By Nathan Roberts; reprinted from Patheos.
It’s a little strange to have your first 8-to-5 job at an online platform called “The High Calling.” Working for a website about work is weirdly meta, like a teacher teaching teaching skills or a salesperson selling sales tactics. I find myself writing sentences like “God inspires us synchronize the work of our hands, minds, and hearts to the Rhythm of Reality” and wondering: Am I exemplifying this attitude? Am I working to the rhythm of his sacrificial love or simply doing this for my own benefit?
If your work involves workplace ethics, you’re setting yourself up for hypocrisy from the get-go. My mom does workplace coaching and she used to work with a very inconsiderate, bombastic colleague. How, I wondered, is this jackass helping people get along in the workplace when he bulldozes over his own coworkers? But at certain points this summer, you could’ve said something similar to me: Alright, Mr. Bigshot. You write about the sanctity and the importance of work, but you just want the day to end so you can go home and watch movies?! What kind of worker are you?
The good news is that such a job leads one to the necessity of daily grace. It also makes one realize how “everyday conversations about life, work, and God” are really needed. We can’t merely tell people how they ought to work. We need to talk about the times that we struggle, fail, and need grace to keep on going. Society, busy padding resumes and inflating self-importance, doesn’t talk about this enough. But The High Calling does.
The High Calling spawns from a gracious workplace. During my second week on the job, I deleted every tag off the website. Every. Single. Tag. Over three thousand, gone in seconds. But when I relayed the error, heart pounding, my boss affirmed me for my honesty and assessed the situation as an organizational oversight (suggesting a system redesign, ensuring that a doofus intern can no longer do such a thoughtless thing) as well as a personal error on my part. My mistake was acknowledged, addressed, and contextualized. I felt pretty dumb, but that’s because what I did was pretty dumb, not because I was excessively chided for my dumbness.
On the other end of the spectrum, I also learned to contextualize my success. About a month into the internship, I wrote an article that was picked up by TIME.com. That was surprising, unexpected and pretty cool. But it also helped me realize that success is often random, unpredictable, and not always warranted. The article was fine. I was pleased with it––otherwise I wouldn’t have had it published. But was it my best work? I don’t think so.
It was a day’s work. A good day’s work, perhaps, but nothing I’d labored at for longer than six hours. The academic model––work really really really hard at something before getting a “good grade”––doesn’t always roll over into the vocational realm. The steady, day-in day-out work ethic is more essential. Sometimes it will even get you published on.
But not usually. In fact, it will rarely reward in significant ways. This was something I steadily learned: you can’t write as if you’re writing for TIME (unless, of course, TIME hires you to write for TIME. Bully for you, then.). You can only write for the sake of the article itself, for the best possible version of the article in your head. If you write for TIME, you’ll find yourself rarely pleased, but mostly disappointed. If you write for the article itself––for the sake of self-evident significance instead of reward-based significance––then you may discover a deeper, fuller satisfaction. Some of my favorite articles, the ones that felt the most significant, received minimal “buzz.” The Internet rewards buzz instead of significance. But isn’t it better to expose a few people to great significance than a lot of people to minimal significance?
Sometimes it’s funny being an intern. You find yourself in peculiar positions. On one hand, you’re in the office to learn from experienced superiors. On the other hand, superiors like curious, active interns. So you find yourself jumping between both sides of the coin, sometimes within a single conversation. It’s a little bewildering, but it’s also valuable. Shouldn’t we all learn how to listen to each other, learn from each other, and be initiators and opinion expressers? We should all be more like interns.
And that was one of the strongest impressions I got from working with the Digital Media team. This “intern mentality,” if we can call it that, was universally exhibited. This creative team knows how to listen. There was no overbearing hierarchy; leaders made decisions, seriously considering all concerns. Disagreements didn’t stem from closed-mindedness, but from the difficulties that inherently arise whenever groups consider multiple viewpoints.
Because of this, I felt valued and respected. When you enter the workforce, it feels a bit like entering a foreign country: there’s an unfamiliar language (Drupal? Nodes? Style Tiles? Reimbursement Forms? Huh?), unfamiliar customs (timesheets, lunch breaks, team meetings), and unfamiliar social dynamics. It is a gift to be warmly brought into the unfamiliarity, patiently taught and tutored, and even asked to seriously contribute––even though you will only be “on board” for a limited period of time. I appreciated this gift.
In some ways, school gives you more immediate gratification than work. But it isolates you from the rhythms and rewards of consistent, hour-by-hour labor. It’s all start-stop, start-stop; stress, break, stress, break. You don’t get to see a project slowly grow from start to finish. You don’t see a draft begin, sit, gestate, finish, and float onto Facebook Newsfeeds. You don’t experience an infographic as a possibility, then an impossibility, then a work in progress, and, finally, a flashy PDF drawn by one of the best freelancers on the web. This process is exciting, but it also teaches you the value of patience and consistency.
Is it too cliché to say that it teaches you to value “the high calling of your daily work?”
I hope not. The cliché is spot on.
Nathan Roberts is a PhD student in the Film and Visual Studies program at Harvard University and a creative nonfiction writer. He just published the memoir Surface Tensions: Searching for Sacred Connection in A Media-Saturated World.