Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

What Happens If Your Self-Worth Comes From Your Job?

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity Part 1

When I finally resigned from the corporate world, I told everyone it was not because of the product, the company, or the people.  It was about my personal journey, to take care of the kids, and to figure out what to do next.  I was both lying and telling the truth.  In public, management was supportive, but in private it got nasty.  One person, pressuring me to work an additional two months, went so far as to say “You will never work in this field again if you leave the company in a difficult position.”  If I’d resigned to work for a competitor, they would have walked me out the door, and happily had a beer with me the following week.  But to turn my back on the system was heresy.

Leaving the corporate world was not the means to regain control of my life, it was the result of it.  I had been living with a reasonably healthy work life balance for a few years when I finally resigned.  A lot of it was about the circumstances of the position.  I was never going to be happy at that company, and needed space to figure out what to do next.

The change for me started when I recognized my corporate idolatry, that I was doing what was best for the company instead of what was best for people.

It came down to a fundamental question that I asked myself: Who are you?  I was a lot of people: a father, husband, son, friend, marketer and scientist.  But the one I thought of most, day to day, was the guy who worked for the genomics company.  I was the guy who was changing the world.  But on a deeper level, I was a guy whose self-worth came from the job.

I now understand that identity is not one thing, it is a choras.  And it is possible to consciously change the lead singer.

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Why Time Management Is Not the Answer To Chronic Overwork

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity Part 2

The first thing I tried to reduce my hours was a time management course taught by the American Management Association.  I was frantically busy and thought that by managing my time better, my issue would be solved.  It was a great class, and I learned two things.  I flew to New York City for the class, and was the only person with a high tech job.  But everyone in the class had the same personal story: my hobby used to be such and such, but I don’t have time for it anymore because of my job.  This was people in construction, high school yearbook sales and in the media.  My first lesson: it’s not just high tech or Silicon Valley with an overwork issue.  It’s everywhere.

The second thing I learned was to be more efficient.  Less procrastination, better goal setting, and better prioritization.  This class was good.  My life became better for a few months, but pretty soon I was just as busy.  It was a better planned busyness, but my life was once again out of control – all work and no play made Greg an out of shape and crabby boy.

Now, I understand why.  The overwork was a symptom, but was not the root cause.  The root cause was my corporate idolatry.  I had adopted and internalized a company-first value system.  The company was (unconsciously) the most important thing in my life.  So all of the time that I saved from greater efficiency was put back into the company.  Things started to change for me when I reconnected with people.  It came down to my values and priorities.

If you look at how you spend your time and make decisions, what are your priorities?  What is most important to you?

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The First Step To A Balanced Life Is a Two Minute Time Audit

My Corporate Idolatry Time Profile

Chapter 7:  Secure Your Identity Part 3

When I was working 90 hours a week, the last thing I had time to do was to reflect on my life. But if it had, it would have looked something like the pie chart to the left.

The time audit is a very simple way to bucket your time.  Our day can be divided into three categories: work, sleep and life (everything else). Time is a zero sum game.  When we spend time on one thing, it is time not spent on something else.  Here are three steps to conduct a two minute time audit for a single work day.

1. Calculate the number of hours you sleep. For the last week, what is the latest time you turned out the light? When did you turn on the light in the morning?  I say latest time because we tend to think if the ideal, not he specific.  Getting undressed, reading and brushing your teeth do not count as sleep time.  I count sex in this bucket because both are so wonderful, and both take place in bed.  Add in nap time.

2. Calculate the number of hours you work.  Commute time counts as work.  If you eat alone and think about work during meals, count 100% of that time as work.  If you ruminate about work when eating with other people, count 50% of that time towards work.  In fact, if you think about work, check email, or take a phone calls during an activity even once  count 50% of that time as work.

3. Calculate the life bucket using the following formula: 24 minus sleep minus work = life.   Our life bucket contains the basic activities of cooking, cleaning, running errands.

Jesus said “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”[i]  Our greatest treasure is time. How we spend our time tells us what our real values are.  And because you are reading this, you are the type of person who wants to have a balanced life.  And  you can in less than a year.

