The Danger Behind Trying to Save the World

What WeCrashed Teaches Us About Vocation

This article is by Kelsi Klembara:

Look up “Millennial” in the dictionary, and you’ll find a picture of me. I take my coffee black, local, and freshly roasted. “Typeface” is a regular word in my vocabulary. I disdain chain restaurants (unless you can eat at them in an ironic sort of way). A24 movies? Yeah, I watch them all. This whole moving away from skinny jeans thing has been a really difficult moment for me. And while we’re on the topic, I can’t forget to confess perhaps my most millennial trait of all: I have a real penchant for movements and work that promises to change the world. 

I graduated college in 2011, which — in my memory at least — is the time that brands overtly started marrying themselves to social causes. Businesses that promised to give back a portion of their sales or promoted a “buy one give one” model like TOMS and Warby Parker were disrupting traditional brand spaces. In recent years, such trends don’t appear to be subsiding but if anything, seem only to have morphed into unspoken expectations and standards for businesses to take positions on everything from global poverty to politics. 

Around this time after college, I additionally found myself heavily influenced by my Christian community and upbringing to pursue work that was purposefully aligned with the will of God. I wish I could find some specifics of this exact belief with you, but maybe it’s even more convincing that I can’t — this type of thinking was so common at my Christian university that conversations about “knowing God’s will for my life,” or finding “meaning in your work,” were just as normal (if not more so) as those about what party you were going to on Friday night. 

Obviously, God’s will was that I was going to change the world; the trick was simply that I had to figure out how he wanted me to do this. Would it be through traveling the world photographing for NGOs? Did he want me to start my own nonprofit? Was it going to be through winning the Pulitzer Prize for investigative photojournalism? Most likely, God would will all of these things into existence. But only time, and my strict devotion to quiet time and prayer, would tell. 

Despite my firm convictions, my early years of adulthood left me with much less evidence of progress (on either a global or personal scale) and much more of the simultaneous existence of both my own arrogance and self-induced anxiety that I wasn’t as capable as I would have hoped to be. Trying to change the world seemed to only drive me further into myself. 

The recent Apple TV series, WeCrashed, reaches a similar conclusion about work, questioning the belief that the only type of work worth doing is that overflowing with idealism and world-changing purpose.

The show follows the rise and fall of the coworking company, WeWork, through the specific lens of the marriage of founder, Adam Neumann and his wife, Rebekah. The Neumanns are your quintessential “world-changers” (even if they aren’t technically millennials), driven by their goal to make a butt-ton of money by following their passions. Adam is a serial entrepreneur who sells his vision for coworking, one that doesn’t just provide people with a desk and free coffee but a place to belong. Rebekah believes wholeheartedly in WeWork’s overarching mission to “Elevate the World’s Consciousness” through, yes, coworking, but also vegan eating and a radically new way of approaching early childhood education, among other things.  

The Neumanns talk a lot about growth and manifesting and disrupting, and yet their vision often doesn’t align with reality. Under their leadership, WeWork’s success is up for debate. And the show also makes several nods to the toll “world-changing” work takes on WeWork employees: long hours, poor pay, gender inequality, and empty promises. 

WeCrashed has been lumped in with other recent shows that highlight what is defined as either the Modern Grifter or the Bad Entrepreneur trends, depending on the take. But another similarity many of these shows share is their central figure’s preoccupation with changing the world. Perhaps their motivations differ, but the pursuit of making something “bigger and better” (or “crazier” in WeWork terms) remains consistent throughout and almost always leaves viewers with a lesson in how not to run a company or how not to do business. 

Despite how prevalent the idea of meaningful work remains in our culture, WeCrashed and similar shows continue to push back on the idea that our work and vocations are only valuable if they are impactful on a grand and measurable scale. WeCrashed, specifically, both critiques “purpose-driven work,” and also offers an alternative.

In a scene where Adam Neumann is attempting to buy out the competing coworking space, Industrious, his pitch is to “build a bigger, better tomorrow for the world.” The Industrious founder responds tersely, “Adam I’m not looking to change the world. I just want to provide a good service at a fair price and know my employees’ names.”

