Those words so struck me that I stopped and copied them down while I was listening to this short (free) audiobook. Seth Godin likes provocative phrases. And after listening to the whole book, I know that what Godin means is that it is inborn talent and the ability to push through in hard times. But that is not what he was actually saying here.
The story of Rudy isn’t that he worked really hard and his hard work paid off and he became a great football legend. He worked really hard and after years, and a lot of points where most people said he should quit, he got a chance, not because of his performance, but because of his heart and other people’s willingness to step aside to help him out.
This what frustrates me when I listen to a lot of economics, or political rhetoric or even Christian discipleship. The reality is that no matter how hard you work, there were times that you got a break. One of the subtexts to Thomas Sowell‘s book Conquest and Cultures that I am work on right now is that there are all kinds of influences to success. A people group in the middle of the plains of Africa will never develop into a great trading culture because of the lack of navigable waterways in Africa and high rates of disease that makes pack animals not cost effective.
So we have to have both, we have to be talented and do the hard work. We have to be lucky enough to be born at the right time and do the hard work. We have to be lucky enough to be born into a culture that values the thing that we are good at and do the hard work.
Seth Godin and many other motivational authors and speakers and consultants know this. But they are often not as explicit as they should be (or they actually minimize reality as in the above quote.) And when we minimize reality we create cynics. Because after a while a lot of people know that they did do the hard work. It is just that they were born to parents that were divorced, in a community that has a poor school system and at a time where jobs were scarce. That does not mean that they do not need to work hard. But it does mean that they are not getting the same return on investment as someone else who is putting in the same amount of effort. Part of it is differences in inborn talent. But part of it is also pure luck. One person is born into a situation where they have access to what they need. They still have to work hard to get it. But the base resources are available. The other person who was gifted with the soul of an artist and the talent of Michelangelo was born as the slave or a minor son in 3rd Century BC on an island in the South Pacific. Or perfectly talented as a computer programmer in 1842. Access and fame are not created equal and we should stop pretending that they are.
On the other hand I completely agree with Godin’s main point that we have to quit some things in order to be better at other things. When I started blogging regularly, I stopped listening to podcasts and music. I like podcasts and music. But I decided if I wanted to be able to post 3 to 5 book reviews a week I could not listen to couple hours of music or podcasts a day. But I want to also affirm that many of the things we decide to quit do not make sense toward normal means of success. By being a nanny I gave up the opportunity to make more money doing something else. It is an opportunity cost.
As Christians, I want to suggest that being a Christian may mean that we are not good at many things according to traditional means of measurement. Instead, being a parent, and a servant to your community and a spouse might mean that we are choosing not to go after that next promotion at work. I don’t want to do a Jesus Juke. But reality says that we cannot do it all. And if what we are striving after is the corner office. Then something has to go.
I want to read Godin generously. He is not saying that the corner office is the only thing that we can go after. But the vast majority of his audience and his examples are business. As a Christian I want to affirm the concept of divine vocation. We should work hard at the tasks that God has given us. But we should not turn those tasks (or our jobs, or our families or our churches) into idols.
One last question for Godin is how this works with the Christian understanding of vocation. He flat out says that if you are not progressing, you need to quit and go somewhere else where you can progress. Some of that I get. But what does that mean for the pastor of a small rural church. Do you move on because you can be a pastor of a larger church? What about stay at home moms that could make more money other places? What about people that move into inner city neighborhoods or intentionally take lower paying jobs so that they can have more time to build up a community? The Christian understanding of vocation is not easily measured. I think that people like Jonathan Hargrove-Wilson and his book Wisdom of Stability really says something very different about why we would choose to stay someplace where we are not actively growing a career.