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[i] Matthew 6:21

The Second Step To A Balanced Life Is To Examine Your Values

Values Priorities Decisions Actions

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity

Over the last few posts, I’ve argued that time management cannot solve a work life balance issue because the root cause is a company first value system.

To illustrate the interplay of values and decisions shown in the figure to the left, I’ll tell you a before and after story of “David,” who had a stroke before the age of fifty because, in his own words  was working 100 hours a week because he“cared too much about a bunch of people and a small company that did not care about [him].”  Luckily for David, the stroke was not serious and he made a full recovery.  But this brush with death gave him pause, and led him to reexamine his basic values.

Prior to the stroke, David had a company first value system, meaning that he gave priority to things he thought could help the overall welfare of the company.  So he made it a priority to “never leave work unfinished.”  So in the moment, when it came time to take a break and head to the gym, he would decide to skip his workout to catch up.

David’s action created an example of cognitive dissonance, a conflict between the desire to be in shape and the desire to help the company.  The psychology research has shown that people will find a way to reduce this mental conflict, and since the action in the past cannot be changed, one way to reduce the conflict is to elevate the importance of the path taken.  In other words, staying on the computer reinforced the underlying value that the company comes first, meaning that in the future he would be more likely not only to skip the gym but do make other decisions that favored the company over people.  And indeed, David missed his wedding anniversary, kids birthdays, and didn’t go on a ski trip with friends because “the company needed me.”

But after his stroke, David’s priorities changed dramatically, and his life got much better.

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See How David’s New Priorities Bring Him Work-Life Balance

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity Part 5

In the last post, I wrote about a Midwestern VP I called “David” whose company-first value system led to 100 hour weeks and a stroke before he was fifty.  And while David recovered fully from the stroke, he was laid off less than a year later.  “Maybe I don’t have it anymore,” he told me in a quiet voice.  I knew exactly what he meant, because at one time the value I gave myself came from my job.  And I also knew that if I hadn’t changed my life a few years earlier, it could have been me with the stroke.

One thing David did have was a strong family – a good marriage, and three kids, a daughter in college and two boys in high school.  To make a long story short, David used this experience to change his life, which is markedly different in the next job.  David reconnected with people first values.  In order of importance his priorities became:

  1. Personal Health
  2. Family
  3. Work

It’s not that work is unimportant to David, it is just not as important as his health or family.  And this translated directly into a different set of priorities and decisions. For example, David:

  • Took a spontaneous trip to see his daughter in college
  • Stops working at five because he wants to have time to cook dinner with the family.  Previously, he was on calls and email till eight, and would get off the phone starving and crabby, running out to Taco Bell for dinner.  Yes, power male VP loves to cook.
  • When traveling to the corporate headquarters, he goes to the gym instead of going early to the office.

None of these changes is earthshaking in and of themselves, but they all stem from a shift in his personal identity, and they are now the rule instead of the exception.

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How To Change The Habit Of Stress

The Habit Loop

The Habit Loop

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity Part 6

Prior to his stroke, David was living a life of corporate idolatry, where the company was the top priority to the detriment of his health and family.  After the stroke, David changed his values, and refocused his personal identity.  He was in the habit of deriving positive reinforcement from job-related activities, and shifted his focus to family related activities.  Remembering that a significant portion of idolatry derives from a collection of habits is an important clue to change.

In his book The Power Of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains that in a typical habit, there is some kind of cue that triggers a behavior that has a reward at the end of it.  For example, if someone puts a plate of cookies on the table in front of me, I will take and eat the cookie, even though I am trying to lose weight.  The cue is the cookie, the behavior is eating, and the reward is a burst of pleasure and sugar.  In addition, when my brain sees the cookies, it anticipates the pleasure, and I start craving the cookie, such that it becomes harder and harder over time not to take a cookie.

Habits are mediated by a primitive part of the brain called the basal ganglia which operates independently of rational, cognitive thought.  In other words, a habit is similar to a reflex, something we just do without thinking.  The best way to change a habit  is to disrupt one of the three stages of a habit, which means avoid the cue, change the middle behavior, or change the reward.

