Working Hard Is Not Enough – 33rd Birthday Reflection no.2

“Sisyphus” by Interesni Kazki, painted on a building in Ekaterinburg, Russia

I usually update this blog around once a week, but I’ve been preoccupied with some exciting new ministry efforts coupled with increased preaching duties orbiting Thanksgiving over the past month or so. Incidentally, this year’s holiday reminded me yet again of the vast quantity of things for which I have to be grateful, especially my family, whose affection I do not remotely deserve. Not only did my sister take a break from her recording project in Nashville to visit with everyone else, not only did my mother single-handedly prepare the most scrumptious meal I’ve tasted all year, not only did my dad randomly install a new hard drive on my computer twice the size of my old one, they did all this purely because they love me without any pressure to reciprocate. And even though I did express my love back to them (and they probably figured that I would), the whole scene reminded me once again of how amazing freely given love is and how thankfulness prepares a place for its flourishing.

I may write more about the subject of gratitude in the near future, but the topic of this post is a bit different. In the middle of all those cool ministry pursuits and family loving this past month, I also got the chance to coach several folks slogging through some extremely frustrating struggles in their lives–job prospects gone south, precious relationships decaying beyond ostensible repair, and a lot of confusion about how to even begin to sensibly chart a course for the future. I cannot share these people’s stories here in detail without breaching confidentiality, but the experience reinforced my conviction about the main point I want to share here, a lesson I learned the hard way over the past year about what lies at heart of much of our failure to achieve the sorts of things we really want for the endeavors that matter to us the most.

Now, if you are a total slacker reading this because you think it will validate your laziness, this post will disappoint you. On the other hand, if you are someone who has ever felt frustrated when your erstwhile, conscientious efforts have gone unrewarded–someone who has put their nose to the grindstone time and again with little to show for it save a face full of sparks–this article is for you. And if you are frequently tempted to slack off because working hard all the time with mediocre results exhausts you, the following could be one of the most important things you read all week. Sectional links for ease of navigation, just like last time:

§ 1. The threshold of sufficient reward
§ 2. The principle formally expressed
§ 3. Why we constantly miss this lesson
§ 4. The Divine connection
§ 5. Concluding, personal notes

This must be the world's most endearing image of camel online (:

§ 1. The threshold of sufficient reward – In my last post in this series, I tried to illustrate how a fine line separates the utterly depressing from the categorically awesome, and I argued that we should relentlessly pursue the latter as if our lives depended on it (because they actually do). The focus of this article is intimately connected with the actualization of that principle on a pragmatic level. If we don’t know what constitutes a categorically awesome object of pursuit, we will miss valuable opportunities time and again–often winding up, well, utterly depressed. But anybody who has ever successfully identified such a truly worthwhile endeavor knows that victory in that skirmish is only one part of the much greater battle. There’s the challenge of the actual pursuit itself, which is is where most of us really struggle. And while a camel can outlast a horse in the desert, the former still needs water to keep going at some point. Similarly, even the most tenacious and discerning among us need concrete, positive reinforcement that the things and people and projects to which we have committed our time and effort really are worth the cost of investment, even when we are pretty sure that this is the case in theory.

Garnering such positive reinforcement is easy by definition when the course of action we select is immediately, satisfyingly rewarding. But not much of life is like that. Indeed, a number of the most important, good decisions we make do not yield immediately satisfying results. And complications can arise in the middle of a given endeavor just as much as they may at the beginning. How many promising opportunities have you watched people decline because risking experimentation seemed to cost too much to them? We will stick with a given state of affairs, even one where we are dissatisfied and uncomfortable, if the alternatives do not seem like they will yield a substantially better outcome balancing out the potential cost. And even if we do embark on some experiment because the probable results seem worthwhile enough to warrant the risk, we will not remain robustly committed to the matter for very long if our efforts become too disconnected from a palpably experienced reward.

It is normal not to try something novel unless it promises a better outcome than the way we have already chosen. It is difficult to delay gratification when a newly selected path forward does not deliver on its promises as swiftly as we hope. But it is pitiful when we repeatedly do the same, inadvisable things over and over again that yield the same, lousy results–especially when we don’t have a clue about how to achieve anything better. Nevertheless, we make these sorts of decisions often, and we do so in a multitude of extremely costly ways.

