To quit or not to quit
TRENDING | Authors miss the mark on finding meaning in work
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Early on in the book Quitting: A Life Strategy (Hachette Book Group 2023) Julia Keller relates the story of when she abruptly quit graduate school and her job as a graduate teaching assistant.
She describes her feelings of shame as she quit, why she thinks those feelings were misguided, and how she eventually overcame them and went on to a highly successful career in journalism. But one matter goes unaddressed: What happened to her students when she quit? Did the class she taught get canceled? Did another teacher have to take on extra work? Keller doesn’t answer those questions. The effect her decision had on others doesn’t even seem to be an afterthought.
In a rapidly changing economy, Americans are rethinking their work lives and goals. Keller’s book—along with The Search: Finding Meaningful Work in a Post-Career World (Penguin Press 2023) by Bruce Feiler—attempts to offer guidance for those who find themselves navigating this new dynamic. Both authors are firmly on the left side of the ideological spectrum; both offer some sound advice to workers; but both encourage an inward focus to such an extent that it could become unhealthy.
In Keller’s narrative, the problem with our culture is that self-help gurus have ingrained in us the idea that if we’re not successful, it’s because we didn’t try hard enough or persevere long enough. Keller rejects the gurus completely. We need to realize that the universe is random, she argues, and that “within all of that flux and churn and uncertainty” we can do very little except “quit when we need to.”
It’s not that hard work is useless, just that forces beyond our control count for more. In this telling, the difficulties we all have in our lives are not brought by Providence (with the proper response being faithfulness, whether that means staying a course or departing from it). Nope. “Life’s a crapshoot,” and when our brains tell us to quit, it’s because quitting is what is best for us.
This doesn’t mean her advice is all bad. Keller is at her strongest when she describes “pivoting.” This happens when a person leaves one job or course of action and embarks on another. She interviews an economist who compares it to calling an audible in football when it’s clear a particular play isn’t going to work.
From a Christian perspective, pivoting can be healthy, but what about when our decision to quit breaks a commitment we’ve made to somebody who is counting on us? Keller offers examples of that kind of quitting—but doesn’t talk about the effect on others.
Without a sense that responsibility to others is important, Keller doesn’t have a moral framework with which to evaluate different acts of quitting. NBA star Scotty Pippen’s infamous decision to leave a playoff game abruptly when his coach wanted to have another player take a crucial shot is no worse than giving notice and leaving one job to take another, which is no better than divorcing a nonabusive spouse. To Keller, these acts of quitting are all morally the same.
Feiler’s book, on the other hand, has a lot about people finding meaning through service to others. Feiler interviewed 155 people about their work lives to get an idea of how Americans are going about work in today’s economy. What he found is that most people don’t have careers in the 20th-century sense of a lifelong job or series of jobs in one field. Instead, they go through “workquakes” that upend their working lives.
The good news is that 90 percent describe their workquake as a step forward, even though 50 percent made less money afterward. The reason is that they found work that was more meaningful. And, for many, that meaning came from serving others.
So far, so good. But problems arise when you consider the work of some of the interviewees: One is a woman with a side job as a medium. Others are sex workers. In other words, the meaning of meaning is highly subjective for Feiler. We all have to find it within ourselves. The questions he suggests we ask ourselves (which include, “Am I doing what I want to be doing? Am I becoming who I want to become? Am I living in a way that brings me meaning today—and will bring me more meaning in the future?”) aren’t bad ones. They just aren’t complete. The Christian should start with “Am I serving God well? Am I serving others well?”
Both Keller and Feiler take shots at the “work ethic,” and Keller at the “Protestant work ethic” in particular, suggesting the work ethic is about work for its own sake. But the original Puritan work ethic was nothing of the kind. It was about service to God through service to others. Every believer was a priest who was called by God to his or her work in the world. As long as the work was beneficial to someone else and didn’t inherently involve sin, a believer-priest could do it for the glory of God.
The focus on others didn’t involve a rejection of self-interest. It was about finding your self-interest in serving God and others, along the lines of Philippians 2:4. This ethic sometimes, though certainly not always, led to material prosperity. But either way, service and responsibility were the path to meaningful, joyful work.
If the Puritans were right, then much of the self-focused advice from Keller and Feiler will not be helpful to Americans trying to find their way in the new working world.
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