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Archive for March, 2009

“Mama, don’t let your sons grow up to be cowboys!” So advises the country song – which may be good advice, or it may not.

shepherdThe world needs good cowboys. And plumbers. And electricians. And shepherds. And mechanics. People good with their hands.

If your son shows strong interest in fixing cars, and has limited academic drive and giftedness, why in the world would you push him to become a lawyer? We need great mechanics, and his gifts and inclinations are already showing you a potential career path.

If your daughter gravitates toward making beautiful floral arrangements, why should she be guilt-tripped into being a business executive? Is there not an ongoing need for all sorts of gifted designers?

The fact is, we’ll always need people who are good with their hands. And even the greatest and wealthiest among us recognize that, when you find a capable and reliable craftsman, tradesman, or laborer, they are gold. These folks have tremendous earning power and job security, because there are so many shoddy and unscrupulous workers out there. People who are skilled in their work, and prove themselves over time, are almost always in demand. Compare that to the job insecurity of many in white-collar careers, and you begin to see that it is not a step down to learn and ply a trade.

I have five sons. It has always been my determination not to pre-determine their academic and professional careers, but to carefully evaluate their wired-in gifts and budding interests, and seek to move them in that direction, even if it is quite different from the course my wife or I took as young adults. And, sure enough, we’re having some surprises. As you will with your children.

If you have children that are good with their hands, and you worry about whether they will go to college and launch into some high-profile information-driven career, remember – this is not about you and your reputation. Most people throughout history learned trades that were passed down through generations, and many still do. You can be immensely proud of a son or daughter who works with his/her hands, and who is skilled in the tangible arts. Don’t rob your child of fulfillment in pursuing a direction that “fits” with her gifts, and don’t rob the rest of us of his abilities as we plan, build, landscape, and repair. Frankly, we don’t need a whole lot more lawyers, executives, and investment bankers. We will always need capable cabinet-makers, graphic designers, tailors, and – yes – devoted mothers who work part-time out of the home. These less-glamorous spheres of labor, using active minds and active hands, are where tremendously valuable work gets done.

(this muse inspired by Genesis chapter 47, where the sons of Israel appear before Pharaoh, and their skill as shepherds stands them in good stead, despite the fact that keepers of livestock were despised among the Egyptians. Bonus: this chapter also gives our earliest recorded instance of how executive leadership can use a national crisis to take over people and distressed assets. In this case, however, it also displays the benefits of shrewd advance planning by Joseph, and benevolence toward those in distress).

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Preparing for a Sunday School lesson this morning (continuing on in the lives of Abraham/Isaac/Jacob), I was struck by an expression of a “caste” system at play, when the tribe of Israel headed down to Egypt during a terrible famine in the land.

Joseph had paved the way for his family to come and settle in Egypt, where he had wisely prepared for the famine by storing up huge stocks of grain during years of plenty. The plan was to settle the livestock-keeping Israelites in the land of Goshen, which apparently would isolate them somewhat from the native population, because “shepherds were loathsome to the Egyptians.”

In the sociological/religious milieu of Egypt, there was apparently a disdain for certain occupations. A caste system. And those that kept lifestock were on a lower rung. Ironically, this served to keep the Israelites from inter-mingling and inter-marrying with the Egyptians, which in the greater scheme of things at this time in redemptive history, was a good thing.

casteThese caste systems still exist all over the world, in official (India) or unofficial forms. We tend to stratify by external similarities or differences, be they skin color, nationality, occupation, religious affiliation, dress, wealth, or the like. Some of that is natural and unavoidable, but the unsavory accompaniment is the sense of superiority that almost inevitably joins the occasion. The hierarchy. Even well-intentioned “diversity” programs, as valuable as the intentions may be, cannot defuse the pride that reigns in the human heart. Some even pride themselves on their commitment to diversity, putting themselves a strata above those perceived as less-enlightened beings – and the cycle continues on in its ever-morphing forms.

Last week, when in Austin, TX for the SxSW Interactive conference, I did some research on-line and decided to go to a church that I’d never heard of before, but which intrigued me. Why? Because of its professed adherence to beliefs I hold dear, yes. But also, because it was a community formed by the merger of 2 churches, with a very rich diversity of nationalities and races. I saw a microcosm of the global population that morning. And I had a delightful talk with a member there who freely shared his struggles getting to the place of accepting the goodness of that diversity.

And this underscores one of the original “scandals” of the Christian church at its launch 2,000 years ago. It was birthed out of a Jewish nation that had been taught – incessantly and out of necessity – to keep separate from the “outside world”, full of pagan beliefs and practices that could corrupt the nation. The history of that nation, outlined from the ancient books of Genesis->Malachi, show exactly why – it was an endless struggle for survival with nations and tribes that viewed them as on the lower rungs of humanity, while their spiritual identity was to retain a position on the highest rung of belief and holiness.

