At Work

Do You Crave Perfection and the Praise It Brings?

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If you are not one of the over 36 million people who have watched UCLA college gymnast Katelyn Ohashi’s perfect floor exercise you need to watch it…go ahead, I’ll wait.

I will have to admit that I knew who Katelyn Ohashi was, but I had not seen her routine. She and her teammates defeated my alma mater at the 2018 Women’s Gymnastics National Championship by two tenths of a point (out of a total score of 200). Only after reading Richard Doster’s article “The Thrill of Victory, and of Relishing the Good Gifts God Gives“ was I convinced to go watch the video. He writes:

All over the world, people were gripped not only by her perfect performance, but by this young woman’s unrestrained joy; by how she was so thoroughly immersed in the pleasure of doing what she is uniquely gifted to do. Ohashi’s smile captivated us as much as “the backward split that she does after her leap pass,” which, her coach informed us, “is insane.”

Taking Pleasure in Our Gifts…

Apparently, what you see is not just a performance but the real joy of someone being the best that they can be. “Performing is my favorite thing,” Ohashi said in an interview with the New York Times shortly after the video went viral, “What you see is how I feel.” But, apparently, it hasn’t always been this way.

In 2013, at fifteen, she won the American Cup defeating Simone Biles who would win gold at the 2016 Olympics. But a significant back and shoulder injury required surgery and kept her out of competition for over a year. She also became discontented with gymnastics not only because of the injuries but also because of the sharp criticism she received, particularly about her weight. But she went on to compete at the college level at U.C.L.A., where she says her teammates and coaches have encouraged her individuality and reminded her that her identity goes beyond gymnastics.

While most of us will never be as good at what we do as Ohashi, this story still has great implications for us as Christians and how we perform in our vocational callings.

Or Defined by Our Work?

In 2013, Forbes magazine reported, “work is more often a source of frustration than…fulfillment for nearly 90% of the world’s workers.” A more recent Gallup poll showed things are not improving significantly with 70 percent of the US workers not engaged in their work.

One of the more interesting reasons for this dissatisfaction with our work, particularly in our Western culture, is something social psychologists call “praise addiction.” In his book, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes, Alfie Kohn argues that incentives (like praise) are external motivators designed to get us to behave in a certain way. These bribes are commonly used in both the classroom and the workplace to motivate behavior. We begin to associate who we are with this external motivation and it makes us feel good. Our identities become tied up in what people think of our achievements. The problem is, not only does the feeling of happiness not last but, as Kohn suggests, external motivators reduce our creativity and the ability to find long-term satisfaction.

How do you feel when someone asks you, “What do you do?” As HR specialist J.T. O’Donnell writes:

Those four words are the reason so many people are unhappy with their careers. Most people want to answer with something impressive. They want others to respect what they do. Why? As humans, we worry about how our response is received, and for good reason! We know the person who hears the answer will start to judge us. That’s because we judge those who tell us what they do for a living too.

This is also a type of external motivation. And it points to a simple fact: that in our current culture our vocational work defines who we are. But should it? In my book, How Then Should We Work? I make the observation: “For the Christian, life without work is meaningless; but work must never become the meaning of one’s life.”

Knowing God’s Love, Seeking God’s Pleasure vs. Earthly Praise

We need to find intrinsic motivation for work we do. Intrinsic motivation is defined as “motivation that stems directly from an action rather than a reward.” The Bible suggests that we can only find that type of motivation in the gospel of Jesus Christ.  It is only when God changes our hearts from stone to flesh and begins, through his Spirit, to write his laws on our hearts (Heb. 8:10) that our source of motivation changes.

This is where I disagree with Kohn’s overly optimistic assessment of human nature. He believes mankind can fix themselves, but they cannot. As Christians, we should know that the only way we will ever find deep satisfaction in what we do is to be motivated by the love shown for us by our Savior who died for us (Rom. 5:8). “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus” and our love for him is what should inspire us to do “good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10).

Most of us will never receive a “perfect 10” or have 26 million views of a YouTube video of us at work, but we can still feel God’s pleasure when we work. By using the talents he has given us and diligently applying them to the work he has called us to do (whatever that might be, in whatever station of our lives), we glorify God, serve the common good, and further God’s kingdom. That should be more than enough motivation.

Editor’s note: What is the biblical motivation for work? Learn more in How Then Should We Work?

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