Pursuing Joy; Serving Others

The following is a talk given by Shundrawn Thomas at CFI’S 2020 Fall Executive Forum. Shundrawn is a dedicated executive, teacher, husband, father, and author of four books, including Discover Joy in Work. He serves as President of a trillion-dollar global investment management business and speaks nationally on subjects including vocation, leadership, strategy, investments, personal finance, values, and faith. 

“Men, for the sake of getting a living, forget to live.” —Margaret Fuller

About a decade ago, I went through a very challenging period professionally. I like to refer to this as a dry season. It wasn’t tied to poor performance. In fact, during this time I had received exceptional performance reviews. I had all the outward appearances and trappings of career success: the prestigious job, the promotions, the good pay to go alongside. However, personally, I was in a real emotional funk. I confided in a mentor about my despondency and he observed that it was just the nature of the kind of jobs that we have. “That’s why we call it work,” he remarked. Apparently happiness and work were strange bedfellows. I could be successful or happy, but not necessarily both. And maybe I also needed to relax my views about living out my faith at work. 

When I think back on this period, it actually turns out that my experience, this dry season, so to speak, was not unique to me. If we measure, for example, engagement, which simply means being enthusiastic about our work in our workplace, we find a very inconvenient truth. Only about a third of employees in the U.S. are considered engaged and only about fifteen percent of employees globally. Now I realize that I am addressing a group of Christian leaders, men and women of strong faith. So this couldn’t be your story, right? Well, if you stick with me a little while, you may at the very least find that I can shed some light on your workplace or provide insights into the experiences of people that you work with.

If I fast forward to the present day, my current situation—or I should say better, my attitude—has changed decidedly. And I didn’t give up on living out my faith in the workplace. In fact, I like to tell people that I doubled down. I did, however, give up on the pursuit of workplace happiness, at least in the conventional sense. And importantly, I learned to rediscover joy in my work. 

What would it look like for leaders in the marketplace to respond to Christ’s call to love God and our neighbors? This is arguably the preeminent question that the Center for Faith & Innovation challenges us to address. Practically, this implies that Christ-like leadership creates lasting value for all stakeholders, extending to society as a whole. While market leaders are mostly concerned about the market, God is decidedly interested in the impact that we as leaders have on people. It is then theologically sound to say that God indeed prioritizes people over profits. And what would it profit a man to gain the world and lose his own soul? 

Therefore, the ultimate goal of any Christ-centered leader is human flourishing. So the question as to whether or not we bring our faith to work, then, really is not a question at all for the committed believer. The real question is, how do we bring our faith to the workplace? Christ is the vine and we are branches. His kingdom mission and message informs every area of our lives. And I think it notably informs how we work. Work is where we spend the majority of our waking hours. And so if we aspire to be the kind of Christ-like leaders that infuse kingdom vision and values into the workplace, we have to embrace a very different philosophy: a theology of work, dare I say. Now, this theology of work is a different kind of philosophy, but a different kind doesn’t necessarily mean new.

So if we desire to help others flourish—truly flourish the way that God intends—then there is an attribute, an attitude of the heart, a fruit of the Holy Spirit, that is paramount. And it is summed up in a simple three-letter word. And that word is joy. Joy is a source of great pleasure or fulfillment. It imbues the state of both calm and contentment, and joy might be best exemplified by the ability to respond to difficult circumstances with inner peace. And this brings me to my subject: rediscovering joy in work.

The late Steve Jobs is recognized as one of the greatest entrepreneurs in modern history. Jobs was said to be a hard man to know, and an even harder man to work for. But his legacy as an innovator is unquestioned, and in part today, we’re talking about innovation. In an oft-quoted commencement address at Stanford University, he offered this perspective about work: “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to feel truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.” In other words, maybe said in my words, he encouraged these newly-minted graduates to discover joy in their work. Jobs continued, “If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.” While his advice must be tempered by the reality that not everyone is afforded the same opportunities, privilege, or choice, his perspective is still insightful. Given the choice, I actually believe that choosing work that aligns with one’s interests is indeed wise. However, it is secondary to what I believe his more essential admonishment was, which is to do great work. I believe our vocational pursuit is less about finding the right kind of work and more about discovering joy that work affords. So when we mature from doing great work to having a great work life, this is what I believe it means to really flourish. 

