tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Profession as vocation

Sometimes I go to meetings for writers and what I often find is that many people like the idea of having written but only a few like the idea of writing. Everybody wants to be published, but few people want to write. It’s like a trade association executive I know who used to say “this would be a great job if it wasn’t for the members.” Or I think of all the people I know at big companies who hate their jobs but stick with it because of the great retirement benefits.

I thought about all these things recently when I was driving back to Minneapolis from Waverly, Iowa where I had just spent three hours with Jeff Plagge, NorthWestern Financial Review’s Banker of the Year for 2006. NorthWestern Financial Review is the name of the banking trade journal I publish and every year since 1989 we have named a “Banker of the Year.” This is a person who runs a solid community bank, but also makes substantial contributions to their community and industry.

Plagge is running a complicated financial organization in addition to serving his industry and community with heart-felt volunteerism. Plagge noted that he doesn’t have many personal hobbies; the time that a lot of people devote to golf or fishing, he devotes to community banking. He’s like the writer who actually likes to write, or the career professional who actually likes his job. How refreshing to talk to someone like that.

Like so many Banker of the Year selections over the past 17 years, Plagge is helping me to see the difference between a career and a vocation. You can put food on the table with a career, but I’m inclined to think it takes a vocation to improve the world. Professional competence comes from the head, but drive and passion come from the heart and to make the world a better place, I think your head and heart need to be in synch. Our Banker of the Year articles always have featured people who pour all their energy into their endeavors which start at the bank but inevitably spill over to the community and industry. It is difficult to contain fervent vocational activism.

Plagge would tell you that the recognition is nice, but that’s not why he’s doing all that he does. The good life isn’t about sitting back and reminiscing about what you’ve done, it’s about actually doing, in the here and now. I’ve written most of the Banker of the Year stories we have run over the years and I think all of our selections have felt that way.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Truth in memoirs

The question of truth always comes up when people talk about memoirs, and more people are talking about them since James Frey admitted recently that he made up much of the material in his best selling book, “A Million Little Pieces.” When people consider the issue of truth in literature, they sometimes begin considering the intent of the writer or the writer’s state of mind. But I think you have to start with the reader, not the writer. What does the reader expect?

A reader brings different expectations to different kinds of work. I bring one set of expectations to a novel and another set of expectations to a memoir and another set of expectations to a biography. A good writer understands, respects and satisfies the expectations of his readers.

Most readers expect a memoir to be what it is, that is, a true story told from memory. A memoir should be true according to the author’s memory. Readers understand the capabilities and limitations of memory. We understand that people remember powerful experiences from their youth, but readers also understand that no one can remember word-for-word dialog from 30 years ago. That doesn’t mean such dialog shouldn’t appear in a memoir; it just means that when it does, the reader understands that the writer has reconstructed it as best he can, based on the situation and the rest of the story.

A memoirist has to try to tell the truth, even if the truth isn’t completely clear. There are other forms of literature that don’t make this requirement. There are literary genres called "creative non-fiction" and "creative autobiography" that let a writer say anything without any regard for the truth. But that isn’t true for a memoir.

Those of us who have written memoirs and have tried to honor the truth are somewhat tainted by writers who use the memoir moniker to produce utter fantasy. A reader’s trust is a very valuable thing and when someone comes along and abuses it, the reader is likely to be a little skeptical in the face of any writer from that point on. How terribly sad.

In the case of Frey, his book apparently originally was submitted as a novel, but then published as a memoir. Publisher Doubleday thought it would do well if it marketed the book as a memoir, obviously leveraging the readers’ expectations for a memoir. This complete disrespect for the lines of genre really makes a writer cringe. In the long run, this kind of deception will only hurt publishers and writers. It makes it impossible for readers to know what they are reading. No matter what the quality of a work is, readers at least have to know what the writer is trying to do. They have to be able to trust that the book is an honest representation of the writer’s effort.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Thoughts on the purpose of work

In order for your work to be fruitful, I am convinced you need to live your faith. And, the only way I know how to live my faith requires my work to be fruitful. Faith and work are necessarily integrated. I don’t think we have a choice about whether we integrate our faith life with our work life; if either one is going to be any good, the two need to go together.

