Winning and Losing at Work - Nate Proctor (Podcast Episode 31)
Do you work in a job where you have to win? Whether it comes down to landing a new account or getting approval for a grant, sometimes there are clear wins and losses in your work. In this context, how can you face a big loss? How can you stay humble amidst a big win? And how do you cope with the day-to-day stresses when winning or losing feels like everything? Our guest, Nate Proctor, is a campaign director in the very divisive field of politics and policy. He's here to talk about his experience of defining success in his work and what it has meant for his faith.
Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another. (NRSV)
1 Corinthians 9:24-25
Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. (NRSV)
Additional Resources Referenced
- Theology of Work Project: www.theologyofwork.org
- De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Seminary: www.depree.org
- Instagram: @depreecenter, @theologyofwork
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Leah Archibald: Making It Work is brought to you by The Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary and the Theology of Work Project.
Mark Roberts: Welcome to Making it Work.
LA: Through conversation, scripture and stories, we invite God into work’s biggest challenges... so that you can live out your purpose in the workplace.
MR: I’m Mark Roberts.
LA: And I’m Leah Archibald. And this is Making It Work.
Do you work in a job where you have to win? Whether it comes down to landing a new account or getting approval for a grant, sometimes there are clear wins and losses in your work. In this context, how can you face a big loss? How can you stay humble amidst a big win? And how do you cope with the day-to-day stresses when winning or losing feels like everything? Our guest, Nate Proctor, is a campaign director in the very divisive field of politics and policy. He's here to talk about his experience of defining success in his work and what it has meant for his faith. Nate Proctor, welcome to the Making It Work podcast.
Nate Proctor: Thank you very much.
LA: Thank you so much for being here today. So for those of us who might not know what a campaign director does, fill us in. Tell us just a little bit about what you do in your work.
NP: Yeah. I like to think of myself as a professional citizen, getting to go to work every day to try and change society to benefit the public, and that means, really the core of my job is to build and leverage networks of people that are capable of changing the policy that govern our society, and in some cases, really changing the conversation in our society around certain topics or ideas. And that means, every day I'm talking to lawmakers, I'm talking to media, and I'm building coalitions and activist groups that can make their voices heard in really strategic ways to change the way things are run in this country.
LA: So that sounds very lovely and collaborative, but I feel like there's a point where when you get down to brass tacks, you're trying to pass a piece of legislation, so there is a clear winning and losing here in your job. Do you feel that way?
NP: It's impossible to really want to do something and to put your whole self into it, and to not feel like winning and losing then becomes a measure for your worth as a person or the meaningfulness of the efforts. But I think, having done this work for 15-plus years, one of my reflections is that... And I've actually had a person use these words to me, I think it's a brilliant turn of phrase, that success is a cult, that it's like a false goal that steals all your joy, because sometimes you do things the right way and you don't win, and sometimes you luck into a victory and you screwed most of it up and maybe you even cut some corners to get there, and at the end of the day, how you do what you do really says more about how healthy you are doing the work and what it will mean, not just for that particular issue, but for the broader social impact of your life's efforts.
LA: It's interesting you say success is a cult because that's a very heavily religious language. When we say cult, it's another word for... It means something religious. So are you saying that kind of success in a way could replace your fidelity to your faith? If taken the wrong way.
NP: Well, I think the spirit of it is, I think it is a religious connotation, and if you think of what a cult is, it's like a group comes in and steals your heart and puts it towards something that's a little bit... That's twisted. [chuckle] That's what I think of what a cult is to me. So success is deceitful, and it's un-fulfilling and it's ultimately, it dangles out in front of you as a thing that you could... Once you get it, you're gonna achieve all these mystical powers or whatever, but the truth is, if you win a campaign, you're still you, and so who you are in the process of winning the campaign or losing the campaign, ultimately is the thing that is important because you don't win them all and you don't...
And you win some that you should lose, and how do you maintain your stability through the ups and downs of it. And especially some stuff is really heavy, sometimes you're working on campaigns and the stakes are really high, and so how do you keep at that work when it doesn't go your way. And that's what... I guess I'm not explaining this as well as I want, but the idea of the success being a cult is the idea that it's a false dream that promises you something, then it actually can't deliver on it, once you actually get to the... You've actually gone through all the levels of the... You're supposed to become spiritually enlightened, you realize that it was a sham all along, and I've kind of been in that place a little bit sometimes. I know that what I do matters, but win or lose, I wanna maintain a sense of connection to the people around me and to the world and not lose sight and not become myopic.
LA: Is there a particular point in your work when you felt like you maybe lost sight of that, or you got caught up in the cult of success?
NP: That's a good question. Nothing pops to mind immediately, but there are definitely times when, in relationship to people, I've realized that, "Oh, my relationship with this person right now is not based on a sense of who they are as a human being in the world, but it's really a sense of what they can or can't offer me to have success in whatever narrow way is defined by my objectives." And when you treat people that way, you don't feel good about yourself afterwards. Reflecting back, I had this one instance that happened many years ago, where this was kind of an a-ha moment for me. At the time, I was working doing communications work, so we were making materials that were used in the political work. And a co-worker, a colleague, who I had a lot of competitive relationship with, had presented some projects, and I undermined her projects in front of the boss, in front of the team, because I thought they weren't good enough and there were mistakes, there were little mistakes in the detail work of the project, and I was... I kind of embarrassed her.