I’ve coined a concept that I refer to as work-life synergy (not to be confused with work-life balance). Work-life synergy involves seeking harmony between your personal and professional pursuits, your faith and your work, ensuring these intentionally fit together. And that’s where we come to this word synergy. Now, true joy, as we defined it, allows you to do great work, enjoyed as a quality of our Christ-like character. Joy helps us to live and lead like Christ. And to this end, I would briefly like to enumerate seven fundamental principles that formed the basis for work-life synergy. The understanding of these seven principles are essential for rediscovering joy in work. 

  1. Work reveals purpose. 
  2. Work requires effort. 
  3. Work promotes growth.
  4. Work develops skill.
  5. Work fosters relationships.
  6. Work produces value. 
  7. Work glorifies God. 

Let’s tackle these. 

Work reveals purpose. Now, the etymology of the word vocation comes from a Latin word that means to call or summon. We associate this with work that we feel we’re especially well-suited for and that is worthy of great dedication. I believe if you think about even the etymology of the word, it reveals a great truth, but not in a way that many people think. If we hearken back just a few centuries, we find that the pursuit of any honest profession was viewed as a calling, so to speak. And it may be plainly said that diligent work honors passions and reveals purpose. It is at the intersection of passion, proficiency, and preparedness that we actually find purpose. I want to say that again: it’s at the intersection of passion, proficiency, and preparedness where we find or where it reveals purpose. As leaders, we play an important role in helping others find this intersection by making the work product and the work process meaningful. 

The second principle we stated is that work requires effort. Work, simply defined, is mental or physical effort done to achieve an intended result. And there are requisite physical, mental, relational, and spiritual challenges that we encounter along the way. If our aim is to flourish and to help others flourish, we must model a pure work ethic. By work ethic, I mean that work is intrinsically valuable and it builds character. Further, we must create opportunities for others, for followers, to apply knowledge. And through applying knowledge, they actually develop discipline in the process. We must encourage persistence, which is particularly important in the face of challenges or problems. And finally, we must have patience. Patience, as the Scriptures say, performs its perfect work. I like to say that patience is the proper investment of time. And because work requires effort, it also requires patience, particularly of leaders. 

The third principle that we noted is that work promotes growth. Work is so much more than a means to an end. It actually is one of God’s greatest gifts because it promotes growth. I want to talk about the fact that work cultivates two types of growth. First, professional development (think career), and personal maturity (think character). On the professional side, we promote growth by offering, for example, instruction and opportunities to deploy one’s talents or gifts. In particular, we do things like encourage training or continuous education. We also create associations for others by extending our personal networks to them. These are things that we do with respect to growth in the realm of professional development. 

On the personal side, there are opportunities to develop in four spheres: intellectually, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. As colleagues, we offer godly counsel, we serve as mentors, and we likewise humbly receive feedback and counsel ourselves again, modeling this for others. Again, we have this incredible opportunity to serve as role models. After all, everyone is being taught by someone. Good or Christ-like role models and leaders are needed now more than ever.

Next, there is the fourth principle: work develops skill. Now work is simply more enjoyable. I like to tell people that when you’re working at something that you’re proficient at, work is more enjoyable. Work allows us to develop our skills to the point of mastery, but it takes both desire and discipline to do this. While there are many skills that we develop through our work, there are four in my mind which are fundamental. They’re particularly valuable when we talk about human flourishing. And these are listening, visualizing, collaborating—because we work in community—and leading. On this last one, leading, it is important that we not overemphasize positional leadership. What I like to say is that everyone has leadership capacity and frankly can lead from whatever position they’re in. The true sign of a leader, and the true sign of your leadership capacity, is the ability to nurture and cultivate the leadership potential in others. 