Faith is a gift, as is everything on this earth; God blesses us freely, and there’s even a word for the sin of trying to buy God’s graces, “simony.” The culture, however, makes certain demands upon us for engaging in earthly life, and those demands usually cost money. The life that reflects a faith in God is particularly costly. I think you could argue that the Devil is really happy about that, and he uses financial anxiety to prevent people from living their faith as fully as they are capable.

Everyone’s faith experience is different, but let me describe a little of my own faith with its accompanying economic consequences. As I grew into adulthood, I carried faith-based expectations about the family and household I hoped to build: I would be open to a large family; my wife would stay at home full time to be with the children – particularly in their early years; the kids would attend good Catholic schools, and we would tithe. I was mostly following the example of my parents. Now I realize that living these expectations separates my family from the typical secular American family.

Every year, the United States Department of Agriculture attempts to estimate the cost of raising a child. In 2004, the USDA put the total cost of raising a child from infancy to adulthood at somewhere between $134,370 and $269,520. This is based on estimates for seven budgetary components such as housing, food, transportation and clothing. It does not include the cost of college, nor does it say anything about things such as the cost of time, foregone earnings and opportunity costs.

USDA makes distinctions reflecting geography, including urban versus rural settings. For example, the 2004 report says overall child-reading expenses are highest for families in the urban West, followed by the urban Northeast and urban South; families in the urban Midwest and rural areas have the lowest child-rearing expense.

Lucky me, I live in the urban Midwest, so my costs for raising a family should be among the lower in the country. USDA presents all this data organized according to income categories. The Minnesota Department of Trade and Economic Development says the average salary of a publisher/editor is $75,000 per year, so put me in the highest of the USDA’s income groups.

I have four children, ages 3, 6, 9 and 10. Given my income and the location of my home, the report says I spend $14,110 per year on my 3-year-old, $13,860 on my 6-year-old, and $13,680 on each of my 9 and 10-year old children. That’s $41,830 to raise my kids -– for one year. The total 17-year cost, according to the report for one child is $254,460, or $1,017,840 for the whole family, not counting my wife and me.

A million dollars plus to raise my kids. And that doesn’t even include college. We’ve all seen the Money magazine articles that predict the cost of college in 10 to 15 years. I am being encouraged by my life insurance agent and financial planner and a number of my relatives to sock away as much money as I possibly can -– starting right now –- to pay for college. I am told a good college today runs $30,000 per year including tuition, room and board. I am sure the number will be four or five times that by the time I am sending kids to college.

This analysis is far from perfect but carries some value because it helps us make some comparisons. For example, if the typical family in America has two kids, and I have four, then I know I am going to have more expenses than the typical family. The USDA report says it costs $254,460 to raise a child from birth through age 17, in my demographic. So that’s $14,968 per year, or $29,936 for to two kids over the typical family size.

I used to get mad when I considered the costs associated with a larger-than-average family. But that is when I would look at those USDA numbers and figure that I have to do it all myself. That is when I was thinking that as a father, the responsibility to provide was entirely up to me. I forgot what made me a Christian in the first place -– that I put God first, that I trust God. And God provides. It is so easy for forget this ... to think that it is all up to me. But it is not. God is the ultimate provider. He does not give people situations they cannot handle. He does not set us up to fail. He does not leave us here, orphaned to die. He takes care of us.

But that doesn’t mean I get to sit back and do nothing. Catholics are known for saying “Grace builds on nature.” What that means is that God and man have to work together. God gives graces, but they are usually built on gifts He already has given us on this earth. They typically don’t just come out of thin air -– although they could, but they usually don’t. It’s like when you lose something, Catholics are likely to pray to St. Anthony that it will be found. Well, after you pray, you still need to look. You can’t just sit in your easy chair and wait for the lost set of car keys to drop in your lap.

Or it’s like that famous joke about the guy trapped in the flood. The water is rising and he is sitting on the roof of his house. Someone comes by in a rowboat and says: “Get in.” The guy on the roof, says, “No, God will rescue me.” The water continues to rise and a few minutes later a guy in a helicopter comes by and says, “I will save you.” The homeowner responds, “No, that’s okay, God will save me.” Minutes later, as the water continues to rise, someone comes by in another rowboat. He sees the stranded man on the roof and pleads with him to get in the boat, but again the man says, “No thank you, God will save me.” So the man in the boat leaves. Moments later the rising water sweeps away the man on the roof and he drowns. The man finds himself before God, at which point he asks, “God, I believed in you, why didn’t you save me?” God responds, “I sent two boats and a helicopter for you and you refuse to respond.”