Silent film artist, Buster Keaton, illustrating the ignominy of life behind bars

For example, the United States Department of Justice conducted a study across fifteen different states finding that 67.5% of prisoners released after being convicted of felonies were rearrested within three years. That is not just an indictment of our criminal justice system’s inability to achieve restoration, as I’ve previously alluded in my analysis of Troy Davis’s plight. That ridiculously high rate of recidivism is also a painfully accurate illustration of humanity’s difficulty breaking cycles of poor behavior with obviously severe ramifications. In fact, the 2003 Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics reports that the rate of repeat felony climbed as high as 75% and above for those convicted of stealing personal property or possessing / selling stolen goods, with nearly 80% rate of repeat offense for those arrested for auto theft. Evidently, we’ll take a flying leap after carrots that we already know are forbidden and demonstrably out of reach provided they look juicy enough.

You might chalk that sort of behavior up to a symptom of delinquency, but law abiding citizens do the same sorts of things in their relationships, their jobs, and in setting the courses for their respective futures. We far too often wind up in the same sorts of vacuous friendships and romances, pouring our hearts into what is not built to last or else cutting our loses and screwing whomever we can to get a mere taste of what we really want despite the lack of substance. Similarly, many of us habitually sabotage our own careers. If we stay employed, we tend to do so in jobs that we do not enjoy working for people who do not understand us. A 2004 study conducted by Harris Interactive, Inc. found that roughly 55% of employees across America are unsatisfied with their jobs, and they are working for bosses who think that twice as many of them are “extremely satisfied” with their situation than is actually the case according to a 2009 study conducted by

Instead of taking an honest look at why we keep winding up in these situations, we tend to blame others. And if we do accept responsibility for our circumstances, most of us apparently do not know how to qualitatively change matters in the final analysis. Why?

§ 2. The principle formally expressed – For those of us who are not chronic slackers, the source of this problem is not an obvious character flaw or a socially reinforced vice. In fact, many of us suffer from a virtue gone awry, and that is the pervasive misbelief that hard work is enough.

This quote by Einstein pretty much speaks for itself...

Many of us are convinced despite strong evidence to the contrary that if we just keep plugging away at this lackluster gig or that disappointing relationship, things will get better by sheer force of effort. And so we do just that, we keep committing our time and energy until we accrue a sufficiently large quantity of poor results such that the thing occupying our attention falls apart of its own accord or frustrates us to the point that we bail to a different field of endeavor. Where we usually repeat the same, ineffective behavior predicated on the truism that working and working and working will get us what is good all by itself.

And those of us who luck out, who achieve a better state of affairs despite living according to this mistaken approach gild that freaking carrot for the rest of us such that we keep trying in vain. In contrast, here is the tough but ultimately liberating truth I learned this year:

33rd Birthday Lesson No.2 – Working hard is not enough. In the long run, you will only be substantially rewarded for bringing something of clearly discernible value to a given state of affairs and not for your effort alone.

§ 3. Why we constantly miss this lesson – If this principle sounds counter-intuitive, let it sink in for just moment. Most of the time, you will not get what you want simply by working hard. Now, the capacity to work hard is itself immensely important. And since it is difficult to build the endurance necessary to work hard along with the the diligence to apply ourselves time and again, a lot of us are distracted from the truth that fortifying these character traits in no way guarantees success all by itself.

Thus, we tend to attribute an inability to achieve a certain goal to an insufficient quantity of effort, or else we conclude that the desired outcome just was not in the cards for us this time around. Unfortunately, many of us layer these interpretations of our lives with a sort of creeping, statistical fallacy, one where we believe that continuing to work hard somehow makes us progressively more worthy to encounter success. And while this may be true in one sense, we take things a step further to presume that we not only deserve success in our endeavors but that we will actually be rewarded with it by some external guarantor–the universe, a boss, God, our colleagues or clientele–some day in the future.

As a result, we possess a dangerously crude understanding of what our work is in the first place. Far wiser minds than mine have reflected on this matter for centuries, but I am going to define work here as “any effort or activity directed toward the production or accomplishment of something.” Now, that’s a pretty general definition, but it immediately illustrates why efficiency is so great: Achieving more productivity for less effort is the bottom line of what everybody means when they say it is better to work smarter than harder.