Now there’s a fifth principle that we spoke of: work fosters relationships. This may be well one of the greatest benefits of work from my perspective. It’s not lost on me that in the opening narrative that we see in Scripture, the Trinity is introduced not at rest, but at work. It is not lost on me that humankind is introduced into the Garden of Eden, this paradise, and they are given a clear work assignment, and that they are given this assignment to work in partnership. But I digress. 

Most people, if I were to make an observation, live in monolithic communities with people of the same ethnic, racial, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds. And so the workplace is, for most people, the most diverse place that they inhabit or dwell. So we improve our life experience by building trusting relationships with the people we work with. I want to say that again: we actually improve our overall life experience by building trusting relationships with the people with whom we work. And this is why I believe that Christian leaders, more so than anyone, should be at the forefront of initiatives to build trusting cultures; in organizations, to improve employee engagement; and importantly, to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion. Some people will say, like the bumper sticker, “What would Jesus do?” We think of it, in a way, as if Jesus was working in our stead. But I’d like to say it more aptly, that it is simply what Jesus does. He is actively doing it as he is working in and through us. 

Now there’s a six principle that I noted, which is that work produces value. Real work results in measurable and discernible value: benefits enjoyed, products produced, services rendered, increased utility, and greater wealth. So as such, a spirit of accountability is actually essential in living a Christ-like example. Setting clear goals and objectives for ourselves and others is foundational, as is transparently holding ourselves and our team to high performance standards while cultivating a community of grace—because they go together. High performance standards while cultivating a community of grace is truly a best practice.

Now there’s a seventh and final principle that I noted, which is that work glorifies God. I want to say that again: work glorifies God. Demonstrating clarity of purpose, maturity of character, and excellence in achievement are ways in which we honor God through our work. Humbly offering our time and our talents in service of others is how we practically live out both the message and the mission of Christ. Mother Theresa said it this way. I love this quote. It says, “There’s always the danger that we may just do the work for the sake of the work. This is where the respect and the love and the devotion come in, that we do it to God, to Christ. And that’s why we try to do it as beautifully as possible.” 

Now, when I think about my own lived experience, my parents are my foremost examples with respect to faithful living. I’m so grateful to God for them and the example that they continue to live for me and the things that they’ve sown into me. They integrated faith and work before it was a thing. My parents have an inspiring personal narrative. I recall very clearly growing up from very modest circumstances. I recall even being in high school because both of my parents actually pursued higher education or their college degrees later in life. And in my mother’s case, she went on to pursue her master’s degree—so multiple degrees. She chose to work professionally in the field of social work. And my father, who’s a veteran of the armed forces, of the Air Force, worked as a stationary engineer and supervisor, and the later portions of his career with the veteran’s administration hospital. Although they have for some time been retired from these particular professional roles, they are yet busy working. For over twenty-five years now, my parents have also served as pastors of the local church, which they founded on the South side of Chicago. They spent over thirty-five years in ministry, and during this time, whether serving in another ministry or over twenty-five years as pastors themselves, their workdays knew no discernible boundaries. For much of this time, they were fully employed in the marketplace and fully employed in full-time pastoral ministry. Now they serve when, where, and as they are able and needed. But listen to this: what I find most remarkable about the work they do is that they have never in all this time accepted a salary. That’s right. I like to say it this way. They actually pay to go to work and they view their work in accordance with a greater purpose. They have a joy money simply can’t provide.

With time, I have come to better understand their commitment to glorify God through their work. The seventh principle: work glorifies God. And to do the work as beautifully as possible, as Mother Theresa said. And again, to have this joy that money can’t buy, like my parents. To have these things, to glorify God in our work, we must love God and love our neighbors. And we must continually rediscover the joy that is only found in work. I want to thank you for your attention and I want to wish you not only joy in your work, but joy in your life.

One thought on “Pursuing Joy; Serving Others

  1. Beautifully said and food for thought. The collision of passion and purpose sounds not only attainable but must be the will of God for all of us.

    I believe sometimes joy is a choice. The word finding implies action. Does our attitude then lead our change in circumstances ?


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