I have a friend who is a strong Christian and a skilled physician at the top of her profession. When she and I completed a post-doctoral fellowship together some years ago, no one was surprised that she received many prestigious job offers. One such offer involved a prominent but time-intensive position. Friends knew that she would be successful in whatever she pursued. But would she be able to thrive in her career and have a good work-life balance, or would success require working 80 hours a week at the expense of her personal life and relationships? What choice would you make in this position? How would you advise a friend facing a similar situation?
Some of us have been blessed with an extra drive to succeed. One woman might feel particularly motivated to work to the best of her ability in a traditionally male-dominated profession. Another might be driven to perform exceptionally in order to offset stereotypes about her ethnicity or rural background. Some people simply seem to enjoy and even thrive on competition. There is a healthy way for people to recognize this drive and use it for motivation. Through clarity of thought and intentional choices, these individuals are able to work vigorously toward their goals while honoring their personal life, family, and friends.
Unfortunately, there can also be risks. Careers can come into conflict with one’s personal life and relationships. Sometimes when people are doing something that they think is important, they can be insensitive to the people they care about. The drive to succeed can become all-consuming. Many professionals struggle to find the proper balance. People unintentionally hurt friends, family, and spouses. They cancel lunches or dinners in favor of work obligations. They miss family events, church services, and special occasions. Even when they are present, it’s easy to be distracted or constantly checking messages.
It is possible to follow ambition in a healthy, holy way without feeling forced to abandon one’s dreams and goals. The author of Ecclesiastes reminds us, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” (Ecclesiastes 3:3 NRSV) There are periods of time when we need to be intensely focused—for example, when completing a dissertation or studying for a bar exam. But there are other times when we need to learn how to decline certain opportunities and demands placed on us. It is important to step back and reflect upon which season of life you are in. Jesus knew his priorities and was aware that he sometimes needed to choose between two options and make hard decisions. In one gospel account, his disciples came to him and said, “Everyone is looking for you!” Jesus responded, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” (Mark 1:35-38)
There are periods of time when we need to be intensely focused—for example, when completing a dissertation or studying for a bar exam. But there are other times when we need to learn how to decline certain opportunities and demands placed on us.
How can we make use of that drive to succeed but still find the proper life balance? Like Jesus, it is important to know our priorities and sometimes make hard decisions. The process involves listening to God and community. Here are a few steps you can take to achieve clarity about your plans for the future.
- Determine priorities. Consider what things are most important to you. Which of these things feel perfectly aligned with God’s purposes for you and the world? Which feel a little more questionable? When we neglect to see our dreams and passions through God’s transcendent light, even our noblest, best hopes and ideals can become idols.
- Pray. An important part of determining our priorities involves honest conversations with God. Ask for God’s direction when facing decisions. Prayer might come easily, or it could be a challenge. You might even be uncertain if God really exists. Pray anyway. Prayers do not have to be eloquent or theologically sophisticated. They do need to be honest, heartfelt, and open.
- Listen to and communicate with your friends and your community. Friends can provide an important reality check during those times when one becomes consumed by ambition. There may be times when their patience, flexibility, and help are essential. For example, during a particularly intense or stressful season, you may need to ask for their help taking care of pets, chores, or other daily obligations. Remember to say thank you, and to be supportive of others’ interests and schedules when the circumstances are reversed.
- Plan for the future. This is particularly important if you are in a relationship, married, or thinking of marriage at some point. Talk with your significant other about the demands of your profession and how you will address career decisions together when they arise. If you decide to raise a family, remember that children may not understand your work schedule and may require additional time, flexibility, and grace. You, your spouse, and your family want to approach life together as members of the same team, not as adversaries.
Life decisions may not come easily. God may lead you on a different life path than you had originally envisioned. Keep in mind that discernment is not always perfect. You won’t always hear God clearly. Relationships can get messy. Be willing to accept God’s grace and extend forgiveness to others when reality falls short of your ideal. It takes hard work and commitment, but the end result is worth it.
When faced with various career options, my friend elected not to take the prestigious but demanding position. With a few different variables, her decision might have been different, but she has felt content with the choice she made. Time has a way of putting our lives in perspective. “God put choices in my life where I had to lay my ambitions on the altar and he graciously restored them later,” she told me recently. Although the program director who offered her the job was disappointed, my friend was at peace with her decision in that situation and the years that followed. “As I look back on over three decades in medicine,” she recalled, “it has been a tremendous gift to be able to do work I love, believe in, and find fascinating."