Then the training wheels came off. It was time to leave the caste system of separation by nationality and physical descendancy, and embrace a radical new foundation of unity. Spiritual oneness that stemmed from faith alone, utterly irrespective of gender, race, position, geography, background…even moral track record. Utter, radical, scandalous flattening of all castes and strata. Jews, Gentiles, black, white, men, women, formerly moral and formerly immoral – all “one in Christ.” All with the same inherent value as creatures formed in the image of God. All with the same open door of faith to enter into God’s presence. Spiritual lepers brought into the community. Outcasts welcome.

The nascent church struggled with this. Some factions couldn’t reconcile to it, insisting that new converts embrace all the external social and religious practices that had set apart the Jewish nation for centuries. But that train had left the station. The time for “separation training” was over. Now it was time for a unity of all peoples, based not on externals, but on faith in a common Messiah. The scope, the simplicity, the utter de-stratification of a redemption that radically embraced all people – was scandalous.

Churches – Christians – I – have often failed to fully live out this profound reality. We all very easily fall back into stratification and superiority based on pathetic externals. But just as we would never put child locks on our cabinets when our kids are teenagers (well, actually…OK, never mind), so we are to put away the childish perspectives of pride and self-righteousness based on our external image in a mirror. If God looks upon the heart irrespective of appearance and track record, without regard to biology and background, then I must also. Religion can be yet another wall that separates. But, in fact, the Christian gospel, rightly embraced and practiced, is a radical unifier, not out of external compulsion, but due to a transcendent spiritual dynamic that de-fangs petty external differences, and the pride that exalts them.

Church scandals and sad and unwelcome news. Except for the ongoing and original scandal, this dismantling of the caste system accomplished 2,000 years ago that needs to steadily occur in our hearts today.

(image credit)

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How Are You Wired?

Last week, in my Sunday School class for young teens, we were in the middle of a discussion about Joseph (11th of Israel’s 12 sons), one of the more amazing men of character found in the Bible, and quite a shrewd businessman and administrator.

Part of the reason that Joseph’s star rose so quickly in the eyes of all who worked with him was his outstanding competence in two critical areas. He was wired for excellence not only as a manager, but as a leader.

wiringI explained to the kids that most of us will tend to find our best effectiveness in one of three main categories; and while some may be quite gifted in two, our internal “wiring” will predispose us toward either leading, managing, or doing.

Leaders typically look around and see what is not yet, but could be, and are restless to make the “could be” happen. They tend to be more visionary, like to break fresh ground, and (often quite naturally) “activate” others. Most entrepreneurs, of course, have leadership wiring.

Managers excel at taking the roadmap, and orchestrating the people to move forward together toward the vision. They organize, administer, delegate; and they know how to turn large goals into achievable tasks. Smart entrepreneurs find great managers once a company and its offerings begin to take shape.

Doers aren’t particularly gifted at big picture thinking or being on stage, nor do they necessarily want to spend their energies getting others to do their work. They just want to focus on the task at hand, and if given the right tools and opportunity and “space” to perform, will excel at producing specific results. Think about craftsmen, who can come in, measure your kitchen, select the materials, design beautiful cabinets, and install them flawlessly, and who would actually resent it if they had to deal with others (who’d slow them down).

Any company, organization, or other grouping needs all three types of people. Joseph became second-in-command in the nation of Egypt because he was, first of all, an amazing administrator, but also showed himself to be a visionary leader.

I’m convinced that much work-related misery could be avoided if people understood that professional advancement is not, in many cases, moving up a ladder into management. Many very effective salespeople and other “doers” are locked into a scheme whereby they are expected to excel in management as the next professional advancement – and, unless they are wired to both “do” well and manage well (a rare combination), it’s a setup for failure.

Many of those who are wired for leadership are suppressed in an organization doing mundane tasks or managing others when, in fact, they need to be blazing new trails; and this is why so many get fed up with the corporate environment and strike out on their own as entrepreneurs.

We are not infinitely malleable. There is such a thing as basic wiring and plumbing in the human psyche, and while we can each develop in our skills and our abilities over time, we should recognize our core tendencies, and carve out a career path (and a set of expectations) that truly reflect what we’re best at. It may take many years for you to realize what your wiring is, and what your true strengths and trajectory are, but once you do, it can be immensely liberating to say, “I need to break new ground” or “I just want to do my job” and excel according to your makeup.

There’s a fourth category we could discuss – the taker – but that’s a character issue, not a matter of constitutional wiring. The takers don’t contribute so much as detract. We all know about that type of person.

What do you think? Have you found your trajectory, or are you still searching? Are these three categories basically on target, or is there a better description?

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