So my point is, God will provide. A good career is like one of those rowboats or the helicopter. We have to actually take the help that God offers. My point is that so many people -– well meaning faith-filled people -– don’t take that help seriously enough. They kind of take it for granted, and I am saying they absolutely cannot take it for granted.

I read a lot of magazine aimed at Christians and one thing I am always struck by is the lack of engagement on the part of men when discussions arise about family finances. For example, I see all kinds of articles about saving money. These are usually aimed at the faith-filled women who are wonderful mothers and these articles describe the savings that can be gained by re-using paper towels, or by ironing your tin foil, or by making your own soap. These articles are important because, of course, we are supposed to use our resources wisely. We are not to be wasteful.

However, as a business owner, I know there are two sides to the ledger -– expenses and revenue. The cost-savings tips are all about reducing expenses, and I can see where this is important. But what about the revenue side of the ledger? What is the man doing to make sure he is providing as best he can? Is this man making the most of the gifts God has given him to provide for that family?

If a man expects to drive from Minneapolis to Dallas, he knows he needs enough money to afford gasoline sufficient to travel 1,000 miles. If his car gets 30 miles per gallon, that means he needs to be ready to buy 33 gallons of gas. If gas costs $3 per gallon, he knows he better have $99. If he doesn’t think ahead and plan a little bit, he is likely to find himself stranded in St. Louis without enough gas to get where he wants to go. It’s like scripture notes the foolishness of the man who sets out to build a house and in the middle of the project realizes he doesn’t have enough money to complete it. People mock the builder who ends up abandoning a half-constructed project. Or scripture says it is the wise man who builds his house on the rock, a solid foundation. Among the many things that passage is saying, is you need to look ahead a little and make a wise plan for what you want to accomplish.

So the man who hopes to have four, five or more kids, kind of knows he is going to have to figure out a way to earn more than $18,000 per year. It doesn’t mean he should be greedy, or that he should consider the task of providing to be solely up to him, but it means he will need to be prudent. He will have to use what God gave him to responsibly care for his blessings. He who is blessed with a large family has to work with God perhaps more than anyone. God will do His part, but as the breadwinner in the family, the man has to do his part too. He needs to take his responsibility in this plan seriously. And if you are going to have four kids, conventional planning in early 21st century America says that means earning about a million dollars over the coarse of a couple decades.

I used to have a really hard time reconciling the need to work with the belief the God will provide. If God will provide, then why do I have to work? Does God really provide? I mean, if I just sit hear all day for years, I will starve and so will those who depend on me. So I have to work, and in that case, aren’t I really providing for myself? Thinking about this, I finally came to see that I was backing myself into a corner because I didn’t know the purpose of work. I always assumed the purpose of work is to make money. If the purpose of work is to make money, then I really am trying to provide on my own. I really am working as if I don’t need God. So there must be some other purpose to work.

I am convinced that God provides and that we have to work. A New Testament parable describes a master who gave talents to three servants. God provides to all three of them, but the one who doesn’t work is punished. The two who work are rewarded. So this famous story illustrates both the fact that God provides and the fact that we are supposed to work.

But why work? Why did God create it so that we need to work? He could have created us so we don’t need food, shelter and clothing. He could have made us so that we are always fed, warm and comfortable. But no. He chose to give us brains and talent and other attributes that we use in work to co-provide. God does not need us to provide for us, but He chose to include us in the process of providing for us. Why? The answer to that question resolves the tension between God as provider and me as worker. The answer to that question helps me to see the real purpose of work.

The real purpose of work is to get to know God better. That is why we work. We work to grow closer to God.

No matter what our work is, the point of it is to grow closer to God. Whether we are scientists or teachers or truck drivers or construction workers or managers or football players, the purpose of our work is to grow closer to God. And we absolutely can grow closer to God in any honest work. Understanding the purpose of work is essential to integrating your work and faith life. It doesn’t answer every question, but it answers a lot of them.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Some thoughts on intellectual health

If growth means anything, it means learning. When you learn something, you grow. In life you are either growing or dying, and given the option, most of us would rather be growing. So that means we have to keep learning.