Framed this way, work is a somewhat different concept than employment, which I could define as “the self-determined state of exchanging work for some form of compensation.” That compound word “self-determined” helps us draw a line between employment and slavery, in that people who are enslaved may very well be compensated for their labor, but they have this arrangement thrust upon them rather than enjoying the opportunity to chose or reject it with some measure of autonomy.

Hilarious scene from Mike Judge's "Office Space"

Our distinction between work and employment is helpful because it emphasizes that third term, compensation, which provides a means for us to grasp what we so often miss when it comes to working hard. Namely, we are compensated over the long run for the productivity of our work and not for the effort required to yield this productivity. Furthermore, there is a perspectival quality to compensation for productivity; in other words, we are not compensated for our actual productivity but for the value that others ascribe to the things or the ideas or whatever it is we happen to produce for which they are willing to exchange some other thing of value.

So, there are actually three different methods to optimize the rewards for one’s labor: 1) find ways to produce things of greater value, i.e. work more innovatively or with greater skill, 2) squeeze more productivity out of the same quantity of work, i.e. work more efficiently, or 3) find ways to amplify the perception of the value of one’s productivity for the sake of those with whom we are trying to exchange the product of our work for something else of value.

The above might seem ridiculously technical, but this is what makes it possible for a twenty-four year old football player or a seventeen year old pop star to achieve literally hundreds upon thousands of times the compensation for their work when compared to a veritable army of school teachers, social workers, and the like. The world’s working poor and scores of starving artists may curse a system that impoverishes thousands of us while awarding Justin Beiber $53 million in a single year for stuff like “Baby” and “Eenie Meenie,” but there is actually a really good reason for this. Our society as  a whole simply attributes greater value to the products of Justin Beiber’s work, and so we will collectively exchange more stuff of value for it.

Tim Tebow sporting "John 3:16" on his eye black

Notice also that I am using the term, “compensation,” pretty generally here, too. When Tim Tebow inscribed “John 3:16” on his eye black for the 2009 BCS national football championship game as a student at the University of Florida, he received no direct, financial compensation for his labor; however, his activity yielded a disproportionately greater social effect than would have been the case if hundreds of pastors or lawyers or dishwashers had done something similar in their lines of work. Tebow’s singular action rocketed Google searches for “John 3:16” above every other term the night of that game, prompted multiple forms of commentary across traditional media outlets as well as the blogosphere, and landed Tebow numerous speaking engagements where he has been invited to discuss his perspective and share his message about God’s love, as this fan-made, April 2010 clip from the Don Meyer Evening of Excellence at Lipscomb University illustrates.

Listen, social workers and school teachers most assuredly perform a more categorically important function for our society in general than sports stars and pop idols; their work is not only more taxing, it more substantially impacts more people’s lives for the better. Nevertheless, our society ascribes a disproportionately greater value to the productivity of a teenage heartthrob or an NFL-bound Heisman trophy winner than the productivity of the other sorts of people I mentioned. And as frustrating as that may be for many of us, there is a logic behind this seeming irrationality.

But we can do better than simply suffer though this situation, like so many heartbroken hipsters overwhelmed by legions of “beliebers” (as Justin’s fans like to call themselves for some crazy reason). We can use use these facts to jolt ourselves beyond the web of misbelief threatening to hold our futures captive the minute we deal with the matter squarely. Instead of getting frustrated when our efforts fail to pan out in the ways we hope, we should ask three absolutely critical questions and respond accordingly:

  1. Are my efforts actually producing anything of value in this situation, or am I basically killing time and energy?
  2. Am I getting hung up about squeezing more effort out of myself, or are there ways that I can succeed in extracting more productivity from my labor–either by working more efficiently or else by gaining or tapping into more skill so that the things I produce are more valuable?
  3. Is there some person or entity who needs to recognize the value of the things I am producing in order for me to obtain the sort of compensation for which I am hoping in exchange for my work? If people do not seem to care about all the great stuff I produce, how I can I go about raising the perception of its value so they take notice?

Jack Whittacker won nearly $114 million after taxes through the lottery, all of which he lost. He is now struggling financially and claims that he wished he never won in the first place.

