Question your faith
I once heard that Jesuit priests are encouraged to question their faith constantly, to be sure they’re fully in touch with God, and committed to their mission. When I first heard about this idea, it appealed to me immediately, and I decided to commit to the same concept in my own working life.
I’ve found that to be truly happy in my work, I need to constantly ask myself not just “is this what I want to do?” But also, “is the best option for me out there?” That means getting my head up and looking around. When I was in the Royal Marines, that meant opening my eyes to other careers, and other possibilities that seemed attractive or resonant at the time. It also meant considering other branches of military service, an extraordinary idea for any bootneck, given how hard it is to get through commando training in the first place, and the unit’s esprit de corps. At various times, my passions and pursuits led me to consider working as a national park ranger, a mountaineering and climbing instructor, a policeman and – the ultimate eyebrow-raiser – transferring to the Royal Air Force (I was thinking about joining the RAF’s magnificent mountain rescue team).
In each case, after a period of research and reflection, I decided to keep doing what I was doing. And every single time I made that decision, I felt invigorated. My conviction that I was in the right place, doing the right thing, was restored, and my enthusiasm for my career choice and my work was renewed. I still loved the Corps! (phew).
I was deployed with 45 Commando in Kuwait when an encounter with a bunch of journalists made me question my faith, big style. They were a gaggle of foreign correspondents, covering a massing of Republican Guard on Iraq’s southern border. As the intelligence officer, I was given the dirty job of nursemaiding what I expected to be an unruly pack of amoral attack dogs. They were very unruly, it’s true, but they were also great company, and they all seemed to love their work. I was at an inflection point in my career, and I was looking for options. I had never considered journalism, but the more I talked to these reporters, the more I thought the news business might be a good fit for me. I gave it some thought, asked some questions and “tried it on” for a bit. It felt good. Very good. So I took a deep breath, went to see the CO, and told him I was moving on.
I have put myself through the same faith-testing process in every job that I have done since. I’ve also always encouraged people who work with me to do the same. Most of my supervisors have not approved. Why would I want to encourage anyone reporting to me to consider leaving? The answer is obvious: because people are happiest when they know, for sure, that they are in the right place, and even though there are other attractive options out there, they have chosen to stay.
It’s not as clean-cut as that, of course. Many times, after I’ve tested my faith and asked myself those questions and concluded I should move on, I’ve opted to stay put. Usually, it’s been because I’ve been afraid. It’s a cold, hard world out there, after all – regardless of how cold or hard it might be in here! And I’m fully aware that I’m not alone in this. Many people with whom I’ve worked have told me they’ve stayed in jobs because they were afraid to make the leap, even when they knew in their hearts that they should.
The moment of clarity in this faith-testing process almost always comes, for me, in a one-on-one with a supervisor, where issues are raised and requests are made. I’ve been on both sides of these conversations, as a manager and an employee, and they are rarely easy, for either party. But they’re essential for both. As a supervisor, I always wanted to know where the pain points were for my direct reports, and how I could ease that pain. More selfishly, perhaps, I wanted to know how I could better motivate that person. As an employee, the testing process made me much more aware of myself and what my true motivations were (money? Vacation? Autonomy?). It also made me aware of how my supervisor, and by extension, the organization, saw me: how I was of value to them (reflected in my position and the opportunities presented to me), and what they thought I was worth (reflected in my pay and benefits). If my view of myself and my worth didn’t line up with their view, then it was time to consider the other option.
For the last couple of years, however, I haven’t been working for a company. I have no supervisor. There’s no one-on-one anymore, except with myself. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t stopped questioning my faith. I quit working full time to write, and I’m grateful that while I am stricken by frequent bouts of anxiety, once I cut through that noise and get still and ask myself whether I’m doing the right thing, I always say yes.