In order to learn anything, people first have to admit that they don’t know everything. This is a very healthy form of humility. You put yourself in a position of learning from others. You acknowledge the authority of others to teach you something. You not only benefit by absorbing information others have to offer, but others benefit from the respect you give them by acknowledging their authority.

The opportunities for lifelong learning are numerous in early 21st Century U.S. culture. Colleges and universities have all kinds of continuing education programs, in addition to their more traditional degree programs. I live in a metro area where every municipality seems to offer its own community education programs. Many quality educational programs are offered through the Internet, so you can study anytime, day or night. Courses are offered by correspondence, video and audiotape. Perhaps the greatest educational opportunity that many of us have is the library. We live in a country where almost anyone can borrow virtually any book that’s ever been printed.

Reading is so important because it gives you the opportunity to benefit from the research and work of someone else –- the author. And it could be work that was done centuries ago. And all authors want their work to be read, so when you read you are not only doing yourself a favor, but you are honoring the author. I once heard an expert on leadership say that not every reader becomes a great leader, but every great leader is a reader. If you read the biographies of the business and political leaders of our time, most will tell you they read a lot, perhaps a couple of books per month.

I think most healthy people must have a yearning for knowledge, to some degree. Knowledge gives a person confidence, and it builds esteem in the eyes of others. Certainly the value of knowledge in the work world is obvious. Employees with PhDs usually make more than those of us with only a bachelors’ degree. Knowing more usually puts you in a better position to solve problems and add value to virtually any organizational effort. That’s one of the reasons so many professions have continuing education requirements. That’s why so many companies are willing to pay for their employees to go to college or undertake additional training.

One of the greatest ways to build meaningful relationships with others is to show an interest in them. Learning is a way to show interest in others, either by learning about them or by learning from them. If you study to learn to speak French, you all of a sudden gain the potential to establish relationships the millions of people living in French speaking places. If you learn something about jazz, you put yourself in position to bond with people who flock to jazz clubs all of the country. Or if you study 19th Century American history, you can connect with thousands of people who are fascinated with our Civil War.

I am a big fan of learning by doing, or of learning through first-hand experience. I do not have an MBA, but I feel like I do, based on 10-plus years of small business experience. For me, it has been very effective to learn by doing; I get a lot more out of making my own mistakes than I do by reading about someone else’s mistakes.

Of course, not everything can be learned directly by doing; most to the time, we have to accept the authority of some expert, that is, someone who knows more about a particular subject than I do. I am very comfortable with this if I know the person has devoted serious study and time to the topic about which they are teaching. That is why I was so comfortable learning in college. My professors had all devoted their lives to the study of literature or language; it was a real privilege for me to absorb the things they said in class.

My fear is that most of us rely on popular media as their main fashion of learning. This is an enormous mistake. Media has its place, but it is not as an authoritative teacher. I personally find television news to be almost worthless for contributing to intellectual health; newspapers aren’t much better. I think the reason typical news outlets fail to contribute to intellectual development is because the stories are presented in such a way that they are not meant to appeal to the intellect, but to emotion. Here’s what I mean.

Almost all news stories depict some kind of conflict –- a union against its employer, consumers against a utility company, voters of one philosophical persuasion against voters with a different philosophical persuasion. The greater the conflict, the greater the story. The greater the distance between the competing interests, the more dramatic the story. So reporters are always looking for the greatest conflicts. They are looking to pair up the parties that are farthest apart. This, by no means, is the best way to represent our world.

For example, when the President of the United States introduces a new idea -- let’s say health care for your pet -- any reporter worth his salt is going to go out and find a group of people who hate dogs and cats to comment on the idea. Now do most people in the country hate dogs and cats? No. Most people really don’t care about dog or cats one way or the other, but it wouldn’t be interesting to interview those people for a story like this. Interviews with these people would not produce a pronounced conflict.

News reporters typically report the extremes, and when they package them in the same half-hour broadcast or put them in the same newspaper article, it makes it look like everyone hates each other, and that simply is not the case. There is plenty of disagreement in this world, but most people get along with their neighbors far better than any of us would be led to believe by reading our local newspapers.

