“People lose their way when they lose their why.”
I don’t know if that statement is original with Michael Hyatt, but he’s the first one I heard say it. That turn of the phrase stuck in my memory and came to mind again this week as I worked on the next section of Ecclesiastes.
Then I observed that most people are motivated to success because they envy their neighbors. But this, too, is meaningless—like chasing the wind. “Fools fold their idle hands,
leading them to ruin.” And yet,
“Better to have one handful with quietness
than two handfuls with hard work
and chasing the wind.”
I observed yet another example of something meaningless under the sun. This is the case of a man who is all alone, without a child or a brother, yet who works hard to gain as much wealth as he can. But then he asks himself, “Who am I working for? Why am I giving up so much pleasure now?” It is all so meaningless and depressing. (Ecclesiastes 4:4-8, NLT)
The text discusses the motivations of several types of people. The first person is described as having a strong competitive drive. Having moved beyond the friendly rivalry, this person is constantly looking for ways to outshine and outclass all others. This form of competitive drive, pointed out by Derek Kidner, can even devolve into “resentments that are nursed and grievances that are enjoyed.” This unhealthy competitive drive is often fueled by the comparisons they make to others. It’s not enough to keep up with the Jones’. They insist on being the Jones’.
On the contrary extreme, Qoheleth describes the drop out. This is the person who carries utter disdain for driven competition, choosing to sit and wait for his ship to come in or for their lucky break. But there’s equal damage to this person as well as his idleness erodes not only what he has but what he is. Not only does this person face shrinking capital, he faces a shrinking capacity to care for himself and others.
The third person appears to be the happy balance between these two, who holds in one hand quietness and the other hand hard work. He has discovered the harmony of modest demands and inner peace.
But envy is not the worst evil, it is habit that turns into fixation, as pictured by the final figure, who purposes to create wealth for no other reason that to create wealth. In other words, pure and simple greed. There is no humanity when it comes to his motivation, for there is no human beneficiary with whom to share his wealth. Like a raging fire, his only motivation is for more, and for no other reason than the sake of more itself. His loneliness is by choice, preferring to be untethered and unhindered in his pursuits.
Qoheleth is not intending to diminish the importance of hard work and the subsequent benefits that hard work will yield. He is, however, challenging his readers to struggle with their motivations behind their hard work. I’ve seen this illustrated in several ways over the course of my life. One person I know viewed his work as an executive for financial planning institution say that he was motivated by his desire that every person have adequate life insurance. Another auto sales person said he was motivated by solving people’s transportation problems. Were they successful? Without question. But neither claimed their motivation was to destroy their competition or to become personally wealthy. As long as we know our “why,” we can be safeguarded against losing our way.