This view of work is echoed again in the season finale, during a speech made by Neumann’s fictional successor, Cameron Lautner, to WeWork employees. “I think it’s about time we got really honest about what we actually do here,” says Lautner. “We’re not here to raise the world’s consciousness … we’re here to earn value for our investors and we’re going to do that by providing high-quality shared workspaces.”  

These voices of reason offer a much simpler and more concrete vision of what it means to toil all the days of your life, one that I find mirrors much of what scripture has to say about vocation and work. If the world favors work that elevates the individual as important or powerful or wealthy and can only understand careers and vocations as a means toward self-justification, scripture tells us that work — regardless of what that work may be — is a gift by which we may love and serve our neighbor freely. 

Martin Luther famously rediscovered this idea of vocation during the Protestant Reformation. In expounding on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9, he famously stated in The Freedom of a Christian

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

The Christian, according to Luther, doesn’t have to rely on their work for their worth because their worth is found solely in the work of Christ. This frees them to do whatever is placed directly before them without second-guessing if it meets a certain standard for “meaningfulness.”

Instead, it’s Christ’s work on the cross — by which we are made righteous — that redeems all work done in faith as “good,” regardless of whether that includes running a purpose-driven social business, tucking your toddler into bed every night, donning a red “Target” employee shirt, or working as a world-changing missionary. Of course, there are certain types of work or vocation that, by definition, fall outside of good works (the human trafficker comes to mind). But for most of us, the preoccupation that what we do from 9-5 must mean something more or must have more impact must be called out for what it is: an unbiblical, anxiety-inducing myth.  As Luther puts it, 

But works, being inanimate things, cannot glorify God, although they can, if faith is present, be done to the glory of God. Here, however, we are not inquiring what works and what kind of works are done, but who it is that does them, who glorifies God and brings forth the works. This is done by faith which dwells in the heart and is the source and substance of all our righteousness.

What would the result be for all the grifters and bad entrepreneurs of the world (and all of us who are simultaneously jealous of their successes and obsessed with their downfalls) to hear this message? It would be difficult, and I think ironically counterproductive, to try and quantify and measure the impact of true Christian vocation on this scale. But knowing that God is just as pleased with me if I work part-time as an editor and care for my two children as he would be if I won a Pulitzer Prize has meant a lifetime of freedom, peace, and comfort.

We certainly need world-changers, but praise God we don’t all have to be one to be named as worthy and for our work to be deemed as good. Instead, trust that on account of Christ, you can be honest about what you do and do it well — without shame or guilt that it’s good enough. Christ has already named it so. 

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4 responses to “The Danger Behind Trying to Save the World”

  1. April says:

    Super relatable. Thanks.

  2. ceej says:

    Excellent stuff, Kelsi—thanks for writing. I’ve been turned off by the “modern grifter” series because they seem to come from a place of, maybe, voyeurism or exceptionalism (“Aren’t these people crazy!”) But I do feel like we’re all more or less guilty of wreaking havoc in attempts to “build a bigger, better tomorrow for the world.” This is a good, faithful word in response. Hope to read more of your work on here!

  3. Dan E says:

    “This frees them to do whatever is placed directly before them without second-guessing if it meets a certain standard for ‘meaningfulness.’”

    That’s a gargantuan “if.” We have a reluctance to question an economy based on jobs that lack meaning, yet many jobs today verge on meaninglessness. While that meaninglessness may be tolerable for some people under certain conditions, it’s hard to sustain over decades of a work life, especially if the meaninglessness of the work becomes enveloped in anxiety.

    And it may, hence the rise of “Sunday Scaries,” where a sense of dread and anxiety at having to go back to the office and fight another week to hit assigned KPIs haunts people on Sundays.

    It’s not just younger workers, either. Work-related PTSD can become a real thing. We have a real dearth of options for longtime workers trying to transition out of increasingly stressful or meaningless careers and yet have been locked into a field of work for decades, with few alternatives that pay reasonably well.

    How can the Church champion meaningful, uplifting work today and make it happen for people? It’s a needed ministry.

  4. […] overlap and subsequent supplanting of Christianity by work here is unsurprising. But the movement seems to derive, in part, to a theology of glory. Where failure is not an option, […]

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