The lure of competition and success
Having waited all “summer” for this momentous day, I rolled out of bed agog with nervous excitement. It was my first day of work. I wanted everything to sail smoothly: I had meticulously calculated the time needed to travel to the office, packed my bag, and planned my outfit the night before. I put on a crisp, new shirt, hoping that it would be a good omen to a fresh start in the marketplace.
While the exterior seemed faultless, my soul was a riotous wet market. Thoughts were gesturing at me, emotions were shouting at me — all of them jostling for my attention like aunties eager to grab the freshest catch.
This was the transition that was going to stretch on for a looong time. I’ve heard of individuals who have skimmed in and out of companies, and are still at a loss of what to do. After speaking to a few of my close friends, keeping afloat in this ocean slewed with stress and strife seemed daunting. Today was as real as it got to establishing a successful career.
At the end of my first day, having spent hours cooped up in a string of induction meetings and being engaged in insightful conversations with colleagues, I shuffled out of the office with one thing on my mind: the corporate world is heavily centred around competition.
Many had advised us, fresh graduates, to sign up for as many activities as possible, with the intention to get our name out in the company. Performance bonuses. The volatility of our “estimated potential.” Worst of them all, despite having survived it through university, we found out that we never quite got our butts off the bell-curve. I imagined rows and rows of bodies stacked up against each other, like in a prison ward, scrutinised till no end.
Within two months into the job, I found myself regularly giving in to an inner voice. Unfortunately, it was not one that resounded with wisdom or assuredness, but one that craved to be successful. This voice bellowed with a lust to be adept at every undertaking. It was so easy to collapse under the weight of this desire, depending upon my own strength rather than God.
I had spoken to a particular colleague, and he told me that when it came to job hunting among his friends, it was all about three things: pay, lifestyle, and prestige. While some of us may feel it is easy to turn a blind eye to this, I have found myself charmed by a lifestyle bloated with comfort and luxury on a couple of occasions; I fell into an illusion of merriment and false security. When I learnt about individuals who have deftly scaled the corporate ladder faster than I imagined possible, this sinister voice would tempt me to give it a shot or invariably lose out.
Rather than participating in a race against our colleagues, I have come to realise that we instead wage war against ourselves: we battle this carnal desire to carve our names into history. Like the people who built the Tower of Babel, we all possess a proclivity for self-glorification. In Genesis 11:4 (NIV), the men roared, “Come let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
Driving this desire for greatness is a creeping fear that we will find ourselves heaved under the sand of the earth — faceless and unknown. Success, as conjured by the world, can hold us hard, refusing to let loose. Its glories can penetrate into our consciousness, controlling us like an infectious melody; “The sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, [and] pipe” can cause us to sway hypnotically to its tune, enticing us to bow down to the image of gold (Daniel 3:10).
It is of no surprise then that Jesus warns us, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36 NIV) We all need constant reminders that we are not another cog in the corporate machinery, or just another rat in this race devoid of meaning.
Daniel was a man who knew this full well. He stood his ground against the powers and culture of Babylon, and was willing to be razed to dust for his convictions. While he resided in Babylon, He lived instead for a heavenly city.
We are merely pilgrims on earth. We may wander “in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground” (Hebrews 11:38), but we need to hold onto the truth that God has prepared a city for us (Hebrews 11:16). Right now, we need to build His Kingdom rather than trifle ones of our own.
Beneath the glowing laminate of the corporate world, a still, small voice continually calls you into higher purpose. As Christians, we should have a lucid understanding of the purpose of work on earth. Timothy Keller reveals, “We are not to choose our jobs and conduct our work to fulfil ourselves and accrue power, for being called by God to do something is empowering enough.”
I believe that our primary purpose in the marketplace is to seek God’s government above all else (Matthew 6:33). We need to consider how to maintain our public witness to God just like what Daniel did, and take His Kingdom seriously at our offices. How many of us have consciously thought about how God can reign in our corporate spheres? Or have we been silenced into going with the flow?
This is unequivocally easier said than done, for I have on occasion shied away from speaking about my faith, choosing to nip any mention of God in the bud. However, this supine mentality found strength when I witnessed fellow Christians around me who were unabashed about their faith. I was deeply inspired when someone I knew shared openly about her difficult family situation and how God has proven faithful whilst having dinner at a hawker centre. It unclogged my mind and filled it with hope, encouraging me that we all can be as confident in our faith as we are in our work.
Swimming against the tide does not need to mean that we must start a marketplace movement; it is all about pursuing righteousness in the moment — the tiny times that don’t seem to count for anything. It could simply mean not partaking in gossip that threatens to shred someone’s reputation into pieces, or submitting to your superior even when all of you pulls the other way. Rather than viewing the office as a place of efficient transactions, I believe that it can a significant place to forge meaningful friendships, where vulnerable sharing can find space.
Minutes before the final interview for my current job, I found a quiet spot in the atrium to pray. As a flurry of emotions raced through my heart, I knew that all I could do now was submit my career to God. In between slow breaths, I uttered, “Father, you know my heart. You know that I want this job. However, may I only get it if I can be your ambassador in this place; only if I can be an influence for your Kingdom and effect good change.” My prayer today is that I will live this out daily with such clarity, through the delight and despondency of work. My greatest hope is that you will do the same.