In David’s case, the work stress became a self fulfilling prophecy.  For example, Duhigg explains that checking email becomes a habit.  Executives get a reward from the temporary distraction a new email provides.  For me, I got an adrenaline burst from all kinds of work-related issues, and I think that was David’s issue.  The rewards for his people first values were calm and peace.

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You May Be Closer To Work-Life Balance Than You Realize

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity Part 7

If you asked David before his stroke if it was healthy for someone to work 100 hours a week, I think he would have said “of course not.”  But I doubt if he  perceived himself at risk.  This is one of those positive illusions we discussed in Chapter 5.  People are not very good at evaluating themselves.  For example, most people think they are above average drivers, and “25% of people believe they are in the top 1% in their ability to get along with others.”[i] Larry Holmes, the former heavyweight boxing champion was asked if he was concerned about injury during a comeback in his 40s.  His answer: “You always think it will be the other guy who is hurt, not you.”

So I won’t bore you with statistics about the dangers of sleep deprivation and stress.  But I will let you know why learning the statistics have so little impact on behavior:  We are not of one mind.  While scholars like Plato and Freud have written about the different properties of the mind for thousands of years, the metaphor I like best is the Rider on an Elephant.[ii] The Rider is the rational, conscious mind, and the Elephant is the unconscious (emotional) mind.  The Rider can point the Elephant in a certain direction, but if the Elephant doesn’t want to go, it won’t.

At the end of the day, our emotions are in control.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t change them.  David’s stroke was an emotional jolt that led to rapid life change – he recognized how precious life was, and started to put people first. The moment I recognized my corporate idolatry changed me at the emotional level, which led to steady changes in my life as well.  And here’s the really good news: you don’t need to have a health crisis or a religious experience to change the elephant – a positive emotional carrot can be just as effective.

If you are reading this book, or even this post, you have already begun the process of reorienting yourself towards people first values.  There can only be one top priority, and consciously deciding that people, yourself, your friends, and your family come before the company is a critical step on the path.

What are things you have done to put people first?

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[i] Switch: How To Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath.  Broadway Books (2010) p 114. Amazon

[ii] The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt.  Online PDF p. 4 retrieved November 12, 2012


A Step You Can Take Today To Relieve Chronic Overwork

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity Part 8

If you are hoping for dramatic change in your life overnight, it isn’t going to happen unless there is a crisis.  The David model from the last few posts is a perfect example of this.  But if you’d like to change before you have a stroke or run screaming from the building hope is the best answer.  As I’ve written before, I went from working 90 hours a week to 60 hours a week in less than a year without changing jobs, and without anyone at work noticing.  Here are three steps to help you do the same.

  1. Remind yourself that you are the type of person who puts people first, and the company second.   As you make decisions, try not to think about the consequences of your actions – think only about what a person who puts people first would do.  (See this post on the Time Audit too.)
  2. Secure a goods night’s sleep every night by stopping work 1-2 hours before bed time.  When I made this change, my internal dialog went something like this.  My health is more important than work, so I will not check email after 9 PM to give me time to wind down before bed.  Keep this rule no matter what.  People at work will adjust, assuming they even notice.  And focus on the positive, the benefits of sleep.  You will feel the difference right away.
  3. Make people the priority in the moment.  For example, if it is story time, or you are having a drink after work with a friend, don’t answer your phone or listen to the message until much later. Imagine being on a date with someone, who says “It’s my boss calling, but you are more important to me, so I’ll listen to the message in the morning.”

Think about your life, and look for an easy win, the smaller the better.    All you need to do is show the elephant that change is possible, and it will start to move on its own.  Start with one change only!

What is one rule that you could put in place that would prioritize people over the company?  Post it here, to get the support of our community.

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Meet a Balanced Achiever At Work

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity Part 9

“Sebastian Tate” describes himself as an outlier in the business world, not because of his results, but because of his priorities. Meet a balanced achiever at work.

“I never had the drive to be President or VP.  I made that decision pretty early.  [For me] work needed to be interesting.  If I’m doing work I don’t find interesting, I’ll go look for another job.  I’ve always made decent money, and I’m not an extravagant person, so I never felt like I needed to make a lot more money because I needed to have more stuff.  If for whatever reason [work] gets out of balance because you get a shitty situation, I start looking for another job, to find a situation that works for me.  I may be different than a number of people that you talk to, that want to be king of the universe.  But that’s why I’m still doing product management at 50.”

