What happens when our being is defined by our doing?
You Are What You Do
By Daniel Im
A couple years after getting married, Christina and I moved to Korea. Until then, though we had visited other countries, neither of us had ever lived outside of Canada. In fact, we were about to purchase our first home in Montreal, but when I got a job offer to work at one of the largest churches in the world—I’m not exaggerating, it was a church of 50,000 people—our priorities conveniently changed in an instant.
“Isn’t this a once-in-a-lifetime sort of opportunity? I’d be stupid to say no, right? After all, we don’t even have children yet. This would skyrocket my career. Just imagine what this would look like on my résumé! God has to be in this, otherwise, why else would I get such an opportunity? I’m going to make such a greater impact there than I would here, so isn’t this a no-brainer?”
I’ve forgotten which of those phrases I said to Christina, which ones I kept hidden in my heart, and which ones I wasn’t even aware of myself, but that paragraph pretty much sums it up—and I’m not proud of it.
Within a couple months, we sold everything—including my beloved Volkswagen GTI—packed what we could in a few suitcases, stored what we could at Christina’s parents’ place, and bought a one-way ticket to Seoul, South Korea.
The plan was to stay there long-term. Christina enrolled in Korean lessons, was working with me at the church, and started her Masters in Counseling. I was pastoring, finishing up graduate school and teaching English on the side. Life was good and things were fruitful. In fact, they were so fruitful that a year after we moved to Korea, we became a family of three. So with our baby girl, we decided it was time to grow up and move out of our furnished apartment in the party district. We wanted to lay down roots, so we found a nice little two-bedroom apartment and furnished it ourselves. We even bought an oven, which wasn’t a normal appliance for a typical Korean home. Can you tell momma bird was nesting?
Life was really good, until everything started to unravel. And by everything, this time I really do mean everything. A few months after moving into our new apartment we lost our jobs, our closest friends and our home. We lost our livelihood and everything was taken out from under our feet. In short, my ladder-climbing-résumé-building-career-rocketing adventure abruptly came to an end, and we had to move back to Canada.
I was devastated.
Once the dust settled, I started wondering if we had somehow made the wrong decision. Maybe we were never supposed to go in the first place. Perhaps I incorrectly assumed that God was leading us (because of my mixed motives), when in fact, it was just a good opportunity.
I was also ashamed.
What would I say to the doubters who thought we were making a mistake to sell everything and move halfway across the world? What would I say to my parents who were leery of us going in the first place? How was I supposed to support my wife and child now that I was without a job and essentially homeless? And why did I feel like someone had just punched me in the gut, stolen my keys and driven off with my car? After all, it’s just a job, isn’t it?
WHAT DO YOU DO FOR WORK?
As children, we’re asked what we want to do when we grow up. As adults, we’re asked what we do for work. And at the end of our lives, we’re measured by what we’ve done. It’s not surprising then that we believe the lie that we are what we do. It seems to be the primary way that we ascribe value and worth onto one another—and ourselves.
If you remember telling your parents that you wanted to be an artist, musician or athlete when you grew up, you probably learned from an early age that not all jobs are created equal. What’s up with that? Who made the decision that becoming an engineer, lawyer or doctor was fundamentally better than being a creative anyway? And what does “better” even mean? Just more money? And why do parents feel like it’s their universal responsibility to set their kids straight and teach them this proper hierarchy of jobs?
Referencing an article in The New York Times, Timothy Keller put it well in his book Every Good Endeavor:
“So many college students do not choose work that actually fits their abilities, talents, and capacities, but rather choose work that fits within their limited imagination of how they can boost their own self-image. There were only three high-status kinds of jobs—those that paid well, those that directly worked on society’s needs, and those that had the cool factor. Because there is no longer an operative consensus on the dignity of all work, still less on the idea that in all work we are the hands and fingers of God serving the human community, in their minds they had an extremely limited range of career choices. That means lots of young adults are choosing work that doesn’t fit them, or fields that are too highly competitive for most people to do well in. And this sets many people up for a sense of dissatisfaction or meaninglessness in their work.”
No wonder we overidentify ourselves with our jobs—we’ve been conditioned to do so, both from within and from without. So to satisfy both our internal craving for meaning and our external drive for a particular quality of life, we look for the perfect job. A job that boosts our self-image and also pays the bills. And if the latter is lacking, no worries—that’s why the gig economy exists. An extra gig here or side hustle there never hurt anyone, right?
PRESSURE, PLATFORMS, AND PRETENDING
What happens when our being is defined by our doing? When we believe the lie that we are what we do? And when this becomes the primary lens through which we measure success?
Wouldn’t you feel an enormous amount of pressure to do more so that you can get more, have more and be more? Unfortunately, this is a never-ending cycle because there’s always more to do. It’s kind of like laundry—it never ends. And even when you think you’ve done enough, there are always others who have accomplished more than you, which then leads to even more pressure to do more.
In today’s world, in order to do bigger and better things, don’t you have to have a platform? If people don’t know what you’re doing, are you really doing it? While platforms in and of themselves are neutral, the problem is that they often open the door to a compartmentalized life. This leads to a separation between the private and public, and as it grows over the years, fewer people are let in on the inside, until eventually you’ve locked everyone out—including yourself. Now to be clear, this doesn’t have to happen, but unfortunately, it’s often what does. Isn’t that why it was so shocking to hear of Robin Williams’, Anthony Bourdain’s, and Kate Spade’s suicides? Weren’t they finally enjoying the benefits of all they’d done?
If you can’t keep up with the pressure, and building a platform isn’t going as well as you thought, isn’t the next best option just to pretend? Fake it ’til you make it, right? Buy followers on social media, pay people to purchase your products and pad your numbers. If it worked for some of the most recent startups, why wouldn’t it work for you? Just listen to the podcast, How I Built This, and you’ll see how many hacked their way to success.
Unfortunately, the thing about pretending is that it always leads to anxiety. You’re constantly looking over your shoulder, wondering when you’ll be found out and what will happen then.
A life dictated by doing is not much of a life at all. How many more executives, entrepreneurs and spiritual leaders need to lose their families, and their own souls, for us to get it? And how many more public personalities need to implode before we learn from their mistakes and pivot? When we let this lie define our lives, we inevitably end up neglecting the relationships that mean the most to us, our emotional well-being, and our spiritual health. Isn’t that why we’re called human beings, and not human doings?
When we arrived back to Canada, we moved in with my parents. With no job, no purpose and nowhere to go, they graciously let us stay in their house until we could get back on our feet.
I was resolved to move out as soon as I could—not because I didn’t love my parents, but because I was a married man with a child. So instead of bumming around in my PJs, I started handing out my résumé to everyone and anyone who would take it. I started with churches that were looking for pastoral staff. To be honest, I was expecting a flood of phone calls—after all, who wouldn’t want to hire me? I had experience in a church of 50,000 people!
“Maybe they want to receive a few more résumés before getting back to me,” I thought to myself. So to keep myself busy, I figured that I’d just work at Costco or Starbucks until the right opportunity rolled around—but they didn’t call me back either. I even applied to teach English as a foreign language, which wasn’t my favorite thing to do, but at least I had years of experience doing it.
Nothing. No one would call me back for an interview.
Perhaps God was trying to get my attention.
Excerpted from You Are What You Do by Daniel Im. B&H Publishing. Copyright 2020. Used by permission.