At Work

Heroism in a Cubicle

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Editor’s Note: Today we introduce Dr. David Leonard, Assistant Professor of Philosophy & Apologetics at Luther Rice University, as a new contributor to IFWE’s blog. Dr. Leonard will post periodically about topics related to faith and work as well as intellectual virtue and its impact on faith in the workplace. 

Is it possible to be heroic while sitting alone in your cubicle? According to David Brooks, in a recent New York Times column, the answer is a resounding “Yes!”

If such a conclusion strikes you as naïve or even patronizing, then try to appreciate the fact that, even while alone in your cubicle, you’re doing at least one thing: thinking. As we know all too well, not everyone engages in this activity particularly well.

But good thinking has the potential to change the world, even in subtle ways. As such, careful attention should be given to our patterns of thought, and the manner in which they influence the beliefs we hold and the decisions we make.

It might be tempting to assume that good thinking just comes naturally to certain people, but the reality is that we can, over time, actually improve our cognitive faculties.  That is, we can make improvements in the area of intellectual virtue.

The Moral Components of Good Thinking

Brooks highlights a number of such virtues, including the love of learning, firmness, and humility. These character traits, when properly manifested, will increase the chances that one’s beliefs are true, but they’ll also make it easier for one to exercise wisdom in response to those true beliefs.

This suggests, among other things, that the pursuit of intellectual virtue also has a moral component. As Brooks explains,

Good thinking isn’t just adopting the right technique. It’s a moral enterprise and requires good character, the ability to go against our lesser impulses for the sake of our higher ones.

The wise person isn’t merely the one who knows lots of information, but is rather the one who has developed the skill of effectively ordering his or her life around that information, even when it feels tempting to do otherwise. And to be wise is, at some level, to be morally good.

Of course, there is no canonical list of intellectual virtues. But experience teaches us that certain habits or dispositions are more beneficial than others.

For example, someone who is open-minded is not only more likely to have true beliefs, but he or she is also more pleasant to be around, and will therefore enjoy a wider social network.

The person who lacks open-mindedness, however, because of his or her unwillingness to admit the possibility of error, goes through life with intellectual blind spots, ignorant of potential weaknesses in his or her arguments.

The Virtue of Firmness

And yet clearly one shouldn’t be open-minded about literally everything. After all, it’s been rightly said that the mind and the mouth have at least one thing in common: they were both designed to close on something.

So it seems that open-mindedness should be tempered by the virtue of “firmness,” as Brooks calls it. The trick is to find the happy medium between, one the one hand, displaying strength of conviction in what is believed, while on the other hand, being willing to modify those convictions when appropriate.

Along similar lines, Brooks argues that “the firm believer can build a steady worldview on solid timbers but still delight in new information. She can gracefully adjust the strength of her conviction to the strength of the evidence.”

The Benefits of Good Thinking in the Workplace

This strikes me as sage advice, with practical relevance to a number of workplace situations.

Again, imagine you’re sitting in your cubicle, attempting to solve a problem or create a strategy for completing some task. How should you proceed?

What’s essential to grasp is that the underlying attitudes that give rise to the decisions you make are just as important as the decisions themselves. This is precisely because these decisions don’t happen in a vacuum; rather, they are a reflection of your inner character.

It stands to reason, then, that proper attention should be given to these internal factors.  You must choose to be open-minded in your approach to the challenge that faces you, and you must choose to temper that open-mindedness with a commitment to intellectual firmness.

The good news is that if you don’t currently have those qualities, you can train yourself to act as if you have them, with the expectation that eventually it will come more naturally.

This approach might seem insincere and artificial, but it illustrates the reality that our minds, just as much as our bodies, must be trained for optimal function.

Intellectual Virtue as an Act of Worship

Of course, one need not acknowledge or believe in God to cultivate what Brooks calls the “mental” virtues; clearly there are many people who disbelieve and yet perform excellently in a wide range of intellectual spheres.  After all, all people are created in God’s image, and it is not surprising that humans are capable of exhibiting excellences of intellectual character.

The difference is that the Christian, ideally, has a different motivation for attempting to do so—the Christian should pursue the intellectual virtues primarily as an act of worship.

As the Apostle Paul framed it:

Do not be conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2, NIV).

Initially, this might prove painful, especially if your previous ways stand in conflict to such activity. But what’s important is that you just be willing to take that first step.

To put it differently, you must resolve to be intellectually virtuous; you must resolve to be heroic, even in your cubicle.

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