Sebastian is tall and wiry, with close-cropped hair, and a slow, deliberate speaking style that can drive an East-coaster like me crazy at times.  But he has that Buddhist calm that makes you want to listen.  I asked Sebastian if he ever felt work-related guilt.

“Guilt is something that you impose upon yourself.  You either accept it or reject it.  I always found it pretty easy to reject it.  If someone comes to me with a last minute request because they did a shitty ass job planning, and then try to make me feel guilty, it isn’t going to happen. I don’t know where I was when I learned it, but I learned to try to replace guilt with responsibility.  It’s a much healthier emotion.”

Note: This post is an excerpt from Busting Your Corporate Idol: Self Help for the Chronically Overworked, a 5 Star Amazon Best Seller in the Work Life Balance Category. Learn more.

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Are You An Insecure Overachiever At Work?

Are you an Insecure Overachiever at workAre you an insecure overachiever at work? In the last post, we met Sebastian, who definitely isn’t. He takes a professional approach to work without excess devotion.  When I talked to Sebastian, part of my mind went back to a conversation I had while a hot shot in my early thirties.  I was a camping store, and the man behind the clerk told me that he used to be in marketing.  I was polite, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I really looked down on him.  “What a loser,” I thought.  “He couldn’t cut it.”  Of course now I get it.  I’m on the other side of the fence, with some former colleagues who view me as the weirdo who left the beloved asylum.

I asked Sebastian if he thought achievement is important.  “Many people want the big job, to get ahead.  But if they get there, they realize they can’t enjoy it.  They don’t have any time, and are being pulled away from their family.  For some people, it’s just the accomplishment.  I do get satisfaction from achieving certain goals.   But in my life I try to make those personal goals outside of work, for example running ten marathons, or kayaking this river, climbing this mountain.   I am proud of my accomplishments.”

I think Sebastian is an exceptionally secure person.  One Machiavellian executive told me that he likes to hire “Insecure overachievers [because they] have to show they’re valued, wanted, needed, and work is a way of doing that.  That’s the trap – when work represents your value as a person. Work is sort of is a bald gage of success which isn’t that meaningful, but it can be perceived as aha that’s my worth.”

Sebastian does not have that vulnerability, because he gets his validation outside of work.  But thinking back to my reaction to the dude in the camping store, and my obsession with my blog traffic, I still have some work to do.

What about you? Could you be an insecure overachiever at work?

Note: This post is an excerpt from my book “Busting Your Corporate Idol: Self Help for the Chronically Overworked” which is available on 

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Meet the Power Mom Executive, Pregnant Before Marissa Mayer Made It Hip

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity Part 11

In the last two posts we met Sebastian Tate, who throughout is career has maintained a strong identity outside of the workplace, which has in turn helped him lead a balanced life.  On the other side of the spectrum were four women that I interviewed who all independently felt like an abused spouse in relation to the company.

Most people seem like “Janet Wolf” caught between competing identities. Janet has a Ph.D. from Cal Tech in Chemical Engineering, and worked after grad school for the Boston Consulting Group.  Janet is one of the most relentlessly positive people you’ll ever meet, and I was not surprised to hear that at the end of a long engagement the president of an electronics firm recruited her to become vice president of corporate planning.

Janet was very interested in the position, but was nervous because she was four weeks pregnant, and “wanted to make a good impression.”  (And this was  ten years before Marissa Mayer made it hip to be a pregnant executive.)   When Janet told the president, she was delighted to hear his response:  “Congratulations, I don’t care.”

Janet went on to be what I think of as the “power working mom.”  At work I doubt people perceived her as a mom, yet she was able to remain involved in her kids activities.  I asked her how she manages to do both.  In her words:

“I’ve been crystal clear with each boss – I have kids.  There will be days I need to leave early, or can’t get here early.  I got the work done and it was never a problem.  I got to move around to bigger and better things.”

What impact do you think Janet’s dual identity had on her response to difficult political situations at the company?