The important thing to remember about anything we learn from television or newspapers is that it is only a start; it is not the final word. And oftentimes, it is only a start of baby steps, leaving the vast majority of the truth about something untouched. Remember when O.J. Simpson was on trial? Everyone was shocked that this man could be a murderer. People were shocked because the only thing most American’s knew about him was that he was a great football player, that he was an energetic sports commentator on television and that he was running through airports for Hertz car rental commercials. Of course, this glimpse doesn’t tell us anything about who O.J. really is, but so many people thought it did. They accepted these media images as the last word on who O.J. is, and so when it turns out that he is something vastly different from all this, the world is shocked. But should it have been? No. There was no way to know from those media snippets who this man was or what was really in his heart.

And, real knowledge is knowing what’s in someone’s heart, not what’s in the newspaper. I know all kinds of people who are up on the news and don’t have a clue about who their neighbor is. Too many people are happy to read the newspaper or plop down in front of the television set to watch the news, but lack the initiative to engage their neighbor or really get to know them. I think that is really too bad –- for both the learner and the neighbor. Intellectual stimulation results from interactivity. Most media doesn’t offer much in terms of interactivity. It is all one-way, and what you are getting really isn’t designed to be useful instruction in the first place.

Media certainly has its place. Oftentimes, a story in the news can spur you into greater study. A newspaper story can be the start of an intellectual journey. I find it can be useful to consider the stories I get from media in the context of other stories, either from other media sources or my own personal experience. Knowledge comes about through intellectual pursuit, which is more akin to getting in shape through diet and exercise than it is to fueling up with a self-service stop at the gas station. People are the source of news, so the best way to learn is to actually visit with the people. Actually talking to someone is better than reading something from someone who talked to someone.

Of course, it is highly unlikely that we will ever get the chance to talk to someone face to face from the other side of the globe, or even from a different part of the country, so we are forced to rely on secondary sources for so much information. The value of that secondary information, however, is proportional to our first-hand information. If I spend my entire day in my house, never interacting with anyone, then the news I get on TV and in the newspaper or over the radio is far less meaningful because I have no self-determined context for the information. All I have is someone else’s context, and the context of that editor or reporter or producer may not in any way reflect my own life and circumstances. However, if I am out in the world most of the day, interacting with people, observing first-hand how people behave on the bus and in the department store and in the restaurant or in church, then I have some context for absorbing stories I get from broadcast and print media.

For many years at one point in my life I did not have a television set, so I hardly ever saw television news. When I mentioned this to someone, they asked “how do you know what’s going on?” “I live my life,” I answered. To this day, I continue to think that is the best way to learn. Live your life. Intellectual health is more about interacting with others than it is about absorbing knowledge. It is easy to learn what is in the newspaper, but it takes a little more effort to learn what is in someone’s heart, even your own. God is the source of all knowledge and He lives in our hearts. We all yearn for God, and that is why we yearn for knowledge. We get to know God by loving our neighbor, and that is the same way we grow in knowledge.

True intellectual health is dependent upon us understanding the relationship between God and knowledge. It is interesting to me that many atheists are very smart people. Knowledge can be very seductive; it can make us believe that we are god ourselves, or that if you have enough knowledge, you don’t need God. Adam and Eve were attracted to the Tree of Knowledge; the temptations that were around in the beginning remain with us today.

Knowledge can have a way of making us arrogant. As some people learn, they fall into the trap of pushing out faith and mystery. As more things are explained to them, and as they figure more things out, they come to believe that they can know everything, that there is no need for faith. These are people who may have a great intellect, but they do not have intellectual health.

Intellectual health begins with humility; this means recognizing the source of knowledge -– God -- and giving thanks to Him. It means recognizing that there is always more to learn, and it means treating others as if you have something to learn from them. That means treating them with respect and reverence, and being willing to spend time with them, listening. It means taking an interest in them, and asking them about areas where they have expertise. For older folks, that may be life in earlier decades, for neighbors that might mean work experiences or growing-up years in others places, for work colleagues that might mean different college experiences or family situations. Everyone has experiences you don’t have. That is all fodder for knowledge that can contribute to your intellectual health. But it requires you to be interested in those people, to make time for them, to really listen to them and to attempt to really see who they are.

They say that if you keep your mind active, you will be healthier, and I am sure there are scientific studies to prove that. But I am convinced that intellectual health is really about keeping your heart active. It’s really about connecting with the people around you. On one level, you can connect with people through broadcast and print media, on another level you can do that through books, and on another level you can do that through formal study, but I think on the most fulfilling level you do that through direct personal interaction with those around you.