opposite of the consequences of laziness. What does Solomon relate about the reward of diligence—of initiative, drive and foresight?
"The hand of the diligent will rule, but the lazy man will be put to forced labor," he tells us (Proverbs 12:24). Those who are enthusiastic and motivated in their work are those who naturally will get the promotions and greater responsibility. If you want to be considered for opportunities for advancement, cultivate and develop these traits. Do your absolute best in your current position to show that you can handle additional responsibility, and it will likely come.
No one who takes a passive, disinterested approach to work should expect additional responsibilities, or the additional pay that comes with them. "He who is slow in his work becomes poor, but the hand of the ready worker gets in wealth," says Solomon (Proverbs 10:4, Bible in Basic English). The results of work habits Solomon noted almost 3,000 years ago haven't changed.
"Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might," advised Solomon in his other biblical book (Ecclesiastes 9:10). This is wise advice indeed. If we do our best with opportunities given us, more opportunities will come our way. As king over Israel, Solomon noted just how high diligent, motivated employees can go when they apply themselves: "Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will serve before kings; he will not serve before obscure men"(Proverbs 22:29, NIV).
Preparation before pleasure
For young people in particular, Solomon offers advice that becomes understandable when we apply its underlying principle to our day and age. "Finish your outdoor work and get your fields ready; after that, build your house," he wrote (Proverbs 24:27, NIV). What does that quaint-sounding advice have to do with us?
Solomon was summing up a principle crucial for success. In the agriculturally based society of his time, people lived—and sometimes died—by the condition, readiness and productivity of their fields. If their fields yielded little or no crops, the individual or family was in deep trouble. Thus their highest priority was to keep fields in good condition so everyone could eat.
Solomon advises someone starting out as a young adult to "get your fields ready" first. In other words, take the steps that will put—and keep—food on your table. "After that, build your house," he says. Solomon here sums up our basic priorities in life as work before pleasure.
The modern equivalent would be to be sure you are well prepared to make a living before you start trying to enjoy a good living. Put in the hard work necessary to begin a career and get and keep well-paying jobs. Once your fields (or their economic equivalent) are ready—after you've gained the skills to provide for you and your family—you can take time to build your house—to think about home and family.
In our time the thrust of that preparation to earn a living will be to get an appropriate education. On average, Americans with a college degree will earn double the lifetime earnings of a high-school graduate. Those with advanced degrees will earn far more.
Education is the single best investment you can make for your financial stability and earning power. As technology transforms our world, education will likely grow even more important with each coming year. At the same time the constant advancement of technology means that ongoing education—adding and developing skills—is also crucial.
Stability and strength through self-discipline
Solomon tells us that this sort of self-discipline is crucial to our success. "Whoever has no rule over his own spirit is like a city broken down, without walls" (Proverbs 25:28).
Self-discipline is crucial to getting and maintaining control over our lives. Solomon compared a person without self-discipline to a city without walls. In his day an unwalled city was defenseless before invaders, unable to control its own destiny. It stood helpless before its enemies, and when surrounded it could either surrender, pay protection money or fight and suffer the likely bloody consequences. None of these choices came easily.
In the same way, a person without self-discipline is unable to control his own destiny. Without self-discipline he cannot set and maintain a course that will lead to security and stability. He will often be his own greatest hindrance to success as he follows his own impulses on one false start after another.
Another biblical writer's perspective
Solomon wasn't the only Bible writer to offer sound advice for a successful career. The apostle Paul offers a perspective that can help us on the job regardless of our circumstances. He describes for us the perspective a Christian—and by extension any of us—should take toward our job and our employer:
"Servants, in all things do the orders of your natural masters; not only when their eyes are on you, as pleasers of men, but with all your heart, fearing the Lord: Whatever you do, do it readily, as to the Lord and not to men" (Colossians 3:22-23, BBE; compare Ephesians 6:5-8).
Paul's instruction is simple: We should approach our job as if we were working for Jesus Christ Himself. God is watching us whether the person paying us is or not, so we should always put forth our best effort and strive to please and honor Him. To do otherwise is to dishonor and disobey God, in essence stealing from or defrauding our employer by accepting pay while not giving the quantity and quality of work we've agreed to.
Are you a profitable servant?
Perhaps no other biblical approach to success on the job and in our career is better expressed than that summarized by Jesus Christ Himself. He noted the difference between a servant—an employee—who is profitable to his employer and one who is not.
"Does [the master] thank [his] servant because he did the things that were commanded him?," Jesus asked. "I think not. So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, 'We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do' " (Luke 17:9-10). An unprofitable servant, said Jesus, does as he is told. He exactly—and barely—meets his responsibility. Such a servant, Jesus said, is unprofitable.
Jesus didn't spell out what makes a servant profitable. He didn't have to. His meaning was clear: A profitable servant must go above and beyond his duty. He must go beyond what his master—his employer—expects.
In times of economic uncertainty and financial instability, there is probably no better way to assure your employment security and growth than to follow Paul's admonition to work for one's employer as if you are working for Jesus Christ Himself. In doing so you will fulfill Jesus' description of what we must do to be truly profitable servants.
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