In the vast hellscape that is children's television programming, one show always stood out to me as the most painful to watch. No greater love has a parent for his or her children than to watch Thomas the Tank Engine with them. Calliou is a close second … and then Yo Gabba Gabba. Like I said, it's a hellscape.
I'm (thankfully) a few years past my kids' fixation on Thomas, but upon closer examination, the Isle of Sodor (where Thomas and his fellow anthropomorphized friends live) was a strange setting for a children's story. And if you want to waste a half-hour of your life like I just did, you can read Exhibit A to explore the dark underbelly of this mythical island. I'm not really sure why kids like this show because it is about as interesting as watching paint dry, but there is one theme that jumps out to me as something that maybe explains some of it.
Thomas and Friends long to be Really Useful (capitals not mine), which is an idea that probably resonates with most of us. To be Really Useful on the Isle of Sodor meant that you were given work that was important, necessary, and (often) high profile. Anyone who spends time around children understands that innate longing to matter – to be involved in the work that makes daily life happen, and to be appreciated and recognized for their contributions. The trains on the Isle of Sodor represent the worst of humanity in their striving and self-promotion. Sometimes these trains learn their lesson; sometimes they don't (and sometimes they're crushed or dismembered … nbd).
However, I think most of us would recognize that it IS possible to be Really Useful without being destructive or ego-driven. What would it mean to you to be Really Useful? What would that look like? And how does that reconcile as people of faith who are meant to "do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit" (Philippians 2:3). Does that mean ambition is a bad thing? These are great questions to wrestle with when you're starting out in a career, and an important touchstone to revisit along the journey.
What I like about the construct of Really Useful is that it's kind of judgment-neutral regarding ambition. The trains (and we as humans) can mess this part up, but generally speaking, Useful is good. We like things that are useful. We appreciate it even more when things or people are Really useful. [Side note: As a woman, I learned early on in life that the worst thing in the world for a girl is to be perceived as thinking she was (in second grade terminology) "Hot Snot." So I learned to downplay, to be self-deprecating, to make sure other people knew that I didn't take myself very seriously and they shouldn't either. For girls and women, being Really Useful is tricky – but that's a whole other blog post.]
I came across a verse a while ago that has helped me think about my own ambition in a way that encourages me to direct that energy in ways that honor God instead of feeding my own ego.
Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don't be impressed with yourself. Don't compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life. (Galatians 6:4-5 MSG)
In fact, that verse means so much to me that I had a friend of mine with an Etsy shop put it on a scroll for my workspace so that I make sure to look at it every day. Cute, right?
Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given ...
Being Really Useful for me starts out with a lot of inner work. Who am I? How am I wired? What things come naturally to me and what pushes me past healthy limits? What gifts am I excited and energized to use? And with whom? And to what purpose? For example, I've found the MBTI* (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) to be an incredible resource personally and professionally (INFJ reporting for duty!) in answering those questions. Through this resource and others, I've discerned that my path has something to do with helping others find their path. I encourage you to seek out these kinds of tools – there's nothing to lose by doing so and a lot to gain.
*I will soon be certified to be able to administer the MBTI to better serve MVSers and other Mission Network program participants. WOOT WOOT!! If you're interested, let me know!!
and then sink yourself into that.
Turning inward in prayer and reflection, and reaching out to others you can trust, is the cornerstone of self-discovery. Unfortunately, this takes time. And some of us who are uncomfortable with ambiguity/transition are under the illusion that all the decisions must be made righthisminute.
Luckily, Mennonite Voluntary Service is a wonderful place for this immersion to happen. There are people all around you who are committed to seeing you grow and discover your gifts, calling, and vocation. I literally break out my jazz hands when people want to talk personal and career development.
Don't be impressed with yourself. Don't compare yourselves with others.
The takeaway here is to STAY IN YOUR LANE. Once you have achieved mastery in an area, it's awfully easy to start thinking you really are Hot Snot … and maybe even forgetting the true source of those gifts. But being Really Useful in the Upside-Down Kingdom looks a little different than it does in the rest of our culture, doesn't it?
It's also natural to start looking around to see how you measure up to the competition. There is nothing shameful about engaging in a clear-eyed assessment of your abilities and working to become the best, most effective version of yourself. To be clear, I'm not knocking the power of competition either. Even Paul tells us to "run in such a way as to get the prize" (1 Corinthians 9:24).
What IS a problem is when we become unhealthfully ensnared by jealousy, envy and dissatisfaction. Just like you can feel a flu coming on, for me, the symptoms of an Ego Infection start with actual feelings in my body: a tightness that coils in my chest, churning resentment in my gut, and a queasy sense of inadequacy and anxiety. Whether it involves too much time spent on Instagram or even hanging out with certain people, I've learned to recognize my triggers and how destructive it can be if I allow myself to indulge in harmful comparison.
Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life.
No one else can run your race for you: not your parents, not your partner, not even your children. Henry David Thoreau once posited that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation" and perhaps this is true, but for people of faith this should amount to heresy. Contrast that with Maya Angelou who said, "My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive, and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style." I know which one of these I want to embody.
We all have barriers and setbacks. We will mess up again and again. But this is where it gets fun. This is the Hero's Journey! This is where we get to RISE TO THE FLIPPING CHALLENGE! This is where each person (if they work at it) finds what it means to be Really Useful. Oh – and guess what – your outcome is probably not going to look like anyone else's. And that, my friends, is kind of the point.
So be ambitious wisely. Do the inner work. Give it time. Stay in your lane. Seize the day. Repeat.