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The Network: Insurance Against a Layoff

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity Part 12 

In the last post, we met Janet Wolf, the power mom who set clear expectations with her managers that she would have time contraints and would always get her work done.  And she remained connected to her kids activities while consistently getting to do “bigger and better things” in her career.

Janet is a Wolf, someone who is concerned with both the success of the organization and the welfare of the people she works with. (see this post from Chapter 4 for more on Wolves.)  And like Harry Lobo, she found herself in a difficult political environment.  Janet described it as “ten smart guys at the top” who seemed to think that everyone else was “dispensable.”

Janet’s last manager at that company had “no desire to spend any time on talent management.  [His attitude was] ‘Get it done or else you suck and get out of here.’”  This was difficult for Janet, because her values put her priorities in a different place.  Janet thought that developing people was the key to successful long term success of the company.  And her network, both professional and personal, was huge, which was critically important after an unexpected layoff after five years.  Janet’s comments, which she shared with me a month after the layoff, illustrate how her identity quickly shifted.

“These people don’t value me, but it doesn’t mean that I’m not valued.  Your identity is so tied up with a company and a role but then you realize that you are above all that.  It doesn’t matter that you may or may not be affiliated with a company right now.  It’s been an interesting awakening for me, to realize that.  I’ll be ok.  Yes, I do want to do something exciting next but its ok if it takes a while.  It took a week for me to come to [figure this out].  I got so many calls and emails from friends.”

And given the size of her network, it didn’t surprise me that Janet soon had another position that she described to me as her “dream job.”

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Why Your Identity Matters To Work-Life Balance

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity Part 13

In the last post, “Janet Wolf” described how her identity was wrapped up in the company, and how a layoff allowed her to realize that “she was above all that.”  What does it mean to have an identity wrapped up in the company?

Stanford Business School professor James G. March describes identity as an expected set of behaviors that apply in certain social situations. Put another way, identity is an automatic pilot that guides behavior without the need to stop and think what to do in a given situation.  An identity is reinforced by the social context, that rewards “behavior consistent with the definition of the identity and penalizing behavior inconsistent with behavior.”[i]

For example, a parent identity is reinforced by parenting-related activities, such as the appreciative smile that comes from going to the soccer game.  An identity that comes from the company is reinforced daily by the interactions, both positive and negative, that happen at work.  Some companies, like Google, go to great lengths to strengthen the identity of employees from the time of hire. (See this post on Nooglers.)

As I wrote earlier in the chapter, we all have multiple identities that apply in different situations.  Corporate idolatry arises when the company-first identity becomes dominant.  In the year I went from working 90 hours a week to 60 hours a week, I was in a virtuous cycle – the more time I spent at home, the more my parent/husband/friend identities became stronger, which in turn made it easier to work even less.

For Janet, her change in identity was catalyzed by a change in environment.  It was only when she was out of the workplace that she her non-work identity re-asserted itself.  In the next post, I will explore this dynamic further, and will return to the story of Abraham that was started in Chapter 2.

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[i] Primer on Decision Making: How Decisions Happen by James G. March Free Press. (1994) p 64-65

What Can We Learn About Layoffs From the Story Of Abraham In The Bible?

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity

In the last post, Janet solidified her identity as a people-first person (as opposed to a company-first person) only after she was laid off from her job.  The company culture was difficult, and put a high premium on putting the company first.  The story of Abraham in the Bible also starts with a journey.  Abraham leaves a society of idol worshippers, starting a journey into the wilderness. Abraham leaves at God’s command, which on the surface seems like very different circumstances than a layoff.  Hold that thought while we return to Abraham’s backstory, which is captured in the Talmud, a collection of stories and commentary that fills in the gaps in the Torah (aka the Five Books of Moses in the Old Testament.)

I shared the Talmud story of Abraham smashing the idols in his father’s shop at the start of Chapter 2.  These clay statues played a central role in Sumarian life.  To challenge idolatry was to challenge a foundational element of the culture, and by extension the power of King Nimrod. When Abraham was brought to court to explain, he did not back away from his central message.  “If you are so wise, King Nimrod, why do you worship gods made by human hands, and why do you call yourself a god when one day you will die like all men made of flesh and blood?”[i]  (You can read the whole story here.)

