At Work & Public Square & Theology 101

Is Career Success a Zero-Sum Game?

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Last weekend I had the pleasure, or perhaps misfortune, of seeing  Nightcrawler, a recent film starring Jake Gyllenhaal.

I left the theater feeling entertained and yet morally tainted. It was very well done, on multiple levels. And yet, I couldn’t ignore that unpleasant feeling in my gut. As such, I’m not sure I would recommend it.

But the film also reminded me of a helpful lesson about work and relationships that is essential for Christians to grasp: your colleagues are not your competition; nor are your clients disposable contributors to your bottom line. They are people of value, within your sphere of influence, whom you have the opportunity to serve.

A View of the Human Condition

Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, a highly ambitious and likely psychotic social outcast who stumbles his way into freelance crime photojournalism. Lou spends his evenings like a vulture circling his prey, listening to police scanners to identify the location of nearby crime scenes. He then drives like a maniac through the streets of Los Angeles to arrive before the media, with the goal of video recording the subsequent carnage and selling the footage to the highest bidding news station.

As the film progresses, Lou’s moral compass spirals into oblivion, even as he financially thrives in his role. The effect of his ethically questionable – if not blatantly illegal – practices eventually leads to a climactic boiling point, painfully illustrating the depth of Lou’s commitment to the axiom, “The ends justify the means.” In particular, he sabotages his professional nemesis, Joe Loder, played by Bill Paxton, by ostensibly cutting the brake lines in his news van.

Lou’s partner, Rick, played by Riz Ahmed, represents the moral counterpart to Lou’s amoral nihilism, attempting to insert a voice of reason into the wilderness of Lou’s lost soul. Such efforts are met with a combination of clichéd platitudes about hard work and sacrifice on the one hand,  and unnerving passive-aggressive threats on the other hand.

Upon being asked to participate in an especially egregious project, Rick finally musters the courage to challenge Lou. Lou’s response is worth quoting, for its bone-chilling straightforwardness:

What if my problem wasn’t that I don’t understand people, but that I don’t like them? What if I was the kind of person who was obliged to hurt you for this? I mean physically. I think you’d have to believe afterward, if you could, that agreeing to participate and then backing out at the critical moment was a mistake. Because that’s what I’m telling you, as clearly as I can.

It goes without saying that Lou is an extreme caricature. But of what, it’s not exactly clear. He might even be a metaphor for some deep, intractable social phenomenon facing Americans in the new millennium. Regardless, the film is attempting, through artistic means, to articulate a view about the human condition.

Is Career Success a Zero-Sum Game?

This view is not terribly optimistic in its outlook: we live in a harsh and unforgiving world, where the name of the game is “survival of the fittest.” As Lou himself explains in one scene, “If you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy the ticket.” If you want something, you have to fight for it, regardless of the collateral damage.

In Lou’s twisted reality, both Joe and Rick are not colleagues. They are adversaries standing in the way of his success. This perspective, though illustrated to a rather extreme degree in the film, is nevertheless quite prevalent in today’s cultural milieu; let’s call it the “Zero-Sum View of Career Success.”It operates under the assumption that for any individual to experience success, this requires someone else to experience failure.

A parallel assumption is sometimes operative in the world of economics, in which it’s thought that, given the limited number of available resources, for one person to make a significant profit, this requires someone else to incur a debt. This assumption is false, since in a thriving capitalistic system, everyone benefits, albeit to varying degrees, when people are allowed to pursue their self-interest, protected by the rule of law.

Similarly, it would be naïve to assume that in order to thrive in one’s profession, this must occur at the expense of someone else’s ability to thrive. Not only is this viewpoint empirically false, it’s also diametrically opposed to the Christian ideal of loving our neighbors.

If I’m to love my neighbors as myself, this implies that I must desire what’s good for them. I can’t desire what’s good for them unless I’m also willing to work on behalf of their good. I must be willing to serve them by anticipating their needs and developing effective strategies for meeting those needs. This is true not only of my clients, but also my colleagues, whom I should view not as competitors, but as co-servants on behalf of the common good.

If Louis Bloom had one flaw, it was that he loved himself more than he loved his neighbors. That’s why he was ultimately unsuccessful, quite independent from the bottom line of his bank account.

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