On Ambition: talk from yesterday

Here’s the talk I gave as part of a panel session ‘Three views on ambition and discipleship’ at yesterday’s LCF conference. Thanks to all those who helped me shape the ideas for this.

I have worked in law libraries since 2004. At first this was on a very part time basis – I took a shelving role as a second job when I was struggling with debt. I’m from a Christian family, but stopped paying attention when I was in my teens and really only came back to faith at the time I was studying for my library masters. That’s around around six years ago. I’ve only worked full-time in the information profession as a Christian, but I’ve had plenty of experience in other jobs with both feet planted firmly in the secular world.

So what do I think about talent, ambition, humility and faith? Are they compatible? How have I operationlised those things in my library career so far?

I’m going to explain my opinions, and why I think it matters how we relate to the rest of the world.

When I was a child, my father’s advice to me was that I should aim as high as I wanted – but make sure I didn’t trample on people on the way. And that’s advice that has stuck with me. Dad worked as a toolmaker all his life. I discovered recently he spent the first few years as an apprentice being called Bill, since that was his father’s name – this didn’t bother him, it was just how things were. Yet instances of unfairness from shop stewards or management will still rankle with him forty years on, even if he was called by his real name when they happened (Robin). So I think his advice is sound. In fact his insight has helped me lots of ways where we’ve been able to talk through the difficulties and ambiguities at work.

Dad’s advice aside, what do I think about ambition and climbing high? What do I think my Heavenly Father might say?

Being ambitious isn’t about seeking power over others.

Being ambitious isn’t about being self-serving, and trampling people.

Ambition doesn’t have to mean greed, financial gain and exploitation.

Being ambitious is about working to the best of our ability.

My entry into librarianship was a career change from being a conference manager. Was I ambitious? Of course I was. I wanted to learn more. I wanted to create a new professional network. I wanted understand more, to really feel part of the business within which I was employed. I set myself a time limit in that first job – I would move on after a year to a role with more responsibility.

I felt I had a talent for this kind of work – and if I also felt that talent was God-given, did I not have a responsibility to develop and explore the new skills? Ambition to me is being the best law librarian I can be. I also want to be the best runner I can be, the best conference speaker I can be, the best PCC member I can be, the best PhD student I can be, and, yes, when it’s my turn, I want to be the best church toilet cleaner, too.  Wrapped up in all that is a sense of my own laziness and underachievement – not the best combination, but I live with the nagging doubt I could have done better.

So I believe that if your talent, enthusiasm and ability is in leadership you should perform this to the best of your ability – you should be a leader, and you should lead well. The ability to influence someone else’s working life is a privilege.

What if I get promoted? Should I avoid making a fuss, putting myself forward for things? Does that demonstrate humility?

No. That is a misunderstanding of humility. God made you and God put you in situations so he could use you. (If anyone figures out what it is he’s using me for, could you let me know, because I am still working on that one myself). Humility is understanding that you pretty much need him for everything. Humility says ‘I rely only on God.’ Pride says, ‘I’m proving my humility by refusing promotion.’ Humility is not about refusing the limelight. It is about understanding that the limelight is a place from which you can work for the good of others.

I have been incredibly fortunate in finding opportunities with SLA Europe, the Special Library Association. I’ve been to four awesome conferences in the US. Let’s face it, in 2009 I never thought I’d have four trips to the US. I led the chapter last year. I’m proud of my achievements – and I know where I have needed God’s help along the way. Sometimes that’s only with hindsight, but hey, life is all about learning. I’m prouder still of the colleagues I have encouraged, the awards I’ve been part of the judging panel for, the introductions between people I have been able to make. Writing this, I am aware how trite it sounds, but being on stage last year receiving an award, amongst American hoop-la and razzmatazz was fun, but it was tough. All those things when I knew I hadn’t been the best I could – missed deadlines, broken good intentions, out and out failures of love, compassion, self-control – these were what I was thinking about (as well as ‘don’t fall over’). Sometimes it feels like the more I am in a position of influence or authority, the more I become horribly aware of my own failings and shortcomings.