And I remember thinking and just reflecting back, as part of my normal spiritual practice, like feeling, "Oh, actually I was... This was bad." I realized what a damaging and hurtful thing that was. And so I had to go... I didn't have to go. I felt compelled, led to go and apologize, and to say, "Listen, I undercut you. That's not what this is supposed to be about. We're supposed to be working together and on a team, we're supposed to be building each other up, and I'm sorry, and I won't undercut you again." And to me, that was a good example of there's a sense of both these environments that are very competitive and we all wanna be the person who wins, but... Winning is success. It's the false goal. And if you give yourself over to pursuing it, what you'll end up doing is undermining the real work that we're called to do, which is to show people love and respect, because they're human beings and they matter, not because of what they are or not doing for our... Whatever goals that we have.
LA: I love the distinction that you're teasing out here, Nate, the difference between building relationships of respect and mutual concern, versus using those relationships as tools to get to a particular goal that we've set for ourselves. Mark, I wanna bring you into this conversation. I'm just so struck by what Nate is saying about the different ways that maybe success, even success for something that we really care about, political campaign, that's very important to us, an issue that we believe is right and just, maybe the holding on so tightly to success can cloud our judgment. Mark, has there ever been an instance in your career where you felt that your judgement was maybe a little bit clouded by the desire for success? [chuckle] Not to put you on the spot.
MR: No. No, nothing like that. Oh, my gosh. I've had to fight that my whole life, honestly, and I think it has to do... And, Nate, you were talking about the connection with self-worth. Some time early on... And I can't blame my parents for this, but some time early in my life, I figured out that if I could achieve and be successful and win, that somehow that made me a better and more worthwhile person, and that got really strongly connected into me. In the Enneagram, I'm a three, I'm into performance, so it has literally been a lifetime struggle. I was just thinking, Nate, as you were talking, that though I haven't been in quite your world, I was remembering back when I was in graduate school, so that's a lot of years ago. We would have these seminars, and I would be responding to a fellow student's paper, and if I could just rip them to shreds. [laughter] That was a good feeling, especially if I didn't like the student.
And one time I did that... And I did a great job. I did. I destroyed their argument, and I felt really good about myself. And afterwards, one of my professors took me aside and he said, "Your points were all good, but are you okay? It felt like you were being very mean." And I was really... I was so ashamed. But I also realized, "There's something here I gotta deal with." So, in all seriousness, there's been a life-long work with a lot of God's help and a lot of therapy help, a lot of my wife's help and my friends help, to get to the place where I won't say today that my self-worth isn't connected at all to succeeding or losing, but I'm at least not where I once was but that connection... And, Nate, I really appreciate you bringing that out because, man, if I'm only worthwhile as a human being, if I'm only valued and loved when I win, then that's a treadmill that is gonna... For one thing, you're gonna fall off 'cause you don't always win, but also that's gonna run you to death. So, I really appreciate what you're talking about here, Nate.
NP: Yeah. And it's also, if you have that orientation, that like, "My job is to win," you become also vulnerable to certain kinds of influence. It's a really easy way to trick people, is to give them a goal and tell them, "Listen, you need to make all these sacrifices to work towards this goal," and then they get the goal and they realize that they've been given a false goal, a deceitful goal, or just something that actually isn't what they want, isn't what their soul needs to thrive on in this life.
MR: Yes, that is so right. And so I have a kind of a counter story to the one I just told myself, but it was...
LA: You're gonna make yourself look a little bit better in the second story.
MR: No, I'm actually gonna make some other people look a whole lot better. [chuckle] I was pastor of a church in Southern California for 16 years. And one year, I had two of my members running for the same Congressional seat, the Republican and the Democrat in my church.
LA: Oh my gosh.
MR: Which was... Yeah, I know. Oh my gosh. And both of those people went to their campaign folk and said, "Look... " And ironically, they're both named John. And so each one of them said, "Look, John is in my church. He's a good person, he's a person of integrity. So we are not going to run this election in any way that puts him down. We're gonna deal with the issues, but we're gonna have integrity and honor. And that's just the way it's gonna be." And I was so proud of those people because I thought, "Man, this is what it would be to be a Christian in a political context." And I'm fearful we don't have much of that anymore, but I know that people can do it, and that had to do with both the conviction of their faith and how they are to live, it's what you're saying, and in terms of, winning isn't as important as being the person that I need to be in my work. And you talked about that, and I just remember seeing that and feeling both very proud of them, and again feeling like, "Okay, I have some growth to do here."
LA: So how do they... You just gave us a great case study Mark in winning and losing. How did the John who won that congressional seat deal with being humble in his faith? And how did the John who lost a Congressional seat deal with his failure?
