December 17, 2014| 0

Solomon’s Wisdom on Career: How to Measure Success (Ecclesiastes 4:4)

Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.

The old adage is surely true: no one says at the end of life, “Oh, but how I wish had spent more time building my career!” Even so, we don’t often teach this lesson in business schools. In fact, it may be anathema to business schools that focus on training and equipping people to measure success exclusively in financial terms.

The deeper questions about meaning in one’s career receive scant attention in most business schools: there is a pecuniary disincentive to ask them. That’s why Professor Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School is the odd exception in saying, “More and more MBA students come to school thinking that career in business means buying, selling, and investing in companies. That’s unfortunate. Doing deals doesn’t yield the deep rewards that come from building up people.” [1]

The problem does not lie in the accomplishments of a successful business career; honest deals, productivity, and profit are good things, after all. The problem lies in their animus: the will and spirit which motivate the striving after them.

Here’s where the wisdom of Ecclesiastes shines as a beacon to expose the futility of “striving after wind,” as the author puts it.

Envy is a stealthy and pernicious motivation. Peer pressure, culture, and the appetites of ego are dangerous taskmasters, yet they rule by default until and unless we pause to evaluate the costs and rewards of our journey. If ever our career is dictated by envy of pecuniary success, we will be chasing the wind - and we shall never catch it.

This is the Solomonic wisdom of Ecclesiastes. The poetic preaching of this book is attributed to Solomon, the wealthiest and wisest king of all time. He had it all. When he discovered it wasn’t enough, he concluded that striving after fame and fortune is a lost cause.

Success is not a bad word. Striving is not a bad word, either. But striving after wind is utterly futile and vain. The true test of career success lies in the purpose and motivations beating in the heart of the striver.

There is a built-in tension in the very notion of career. It forces practical choices upon us which carry real opportunity costs, as illustrated in William Butler Yeats' short poem, "The Choice":

The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.

When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse.
Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.

[1] Clayton Christensen, “How Will You Measure Your Life?” Harvard Business Review, July-August 2010, pp. 46-51, 48.


© Bruce D. Baker, 2014

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