Wrestling with Failure at Work

By Hunter Daniels

More than other idols, personal success and achievement leads to a sense that we ourselves are god, that our security and value rests in our own wisdom, strength, and performance. To be the very best at what you do, to be at the top of the heap, means no one is like you. You are supreme.
— Tim Keller in Counterfeit Gods

A month before attending the 2019 Global Cohort Gathering, in Saddleback, CA, (where Christian global leaders all over the world are gathered to learn, connect, and be challenged to make impact in their global cities) I was drafting the most painful document I have ever had to write; I was writing an incident report at work. The incident involved one of our most strategic clients; and I was on the hook for a mistake that I did not catch (picture an infielder missing a pop-fly). It is difficult to overestimate the toll this had on my spiritual, emotional and physical wellbeing. To me, writing that report meant that I was forced to admit that I had failed, that I was incompetent and that I was worthless. I had worked hard to be the best performer on my team, to be the guy you could rely on and I was proud of my “exceptional performance” evaluation. This failure stood in direct contrast of who I thought myself to be and, more importantly, whom I wanted others to think I was.

While at the gathering, I heard several speakers talk candidly about dealing with failure at work and I was convicted by their anecdotes. Bob Doll gave a lecture entitled “Failure- The Stepping Stone to Success” that provided me with much needed guidance. To provide context, Bob was the Chief Equity Strategist of a large asset management firm and has used his God given gifts to attain what many would consider a highly successful career. In his lecture, Bob discussed a time in recent history where he was asked by his previous firm to retire early and the impact it made on his life. It is difficult to imagine attaining Bob’s level of success only to be let go at what would be his “prime career years”. But his response was not to wallow in failure or to blame God for misfortune or engage in destructive self-loathing. No, instead he used his situation as an opportunity to further engage with Christ, his community and his family- what an amazingly faithful response! Ultimately, God blessed him with the opportunity to continue using his financial expertise, but his initial response represents the posture we, as Christ followers, should model in the midst of failure and success in work.

Upon reflection, I’ve come to realize how much my sense of identity was based on success in work. This realization came as a surprise to me (shocking I know). I didn’t think I was idolizing my work, yet it wasn’t until failure at work sent me into a spiral of self-degradation that I realized my priorities were grossly out of order. This, I think, is at the heart of Bob’s lecture; it is difficult to know we’re idolizing success until it is ripped away from us, which then forcibly creates the stepping-stone to success. Success in this context is not about promotions, bonuses or societal praise; it is the stepping-stone to further reliance on God for our joy and worth. We are free from performance evaluations because we can never be “exceptional” before God. We are all hopeless and complete failures when it comes to our worthiness of God’s love yet He gives it anyways. This is the radical promise God makes to His people that is the source of our joy, that God looks at us and sees his Son.

Hunter Daniels works in the finance industry and was part of our Chicago Cohort in 2019.