Nimrod proceeds to jail Abraham for a year without food and water, and then to throw him into a fiery furnace, both of which Abraham survived through divine intervention.  Let’s for the sake of argument, say that this is an allegory and not literally true.  How then, did Abraham survive, in an era thousands of years ago when the rule of the king was absolute, and “dead bodies floated along the Euphrates.?”[ii]  In my opinion, it is because Abraham was teaching a set of values that gained a following.  Rather than create a martyr, maybe Nimrod sent Abraham and his followers into exile.  It was only later reported that Abraham left of his own accord, to  “spend more time with his family.”

What does this say about Abraham’s identity?

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[i] The Classic Tales: 4000 Years of Jewish Lore by Ellen Frankel. Jason Aronson Inc (1993) P 54-56.

[ii] The Gifts Of The Jews by Thomas Cahill Anchor Books (1998) p. 93

Life Lessons From Abraham: The CEO Of a Startup Religion

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity Part 15

Abraham was raised in ancient Sumeria, a world where the dominant culture was pagan.  Gods were everywhere, from Anu the sky god, to regional gods, to small amulets and magic charms that were a big part of everyday life.  Abraham’s cause was not simply a matter of a single divinity- it was a completely different way of life. And if we look at the number of followers as a scorecard, I think he was onto something.  According to the Big Religion Comparison Chart, there are 14 Million Jews, 2 Billion Christians and 1.3 billion Muslims on the planet, all of whom look at Abraham as the father of monotheism.   For those of us looking to bust  our modern idols, there is a lot we can learn from Abraham.

For Abraham, monotheism was not an abstract, metaphysical question about the number of deities.  Abraham was the CEO of a start up religion, and he was looking to change the world.  He had an unshakable identity and powerful personality that attracted followers.  And like any good startup CEO, he could lay out a vision and make others believe.  By intellectual reasoning, Abraham showed that something created by man should not become the object of worship.  For Abraham, there was one creator who put forth rules of right and wrong that did not change.  This was very different than the pagan world, where right and wrong changed depending on the deity, and is also different than the corporate world, where right and wrong behavior is defined by corporate culture.

As I argued in Chapter 2, the universal values are The Golden Rule tempered by The Rule of Self Preservation.  In the next post, we’ll look at the limitations of Abraham’s identity-based approach to change.

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The Weakness Of a Leader Who Is Too Strong

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity Part 16, conclusion

Any way you slice it, Abraham was an extraordinary man.  He insulted the god/king to his face and wasn’t executed on the spot.  Whether it was by divine intervention as the stories tell, or because he was too powerful to kill, Abraham had it going on.

How did Abraham overcome a culture that was thousands of years old to form a new way  of thinking that today has over 4 billion followers?  In the words of Popvox CEO Marci Harris  “A dedicated team with shared vision can make amazing things happen, and still be standing long after others go home.”  Abraham’s vision had a strong element of putting people first, and the laws of God that he taught applied equally to all men, whether a king or a begger.  Abraham’s tent was open on four sides so anyone could come and talk with him, and he personally washed the feet of guests from the desert on the day he was circumcised at the age of 99.

While Abraham’s wealth, influence and followers increased over his lifetime, his story illustrates the weakness of the movement: it was hard. God was now an abstraction, unknowable and un-seeable.  It was harder for people to believe in the abstract God than it was to follow the multiple gods of the surrounding cultures, gods that everyone could touch and feel.

Early Judaism depended on single leaders to foster a group identity.  This did a great job of creating the religion, but it was hard to maintain in the long term.  Within a few generations of his death, the Abraham’s people, the Israelites fell back into idolatry.  This reminds me of descriptions in the book Good To Great of companies that achieved great results under a charismatic leader, but fell apart after the leader left.

What it took for the Israelites to get to the next level was a new leader, Moses the lawgiver, who brought written laws and “process,” to help create a way of life to support the values taught by Abraham.

And the same process holds for those of us trying to overcome corporate idolatry.  Each of us on our own can shift our identity to prioritize people over the company.  But for those changes to last, we need a community of like-minded people.

Who is your community?

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