Unfortunately, most of us do not pose these sorts of questions to ourselves; perhaps we have difficulty dealing with the weight of freedom and responsibility they remind us we possess. If we take those three questions seriously, then we almost never have anybody to blame for a state of affairs that displeases us over the long haul but ourselves. We cannot blame poor parenting, misunderstanding teachers, cheapskate bosses, no-good lovers, loser friends, or bad hands dealt by life for absolutely ruining everything. Accidents do happen and fortunes are found. Some people suffer low blows, and others reap windfalls. Yet, with rare exception, none of those more negative outcomes can completely inhibit us from increasing our ability to produce things, ideas, or states of affairs of value over time as well as achieve greater recognition for the value of our productivity day by day. Again, an unanticipated stroke of luck can actually numb us to learning these critical lessons, which is probably one reason why so many people who win the lottery actually wind up in worse financial shape in the long run.

Additionally, many of us who aren’t winning the lottery cope with a sense of inadequate compensation for our labor by adjusting our expectations rather than our activity, by seeking refuge from the weight of our freedom and responsibility in pseudo gratitude predicated on the possibility that things could be even worse. In other words, we are often not truly thankful for the blessings we receive; instead, we use fear of an unrealized, potentially more negative future that could befall us to resist the impulse to take a shot at changing our situation for the better in tough but trustworthy ways.

It is easier to reconcile oneself to disappointment than it is to go through the hassle of altering such a fundamental part of one’s worldview, something affecting essentially any sort of relationship we might share with others, from romantic partners to friends to business associates. Philosophically, these are some of the reasons why we tend to miss the lesson that we will only be substantially rewarded for bringing something of clearly discernible value to a given state of affairs and not for sheer force of effort alone.

§ 4. The Divine Connection – I have consciously tried to develop this essay using general terms, without limiting discussion of things like work, employment, compensation, value, reward, efficiency, freedom, and responsibility to a strictly financial context because I am convinced of its broad applicability. In fact, the experience that really drove this point home for me this year personally had virtually no financial component to it whatsoever.

Back in March of 2010, the father of my senior ministerial colleague, the Rev. Dr. Bill Shereos, passed away. I had worked beside Bill for about two years serving the people of First Free Church and the greater Chicago area, and I watched him overcome immense obstacles during this time. But the death of Bill’s father hit him hard, and as a result, I offered to preach the sermon on a particular Sunday to give him more time to mourn with his family without having to be concerned about the affairs of the church quite so much.

There was just one catch: Bill had already developed a topic for this particular sermon that linked with several other messages scheduled to precede and follow it on adjacent Sundays that month. Moreover, two different volunteer teams at First Free had put in a lot of effort to shape the rest of the parts of the worship service around the topic Bill selected, including a bunch of songs that had been carefully rehearsed and other creative elements on the agenda. Finally, since all this happened rather unexpectedly, it meant that I had relatively little time to whip together a solid sermon on a topic that I could not really change all that much. And since I was doing all this to try to give Bill a bit of a break, I obviously could not ask him for help without undercutting the very way I was trying be helpful myself!

My awesome, senior pastor, the Rev. Dr. Bill Shereos. Come visit us at First Free Church in Chicago!

So, I totally altered my usually approach for developing a sermon. Instead of reading a bunch of scriptural texts on the topic, cross-referencing various scholarly essays and commentaries, looking for some key illustration or metaphor to unpack, and collecting a handful of application points, I began by simply listening in earnest to the passage of scripture Bill had chosen weeks in advance. During my other duties leading up to my delivery of this sermon, I had an audio clip of the context for that passage running on my computer constantly, which helped me lock on to the part of the text that harmonized strongest with my own heart as well as the topic with which I had to work. I even listened to this clip right before I went to sleep and when I woke up! I crafted my sermon with a heavy bias in its delivery towards simplicity rather than sheer volume of material to cover, and I listened to sermons other solid preachers had developed on the specific parts of my message where I kept getting hung up in preparation.

Now, I do not suggest this approach for every pastor out there, and I do not utilize it myself much today. But when the time came to preach that sermon, it turned out to be one of the best I ever had the honor of delivering at First Free Church. It was uncomplicated, both simple and rich; it was poignant, both hard-hitting and comforting. That sermon was firmly rooted in the Biblical text, addressed the topic I had been given, but was also spoken forth in my own voice. It was comprised primarily of “original thought,” but it effectively drew from the wisdom of pastors and theologians many years beyond my level of experience and homiletic acumen. I readily admit that God may just have decided to cut me a break given the circumstances and plopped a great sermon in my lap, but the bottom line was that I wound up producing something of categorically greater value and with substantially less effort (due to the fact that I simply had little time to devote to preparation) than was usually the case for my preaching up to that point in time.

