Successful And Unhappy (How Can It Be?)
In 2015, Business Insider Magazine published an article about Markus Persson, the creator of the wildly successful video game, Minecraft. Persson sold his company for $2.5 billion—establishing him as one of the richest, most successful entrepreneurs in our time. Following the sale, he purchased a mansion for $70 million and spent his days living the dream with lavish parties, high-end vacations, world travel, and frequent hobnobbing with well-known celebrities.
At the peak of his success, when he seemed to be one of the world’s most happy and secure human beings, Persson shared the following Ecclesiastes-like reflections on his Twitter page:
“The problem with getting everything is you run out of reasons to keep trying. Hanging out with a bunch of friends and partying with famous people, able to do whatever I want, and I have never felt more isolated.”
Several years ago, a friend sent me an essay about the work culture in Silicon Valley indicating that Persson is by no means alone in his struggle. The writer, who had spent a good bit of time with successful start-up innovators and organization leaders in the tech industry, said that while Silicon Valley may be awash in material wealth, its workers are afflicted with a different kind of human poverty. This kind of poverty doesn’t suffer materially as much as it suffers relationally, spiritually, and emotionally from the effects of self-centered ambition, ruthless competition, hyper-intense driven-ness, and insane work hours.
There is also Michelle Williams of the famed diva band, Destiny’s Child. Reflecting on her newfound fame and fortune, the singer said, “I’m in one of the top-selling female groups of all time, suffering with depression. When I disclosed it to our manager at the time, bless his heart, he was like, “You all just signed a multi-million-dollar deal. You’re about to go on tour. What do you have to be depressed about?”
There are still others. Nobel Prize-winning novelist Ernest Hemingway. Groundbreaking writer and literary patron Virginia Woolf. Celebrated author and professor David Foster Wallace. Seattle rock star Curt Cobain. Oscar-winning actor, Robin Williams. Pioneering poet Sylvia Plath. World-renowned fashion designer Alexander McQueen. Actress and cultural icon Marilyn Monroe. All of these and many like them have two things in common. First, they all become portraits of success, popularity, fame, and fortune in their lifetimes. Second, they all committed suicide. Fame and fortune had promised to deliver happiness to them all, and failed to do so on each count.
Does this mean that things like success, popularity, fame and fortune always lead to downfall and destruction? No, it does not. But it is always tricky.
One of the most perplexing things that Jesus ever said was that it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle (Matthew 19:24). And yet, many affluent people in the Bible did enter the kingdom of heaven—Abraham the father of faith, Joseph the prime minister of Egypt, Job the wealthy sufferer, David the King of Israel, Solomon the son of David, Luke the physician, Joseph of Arimathea the financier, and (eventually) Nicodemus the wealthy pillar of his community—just to name a few.
Possessing power and luxury only becomes problematic when possessing power and luxury begins to possess us. Success in the world’s eyes—wealth, fame, power, beauty, love and romance, comfort, popularity, health, and so on—can be something to celebrate and enjoy with thanksgiving. But this is true only long as we don’t turn this kind of success into our lifeline, our source for significance, our basis for meaning, our true north.
It’s simple math, really.
Everything minus Jesus equals nothing.
And Jesus plus nothing equals everything.
With Jesus, every other person, place, or thing we are given to enjoy is bonus—not something to plug our emotional umbilical cords into, but rather something to offer thanks for to God. As the poor cottage woman in Spurgeon’s The Treasury of David said as she broke a piece of bread and filled a glass with cold water, “What, all this, and Jesus Christ, too?”
Back to the subject of how our work relates to all of this: Whether our work happens in a mid-level cubicle or in a corner office, whether it earns us zero dollars or billions of dollars, we will on some level be able to identify with the “affluenza” effect. If our imaginations are not shaped by God’s vision for work, we will at some point see our work as essentially pointless.
It is not merely our failures at work, but also our response to our greatest successes, that can lead to a feeling of anticlimax, vexation, meaninglessness, and even despair.
Why on earth, especially if we experience success, can we feel this way? Is it because our work itself isn’t meaningful? Is it because we work too little or too much? Is it because we aren’t living up to our true potential?
Or is it because our perspective about work lacks a redemptive and creative—or biblically-shaped—imagination?
British writer Dorothy Sayers says it’s the latter, and that the Church is largely at fault for this crisis. According to Sayers, rather than foster a robust vocational imagination in its people, the Church has allowed work and religion to become separate and in many ways mutually exclusive, non-intersecting categories. In her essay entitled “Why Work?” she says the following:
“In nothing has the Church so lost Her hold on reality as Her failure to understand and respect the secular vocation. She has allowed work and religion to become separate departments, and is astonished to find that, as a result, the secular work of the world is turned to purely selfish and destructive ends, and that the greater part of the world’s intelligent workers have become irreligious or at least uninterested in religion…But is it astonishing? How can any one remain interested in a religion that seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life?”
Based on Sayers’ assessment, we must ask, “What does our work have to do with our faith, and what does our faith have to do with our work?” This question should be applied to all the work that we do, whether voluntary or for hire, whether at home or in an office or out in the community or behind a lectern or on a stage or with our hands in the dirt.
If surveys say that the vast majority of us are unhappy in our work (and they do), what is going on beneath the surface? Furthermore, can anything be done about it? Might there be a more fulfilling, life-giving way forward?
The first and most essential step is to recover a biblically-informed imagination regarding work. For this reason, the church I serve launched an entire organization to help working men, women, and students form a vocational imagination called the Nashville Institute for Faith and Work (check it out by visiting nifw.org).
But whether or not we have access to faith and work integration resources in our own local context, it is important for us all to view work as central and not peripheral to our humanity, and especially to our life in Christ. Think about it.
If most of us spend forty or more waking hours each week devoted to work of some kind, how could we not consider how those hours are impacted by our identity as followers of Christ?