Brothers who are in the middle of their productive lives at work will sometimes find themselves at a crossroads, needing to make a decision about taking a new job or starting a business. These decisions have big impacts on our life trajectory, and families.
I was in this situation recently. Prior to being involved in Freemasonry, I would have thought of this decision in “career progression” terms of money, responsibility, and authority. After having been through the degrees, I found myself wondering how to apply what I’ve learned to this practical situation.
I don’t have answers for the next person, but I hope to offer a Masonic way of thinking about the problem of how to make big decisions based on your values.
A Mason’s Tool Chest
The 24-Inch Gauge
Everything in balance. Too much of any single element won’t make us the men we want to be. Balance is a key moral support because it makes it easier to make other right choices in other areas of life. When we are balanced, we are happier, which makes it easier to coax out our better natures. When we are unbalanced, under constant stress or unhappy – taking the other moral actions we expect of ourselves is much more difficult.
On any given day, the weather may be good or bad, but the climate matters quite a bit. Would you rather do your life’s work in the desert, or somewhere more temperate?
Question: Which choice better promotes balance in my life, enabling me to take care of all of my obligations (the three equal parts of the 24-inch gauge)?
The Common Gavel
As we grow we often become painfully aware of our own shortcomings and weaknesses, which is part of the idea of the rough ashlar. Having this basic understanding of self, (where am I strong? where am I weak?) decisions can be framed in these terms.
Career books are full of advice that one should “focus on your strengths”. If we looked at ourselves as pure engines of productivity, or batteries for a machine, this would have merit to it. But we are not batteries, and self-improvement needs to have a place in life priorities. To improve towards a perfect ashlar requires attention on our weaknesses.
Question: which choice will require developing new skills and growth?
Being able to walk uprightly is important, because it helps us earn respect. That is: to “earn” respect, not to gain it. Walking uprightly feels good for a brother because he knows it is deserved, and is not a sham. A person’s internal feeling of self-worth, and that this respect is actually warranted – creates a positive feedback loop. It changes how he carries himself, which changes how he feels. As he feels more positive and confident, it changes how he acts towards others again, which makes it easier to walk uprightly.
Many work situations can compromise our ability to walk uprightly, and put us into a negative feedback loop. Whether it is working for a business we don’t agree with, or dealing regularly with people who may try to lure us into dishonest engagements with others. We should avoid doing business with thieves, thinking we will change them. It would start the opposite cycle: compromising situations lead to bad actions, which harm self-respect, and create more compromising situations.
Question: which decision would I feel more proud to make? Can I act freely or will I be lured into behavior I disagree with?
For career decisions, we need to think about how a job affects how we interact with other people. Can we be honest and fair dealing with others? Options in our careers may at times pit us against others and make that difficult. Perverse incentives can exist in careers that give us reasons to take advantage of others and explain it away as “just business”. With good opportunities, incentives can be aligned; we can find “win-win” situations where everyone can get what they need, which in turn makes it easier to continue acting on the square.
Question: which decision will leave me more free to act towards others as I see fit? Which option is the most “win-win”?
Perception of equality with people around us is important because it is a tool that allows us to recognize their humanity, and for them to see ours. This can be easily compromised though by hierarchical relationships we have at work, where we often find that there no colleagues, only bosses and workers, pushers and pushovers. We should be wary of social structures where inequality is a fundamental: one person says jump, the other asks how high.
Another aspect of being on the level has to do with sincerity and straightforwardness. Having counterparts who act this way or respect and value it when others act on the level is quite important, because these behaviors are how you will get out of difficult situations when they inevitably arise. To enter into a situation where you can’t be on the level, is to climb into a hole without a ladder.
Question to consider: which decision is most likely to allow me to stay on the level with others? Which decision will result in others being on the level with me?
This instrument is usually spoken about in Masonry for its uses within the craft. But our careers and jobs are also communities of people we work with, and the lessons hold equally well. The tricky part is in identifying the community, whether it is our co-workers, customers, suppliers, or any other stakeholders that may interact with your vocation.
Most big options we consider in our lives will come with a built-in community. You can work at an office and have your co-workers be that community. You might work in the field with customers every day, which makes for a different community. A brother who is a police officer might think about a neighborhood. It may be further away from you even – a brother who makes medical devices might think about elderly patients. It is important to think through which community you are adopting yourself into, when making a pivotal decision.
Question to consider: which community comes with each option, and which decision better provides the opportunity to join that community together, or otherwise improve it?
Weighing and Choosing
There is Always a Default. Recently I had a choice between two options, A and B. I could (A) keep the job that I have, or (B) move into a different position. In any decision I’ve ever faced, there was always a “default choice”. If I did not choose, the sun will keep rising and keep setting, and I would be delivered to a default destination as surely as if I stood still on a moving walkway. In my case, that was keeping the job that I had. Ignoring, or running away from a decision, is a choice for the default.
The Default Has Great Gravity. Whatever our current situation is, good or bad, the default has a certain comfort or gravity to it that attracts us. Perhaps we don’t want to break relationships with co-workers, or it seems hard to make the transition. It takes effort to overcome this gravity, and to separate in our own minds: is this choice attractive because it is right? Or because it is comfortable and less uncertain? If you find yourself unable to be certain about this, you are feeling the pull of gravity.
There Will Never Be Complete Information. It is tempting to put off a hard choice to get more information first. We often feel we could be more confident in deciding if we only had a few more answers. We should learn anything we can that helps the decision. But we should also realize it will never be complete, that uncertainty is a fundamental, and that if we do not overcome it, we will choose the default because its gravity will attract us.
Measurement Is Not Possible. It would be tempting to reduce all decisions in life to a “points system” or a pro/con list. We’d like to think of two decisions as weighing two quantities on a scale, choosing the heavier option. Moral consideration of these questions though renders this approach alone impossible. Factors of morality and self-respect can loom large in our lives and do not fit on a scale.
A Job is a Behavior Loop Within a Community. In our careers we will tend to do the same things over and over, even if they are complex tasks. Salesman will sell; technicians will fix, software developers will write code, and doctors will heal. Most of us will be in a repeating loop of behavior. So it is valuable to recognize that and ask if it is a virtuous cycle or a vicious one. Our careers always come with a built-in community. So it is valuable to recognize that, and ask if the community is one we care about and can contribute to.
Contemplative Practice Can Bring Answers. How then do we answer these questions posed here? Masonry can feel like an incomplete set of directions; a brother is told to walk east but not precisely which direction or how far to reach his goal. Big decisions mark the beginning of a new endeavor no matter what is chosen, and asking for the blessings of deity is a way to begin.
That does not mean just traditional prayer, but can refer to any contemplative practice a brother finds valuable; meditation, service, and many other practices to include fasting, chanting, or whatever is appropriate to the specifics of a brother’s faith. Any contemplative practice that a brother feels can help to quiet our “jabbering inner monologues” is one I’d recommend. That quiet may create for a brother just enough space for true feelings, priorities, and other factors to arise; first suggesting with the lightest touch what positive things could be; later building in intensity to decision and conviction.