Now, this sermon may not seem like that big of a deal to you, but it sure was for me. While I do not preach many sermons under the circumstances I encountered back in March, I have also been able to prepare and deliver several other messages even more effectively ever since. Better yet, this experience caused me to reflect on all the other ways I may have been burning away my efforts fruitlessly because I had become numb to the perception of a surplus of resource and a certain way I basically figured I had to work hard–factors that made it easy for me to forget my opportunity to be more efficient and more creative in preparation.

Best of all, I have found that the modus operandi of this approach is absolutely transferable. The people I have coached and counseled since then, men and women facing immensely more difficult circumstances than what I related above, have been able to powerfully apply this same lesson to difficulties with romantic relationships, stalled job enterprises, acquiring adequate financial aid in college, plotting out a course for their lives, embarking on a new career path, and multiple other circumstances fraught with danger and opportunity. The key in all those real life examples for growth and forward movement was identifying how to increase the clearly discernible value each individual brought to a given state of affairs, not just how to redouble their efforts, snooker some other party, or plead for mere handouts.

To radicalize while also generalizing this point, notice that Christ Jesus himself emphasizes a similar approach in the gospel according to Matthew–my emphasis added:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21 NIV)

Notice that Jesus does not say that accruing material wealth is flatly worthless or that the pursuit of riches is categorically wrong but that we should direct our efforts towards that which is of even greater value still, towards “treasures in heaven.” He makes a similar point earlier in the chapter when it comes to reframing people’s understanding of even more spiritual or altruistic pursuits when he teaches his followers how they should pray and give charitable donations. In this case, Jesus emphasized that these things should be done in secret such that they are acceptable to the only Person for whom it really matters, God our Father; he was directing them to not just focus on greater quantities of prayer or more voluminous donations but on a way of prayer and giving that really count towards what is lasting by virtue of whose opinion really matters (i.e. not our friends or colleagues who might notice our prayers or see us give). Again, my emphasis added:

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you…” (Matthew 6:1-4 NIV)

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6-7 NIV)

Yeah, that's Justin Bieber alright...

We all know that there are people who blow a lot of time and effort on pursuits for which they are highly rewarded in one sense, but not with things of truly, lasting value. (Yup, I’m thinking again of the Beibster here…) The only way I know to be certain that we select the sorts of relationships and jobs and courses of action that are truly valuable–to “hedge” for the limitations in our own power of discernment when it comes to assessing the worth of this or that thing–is to commit ourselves to a progressively deepening relationship with the One who created and knows all things best of all. And when we do that, we enjoy the added benefit not just of laying our hands to work that will yield products of actually greater value but also being able to draw the strength, the encouragement, the positive reinforcement we need in order to keep going due to the omnipotent power of the Almighty Living God who can not only guide but sustain us beyond our best wisdom and efforts alone could accomplish.

As Jesus says to his followers in John 15:16 shortly before sacrificing his life on the cross for our redemption, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit–fruit that will last.” And when Christ was about to ascend to heaven after he rose from the dead, he added, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Not only did Jesus promise his disciples that they would be guided towards work of true value, producing “fruit that will last,” he promised they would receive the strength they needed to accomplish this despite all the hardships they would face, receiving “power when the Holy Spirit comes on you” to complete their specific mission, to be Jesus’s “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Remember, these were regular people, just like you and me. And while you may not have had the opportunity to literally walk beside Jesus in the flesh like his disciples did at that time, God still offers you the chance to receive strength from his hand when you pursue the relationship with him that he so desires. As Psalm 29:11 puts it, “The LORD gives strength to his people; the LORD blesses his people with peace.” Or as the psalmist puts it even more personally in the previous chapter, in Psalm 28:7, “The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and I am helped. My heart leaps for joy and I will give thanks to him in song.”

Consequently, the single most effective way to ensure that we will acquire solid rewards for work exercised by truly adding value to a given state of affairs is by making our relationship with God the absolute, top priority. That’s it–that’s what enables us to both identify the pursuits that are most worth the risk of pursuing as well as receive a sufficient level of positive reinforcement we pragmatically need to keep on going when we face hardship and confusion. That’s why scripture repeatedly directs us to put our focus on God in general and Jesus in particular, the “author and perfector of our faith” (cf. Hebrews 12:1), because it is ultimately God “who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (cf. Philippians 2:13). That is why Romans 9:16 strongly emphasizes that, in the final analysis, even our spiritual salvation itself “depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.”

