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a voice crying out in the postmodern wilderness

How To Do Work That Matters {The Hierarchy of Meaning}

How To Do Work That Matters {The Hierarchy of Meaning}

And almost no one treats work as a calling, a cause, or a purpose. When I look around, I see people obsessed with money, status, or mere pain avoidance (do as little as possible without getting fired). The statistics confirm it. So does your facial expression on Monday morning.

There is a better way. 

Work was designed by God and given to man as gift. Not only are we to be the agents of God though our work, but we also get to receive great joy as we do so - but we must understand our purpose in work before that can happen. We must work on our hearts and minds before we can do work that matters.

My Accidental Journey Up the Hierarchy

When I graduated college, I was out to make money. I got in the commercial real estate business and started working hard. I pictured expensive trucks and expensive suits and ranches and big houses. Instead I ended up in cheap used cars and a growing credit card balance while my wife supported us on her teacher salary. 

As the years passed, however, I began to do better financially. I got pretty decent at crafting commercial real estate deals for my clients. I could support our family, which now included a child. My wife didn't have to work anymore. But still something was missing. The quantity of money was not enough to satisfy me.

I wanted more.

In 2014 I made a major career change and left the commercial real estate business to join the family construction business. It was a move motivated by a search for meaningful work, and it set me on a journey. I should say, rather, that God set me on a journey. This process was guided by his hand, not mine. 

What I found is that money wasn't enough. Getting good at my job wasn't enough. I wanted something more. I wanted purpose

I found purpose through responsibility. As I have risen in leadership, I have been given the responsibility to care for more and more people at our company. And that's it - at least for me. The caring for, shepherding, and influencing people around me is what I believe God has called me to do. It affects their off time, their families, and possibly even their eternities. I believe God has called me to make an impact on the lives of those around me through my work, and I enjoy every day I get to be his imperfect conduit.

The Hierarchy of Meaning

Because you've scrolled down, let me repost a picture of the hierarchy again before I explain it:

 The Hierarchy of Meaning 

The Hierarchy of Meaning 

Let's start at the bottom and work to the top.

Make Money

You gotta pay the bills. At this stage, you are focused on making money. You need enough to take care of yourself and others who depend upon you. You cannot proceed past this stage until you make enough money to live (which is probably less than what you think if you're smart with your money - see Ramsey, Dave).

The problem is that many of us stay in this stage. Thus, our work is quantity-driven. We will try to adjust our means and methods to make more money. We increase our work hours. And we never quite get what we want because money is an idea, not a real thing. You cannot have enough money if you're quantity-driven because the motivation behind your search is meaning, not money. 

You don't have to be a money-hungry greed monger to stay at this stage. A lot of people hang out here permanently. The people who work for a paycheck and watch the clock live here. It's survival mode for them. Do just enough not to get fired. Mondays are bad and Fridays are good. 

The Make Money stage is a crucial stage, but we cannot live there. If we do, we will be childish and we will have very little impact on those around us. And, in the end, we won't be satisfied with our work.

Get Good

Now we're making progress. We make enough money to live - and maybe a little more. At this point, we have realized that money is not ultimate. And let me be clear - very few people ever reach this stage. Most people hang out in the Make Money stage for their entire career. So if you've gotten to the Get Good stage, well done.

Here we start to discover our giftings. Maybe you're an artist with a gift for making beautiful things or a natural salesperson. It takes some time to learn what you're good at, and usually trial and error is involved. In other words, the Get Good stage is rarely entered in your 20s.

As you learn how God has gifted you, you might make a career change. Or you might apply your talents to your current career. Either way, though, you still start to feel satisfaction as you sing the song you were meant to sing. You're living by your design when you play in your area of giftedness, and that feels good. You will naturally make more money if you're good at what you do, and your work will be easier. 

We're making progress here, but there's still more meaningful work to be had.

Make An Impact

So you make enough money. You've gotten reasonably good at your work and you know what you're good at (you're never finished with the Get Good stage, by the way - so stay humble and hungry). You are now head and shoulders over many of your peers. But being good at your work and making money isn't going to make your soul full. Nor will these things by themselves make an impact on other people around you.

Man this is getting fun.

At this point in your career, which could be at year 3 or year 30 depending upon who you are, you have found perspective. I want you to picture it. What would your work be like if you looked outside of yourself and your interests to what you can offer the world? What if you saw your work as a mission field? What if you used your talents to change the world?

Here you must reckon with your deeply-held beliefs, because you will make an impact based on what you believe the world needs. As for me, I believe the world needs to know Jesus and his rescue on the cross. They need to know him personally and to understand their part in his story.

We could rabbit trail here, but let me digress for a moment. You might think that because I am an evangelical Christian that I would strive to make an impact by proselytizing everyone around me at all times. You might picture me opening every meeting with prayer and walking into people's offices to share the gospel. No judgment for my full-throttle evangelist brothers and sisters, but that's not my style. Do I share the gospel at work? Yes. Do I pray in meetings? Sometimes. But what I do not do is minister through coercion or volume. Instead, I prefer to build relationships and love people - and this creates fertile soil for God-glorifying conversations. As a leader, I have a visibility which affords me the opportunity to practice my faith in front of others and influence them in that way. (This is also a bit heavy, as I'm a broken and sinful dude and I'm often a poor ambassador for Jesus - thus I return to his grace over and over and over. And I repent when needed.) You may have a different style and personality, so as you seek to make an impact in your workplace pray and consider what that might look like.

Making an impact at work is a long game. It is a legacy built upon small everyday moments. It is disruption of the status quo by creating value in the marketplace or beautiful art or clean floors. There is no one path, only one Savior. 

What Do You Do With This?

Okay, so where do you go from here? First, consider what you think work really is. Is it a necessary evil? A means to an end? Or is it a blessed opportunity to dance with the Creator? You must first reframe your thinking on work.

From there you will need to roll up your sleeves and consider what you're really good at. It may not be what you think. Don't box yourself in here by overlaying parental expectations or by believing that you have to be who you've always been. You might be a banker now, but you really have the giftings of a pianist. Try new things. Take personality tests. Ask people. More importantly, ask God. Resist the fear that will flood into your bones. The enemy wants nothing more than to keep you from your talents. If you start thinking you aren't enough, or they'll laugh at you, or you will embarrass yourself, or that'll never work - lean in and keep going. Resistance is imminent. This is not merely finding your strengths, it is spiritual warfare. 

You don't have to follow the stages chronologically. In fact, as you frame your thinking about work, you will want to think about what impact you want to have through your vocation. What legacy do you want to leave? Why? If you have a vision for the impact you'd like to make on the world, you will be more motivated to find your talents and do the hard work of getting good at what you do. 

Finally, understand that all work matters. Lawyers matter. Janitors matter. CEOs matter. Receptionists matter. Stay-at-home moms matter. Educators matter. You do not need to do something for a living that is sexy or lucrative. Just be who God made you to be, do what God made you to do, and love the people he's called you to love in his name.

 

(By the way, I think the Hierarchy of Meaning would make a good subject for a talk to companies or organizations. If you'd like to discuss booking me to speak, holler at me.)

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