Working in Obscurity

So much of the working world assumes that the only work that counts are those contributions that are known – well, even more, actions or initiatives that are affirmed and recognized as significant.   This is no doubt driven in part by ego needs – the craving for significance and with this the yearning to be praised by others.   It feels good; we are gratified that others think our work is worthwhile if not actually even more – that our work is very significant.   There is the craving to be thought of as a hero, who changed the game and secure a noteworthy outcome.  We now have a legacy; perhaps even – to use soccer language – we are the GOAT [the greatest of all time].   And all of this is fed by the cult of celebrity.   The converse is that we go through life at the margins, known by no one, recognized by no one, affirmed by no one. 

On the one hand, I suspect that the desire to be known and recognized is actually imprinted on the human heart and brain.  We were created by God and we only find meaning and worth when we know the love, blessing and acknowledgement of God:  “well done, good and faithful servant.”   We very legitimately desire that the Creator would be pleased with us.   But the problem is that all too frequently, this very legitimate desire has us looking for affirmation and recognition and praise from all and sundry.   We monitor our approval ratings – not literally, but without doubt anecdotally; we hope and pray that many people – the more the better – would value our work and thus affirm us as significant.    Now let me stress:  part of the work of leadership in organizations is without doubt that we would affirm and give thanks and acknowledge the multiple contributions that are being made to the health and well being of the organization.   For sure.   And yet, here is the thing:  first, that all too easily our own need to be thanked and praised is insatiable.   Unless our lives are anchored by an awareness of the goodness and grace of God in our lives, the human “praise” will never be sufficient.  And we end up living our lives and doing our work seeking to fill this vacuum in our hearts.  

The other side of this is that effective leadership within an organization requires a whole host of actions and choices and points of due diligence that simply need to be done – quietly and consistently and as often as not, behind the scenes.  Often these are courageous choices – doing the right thing.   And at other times, they are simply the set of tasks and duties that are vital to our sphere of responsibilities.  And we do them, without the need for constant approval or recognition or thanks . . . content to know for our own selves that we have done good work. 

Which leads me to a proposal – something to consider.     Could it be that our work, at its best, will always have this element to it? – that is, those action items that are important and significant but which will get very little acknowledgment and thanks.  And that, actually, this is okay; it is not a problem.   And we do not need to drop little hints about how busy we are and all that we are doing lest others do not fully appreciate how diligently we have done our work.   We can just do our work quietly, with contentment, and come to see the work we do in obscurity as a vital expression of spiritual practice.   Perhaps every day, literally everyday, there is something in our day where we know that we are doing the due diligence.   It just needs to be done.   Our boss may not notice or thank us; that is fine.   We do this work out of a commitment to quality, excellence, and an attention to detail accountable to ourselves and to our Creator. 

I will grant that we cannot go through life and work without any thanks and affirmation.   We need that positive feed-back.  Of course.  My point is only that obscurity in our work is not a problem in itself and that it might be to the best that there is always some element of our work that we just do, before God, without the need for acknowledgement and praise.   And we graciously accept that others might take our work for granted or even that others might get praise for something where we were the one who actually did all the work behind the scenes.   And that is fine; obscurity, in this sense, is good for the soul.

Author

Gordon T. Smith

Gordon T. Smith is the president of Ambrose University located in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Ambrose is an institution owned by the Church of the Nazarene and the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada. It includes a whole range of undergraduate programs, including education, business, music, behavioural sciences an biology, as well as history, English and psychology. Ambrose also includes an undergraduate school of ministry formation. And, last but not least, there is Ambrose Seminary, a fully accredited graduate level institution of theological formation. Gordon has been the president since August of 2012.

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