November 19, 2010| 0

Pushing: God, Work and the Pursuit of Excellence

My wife and I were recently in China as part of the leadership team for a study abroad program. During our time there, we noticed how everyone seemed to be hustling to make money. It was striking, in this Communist country, how capitalistic and entrepreneurial everyone was. Each street vendor, taxi driver, hotel employee or shop owner was working, working, working all the time. They seemed desperate to make the next sale or find the next opportunity – to use the minutes and hours that they had every day to get ahead financially.

I commented on this phenomenon to one of our fellow travelers, someone who had been to China many times before (this was our first trip). Her response was, “With the economy growing so quickly, everyone believes that they are either on the way up or on the way down. There is no status quo. If they seem desperate it is because they actually feel desperate. There is no middle ground for them.”

A few weeks later, back in the US, I was speaking with a friend, a Christian man I respect and admire who has held a number of leadership positions in his lifetime. We were discussing how some organizations push people harder and harder, asking each employee to do more each year with either the same or fewer resources. He said, “Mark, I don’t think I’d want it any other way. I am interested in the pursuit of excellence. My company could probably be OK at what it does if we pursued fewer programs and new initiatives, but we wouldn’t be excellent. Any organization that strives for excellence must press up against the constraints of its resources. It must be pushing forward.”

I don’t think I have ever heard such an eloquent defense of overwork. But I think my friend is wrong on this.

The dilemma for the Chinese is that they see the economic pie as one of fixed proportions. Despite the growing economy in Asia, the person on the street feels that if one person wins, another must lose. Therefore they must push, push, push to get ahead. My friend’s point of view has slightly different contours. The suggestion is that there can in fact be a status quo place for us in work and vocation, a place where we can continue what we do without constantly pressing against the limits of our time and energy. BUT, if we opt for that place, we will produce work that is merely average and will fail to fulfill Christ’s best call for our lives.

In my next entry, I'll tell you why I think that both of these positions are untenable.

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Mark Oppenlander is married to Beth, who is a 2003 MBA from SPU's School of Business and Economics.  Mark is the Director for the Center for Applied Learning at Seattle Pacific University.

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