"Entropy" by Chuck Mountain

Merely working hard is not enough; we are meant to work alongside our loving and awesome Creator. That’s why Jesus implores us in Matthew 11:28ff to come to him when we are weary and burdened rather than just keep toiling away. That’s why he invites us to take his “yoke” upon him while learning from him, saying that we will therein find rest for our souls since his yoke is “easy” and his burden is “light,” i.e. because he is the one standing beside us doing the lifting and the pulling with the Holy Spirit working within us rather than our having to go it alone. There is no more liberating, rewarding way of life than this. And that’s why Matthew 6 ends on the following promise–my emphasis added:

“Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:31-34 NIV)

§ 5. Concluding, personal notes – This post is a bit more theoretically toned than the previous one, and that is because understanding the principle I’m trying to unpack requires some nuance when it comes to those aforementioned concepts of work, employment, compensation, value, reward, efficiency, freedom, and responsibility. Fortunately, it is not that difficult to begin to apply this lesson on the personal level. After asking those three, critical questions I mentioned back in section 3 to assess your state of affairs, after getting honest with yourself about the state of your relationship with God and doing everything possible to put that first in your life, the following responses are almost always effective at increasing the clearly discernible value of whatever you are attempting to bring to a given situation:

  • Jettison whatever is wasting your time or holding you back – I’ll start with a more spiritual example here, just to underscore once more that we’re not just talking about finances alone. As Hebrews 12:1 puts it, we should “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” and “run with perseverance the race marked out for us. ” This post is not written for the merely lazy, but all of us could stand to take a cold, hard look in the mirror to assess the ways we may be choosing paths predicated on false entitlement, fear, inhibition, irresponsibility, frustration, selfishness, and other malignant ways of life. A similar thing is true for endeavors that are not necessarily bad in and of themselves but that function to distract you from more worthwhile pursuits, simply drain your energy, or ultimately waste your time.
  • Embrace and find inspiration amidst limitation – Don’t just sit around waiting for windfalls before getting productive; find ways to bring clearly discernible value to what you are going to do right now. The New Living Translation’s treatment of Ecclesiastes 11:4 is instructive here, “Farmers who wait for perfect weather never plant. If they watch every cloud, they never harvest.” For an amazing, positive example of the utility of finding inspiration amidst limitation, check out this TED talk delivered by Amy Purdy, a double-amputee world champion snowboarder, who emphasizes that truly successful innovation is “not about breaking down borders but about pushing off of them.”
  •  Get honest and creative by doing the inner work – Even if you know that merely working harder is not enough, it can be difficult to gain any traction in working smarter. The first step to doing so is to try to get some perspective about whatever endeavor is under consideration, honestly asking, “Do I really believe this is worth the expenditure of my time and energy to begin with? Will it either deliver a product of lasting value that I care about directly or else help serve as a means to such an end?” In the short term, this may ride on whether a given endeavor is sufficiently enjoyable for us, but in the long term, this will require that what we are presently considering contributes to those things that are of greatest value, the things that matter the most of all. (Remember that point about laying up treasures in heaven from Matthew 6…)
  • Close the gap between your view and others’ when it comes to perceived value – Presuming you’ve identified something of true value that you can increase in some way, the next step is to determine two, subsequent matters, 1) “Is this project valuable to the people whose opinion matters, or am I running a wild goose chase?” as well as 2) “How can I help those particular people whose opinion does matter in this case to be more likely to recognize the worth of my contribution?”

Until next time, may you learn to bring greater, discernible value to the jobs and relationships and endeavors to which you have been blessed with the opportunity to apply yourself. May God deliver you from fruitless toil and develop in you greater discernment, teaching you how to most effectively pursue the things that really matter while you put his kingdom and righteousness first in your life. May you overcome frustration, fear, selfishness, inhibition, and irresponsibility as you continue your journey through life, eschewing toilsome and fruitless pursuits for God’s ways by virtue of a growing, saving relationship with Jesus. Most of all, may your work be poured out from an overflowing heart, blessing those with whom you come in contact even while laying up for yourself “treasure in heaven, where moth and vermin do not destroy and thieves do not break in and steal.”

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