It is hard to be a good leader and to be full of yourself. The needs of others and of the business have to take precedence. You will have to make decisions about other people’s lives based on your principles. And you will need to stand by those principles. I want people to notice something different about me at work not because I wear a piece of jewellery, but because I think and act fairly, ethically, respectfully – and that I try as hard as I am able to love my co-workers. And if I am honest, with some people, I struggle. My pride and my ego and the laziness often stop me doing the best I can.

The idea that someone else will map out a career path for me is long gone. I do not expect to stay in a job for life, with carefully spaced promotion and training. All my professional development in the last few years has been self-funded or self-propelled. I’ve not been in a job with a budget for training for four years. And after all, if I left it to my managers to decide what I needed training on, they’d choose what they wanted me to be, not what I wanted. So in a way I have relished this freedom.

I strongly believe we can do our best as Christians by remembering to be salt and light in this world. How does that affect me in practice?

If you are a meticulous, speedy, knowledgeable cataloguer, and that is your life’s work,  well, firstly, I take my hat off to you – I am a terrible librarian in some ways because that kind of thing is really not my cup of tea. And I appreciate that my kind of librarianship is feasible only because there are people who care about metadata and MARC fields and worry about the implementation of RDA, XML, and Z39.50. And God wants you to be the best meticulous, speedy, knowledgeable cataloguer you can be, because that’s what you’re equipped for. So I am not calling for us to take on roles we feel are outside of our talents. But I am calling for us to take on roles that challenge, and stretch us, and put us in places that are outside our comfort zone, because I believe we should never be complacent about our role or our ability to learn or teach others.

Do people understand what you do for a living, and why you bring value to their business? If they don’t – whose fault is that? Should we expect to be recognised just for showing up? I don’t think so. Are you uncomfortable with the idea of telling people what a great job you do for them? Don’t use humility as an excuse to diminish your professional standing. Should you take or stay in a junior job because you are a Christian? Only if you are comfortable wasting your God-given talents. You cannot be salt and light in the workplace if you have no-one to season or illuminate.

The more people we work with, the more people we can influence. Christians in leadership roles have amazing opportunities to shape the organisations in which they work.

We have to live in this flawed and uncertain world. If we are going to be able to light people’s ways, then they will have to take us seriously. That means working as a credible professional colleague. So I look the part, based on my firm’s standards. Given that I am the third laziest person in the world when it comes to makeup and haircuts, this does involve a little bit of effort on my behalf, but then I understand other people have to look at me all day so I may as well make it as pleasant for them as I can.

We may not be citizens of this world, but we have to understand its rules in order to be able to subvert them or play by them when necessary. I work in the City so I dress like a City worker. 90% of my working wardrobe is second hand, charity shop offerings – and I do admit I find a quiet satisfaction adding up how little my clothes cost working alongside those whose shoes cost the same as my rent. A friend of mine says that you have to be ‘in it to win it.’

How does that make a difference to ambition and my workplace discipleship? It might not hold great benefit for me as a Christian.

But I think we forget sometimes that we might be the one person that represents an entire faith to our colleagues. How would they judge your faith if you were the sole exemplar of a Christian? It’s no use saying it’s unfair to judge like that, or that one should look at the heart not the person – we know that, but those are our rules. Your secular colleague plays by their rules, and a bit of judging a book by its cover is perfectly normal.

So, to conclude. I think we are accountable in many ways in the jobs we do.

We’re accountable to God, for the talents we’ve been given, and our responsibility is to use them well.

That is a good ambition.

We’re accountable to our colleagues – to lead well, to promote our profession and to be a pleasure not a chore to work alongside.

That is a good ambition.

And we owe it to ourselves to learn, develop and challenge ourselves as we work on our jobs and our own journey of discipleship. That is a good ambition.

Am I ambitious? Oh yes.

One comment

  1. Ambition to be the best you can possibly be because that honours our God is ambition set in the right context. Thank you.

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