MR: That's a good question. For both of them, I think they were both at a place in life where it wasn't primarily about their ego, it really was about the things that they were trying to advance in the world and the things they cared about. So the one who won, I don't think he got all puffed up over it, and the one who lost, I think was disappointed but went back and in a sense, he continued on in the work. But I also think the fact that they really tried to run a campaign that was honorable. And for each of them, there was a reward in that, really the knowledge that they had tried to be decent and hospitable and to live their faith in a place where sometimes faith doesn't get lived very well.
LA: So we know that Nate is out there in the sphere of politics living the way a person of faith would wanna run campaigns. Nate, can you tell us how does your faith inform what you do for work on a daily basis? Are there particular scriptures or story from the Bible that you feel like guide you in your work?
NP: I would say there's been different things over the years. I think one of the things that I come back to a lot is the idea of the fruit of the Spirit. [chuckle] I was thinking about... Galatians 5, is one of these lists of places where it talks about being led by the spirit, where you have love, joy, piece, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. So that's a list that honestly, it doesn't necessarily look like success really. The other thing I think is really interesting, Mark, to bring back to your story is, what if one of those two candidates was not all that honorable? What if you were against an opponent who was digging up dirt, who was making spurious and low-brow comments about your positions and how you must be a bad kind of person or you're lying?
What if that was the case? What would it be like to run an honorable campaign against an opponent who is acting dishonorably? Because that's pretty much the situation that I find myself in quite often, where in this work that I do now, I get called dishonest in the media from time to time, and I'm told the opposing testimony in a hearing will be that I'm really trying to steal their intellectual property, or this and that. I have these nefarious goals, I'm not just trying to let people fix this stuff that they buy, I'm trying to do something untoward, and so what does it mean in that instance to just to choose not to answer in kind, but to try to just do the work the right way, to try to...
LA: What does it mean? Is that difficult?
NP: At this point, one of the things that motivates me to do the work that way is it doesn't work for me to slam the desk and throw a fit and roll my eyes and point at the other guy and make those comments because as the person who's standing in for the righteous public interest advocate who's doing it for the people, I have to actually reflect that in the way that I approach the work. I have to be completely on the ball when it comes to my facts and my rationale and my arguments, so yeah, it is hard, and I have to say it kills me, it kills me that I have to be honest, and I have to have well-sourced facts and I can't ever make a mistake, and the punishment for me for being a little bit off with my data is so much higher than my opposition's.
But the other day, I had this thought, and I've repeated it to myself like a little bit of a meditation, which is that the righteous always have to work a little harder, and it's part of this sacred work. It's a sacrament. Hard work, doing things the right way, in the moment, it feels like it's a longer distance to go from point A to point B, but in another way, it creates durable change, it creates durable movement in society, and it creates a kind of humility in your spirit that you're not just like, "Oh, I'm righteous. I have the right idea. I can act as bombastically and cruelly as I want 'cause I'm right." You're constantly testing your own motivations and your own arguments, and that produces a result, which I can be proud of, whether or not I win.
MR: You know it's interesting, I was thinking of there is a place in scripture in 1 Corinthians 9 where it uses the language of a race and winning, and Paul's saying in a race, the runners compete but only one wins, and then run in such a way that you may win. Now, he's not talking about the literal race or whatever. This is more you might say the race of faith, or being a faithful Christian, being the person that God has called us to be, and so that in one sense, when you act in a way that has integrity, even if you lose the issue, in the other race, the race of faith, you're running to win, and you will get the prize, and so there's an alternative value system, an alternative reward system maybe, and if we go, the reward of knowing that God is pleased and honored by you and your work.
NP: So I think that there's two responses that come to mind. One is: What race are you running? What's your finish line? And yes, if your finish line is to promote radical, self-sacrificial, co-suffering love, then it's a little bit of a different race than making a billion dollars per se. And then the other is that the way that you run a campaign is in itself part of what is produced by the campaign, like the nature of the work is what is left when you have wrapped it up. If you won by sleight of hand, by doing something untoward or bullying people, that leaves its mark.
If you wanna do it the right way, it produces results that have a kind of durability to them, because they were built from the heart and from real human passion. And I think that that's part of the reason why I pursue my work that way, 'cause I know that in some ways, it's like part of my legacy as a human on earth, and I want it to reflect not just whatever policy values I had, but more of how I wanna be in the world.
LA: I'm brought back, Nate, to this list of the fruits of the Spirit that you mentioned that's in Galatians 5. It starts in verse 22: "the love, joy, peace, patience. Kindness, goodness." But what interests me is as you're cultivating them in your work, it also is a way that the Spirit, God's Spirit is born into the world through these adjectives. You're saying it's not only who I am, and it's not only whether I win or lose the policy debate or this particular election, but it's whether I'm bearing God into the world with these particular fruits.
LA: If I might take your words completely out of context.
NP: Yes, and of course, now I'm like, "Well, I'm not... " Now, the people who work with me are like, "Well, Nathan... "
NP: Self-control. Yeah, well, I think I might need to work on that one. You know, the funny thing is, if you look at that passage, I actually happen to have it up so I can read it... Starting in Verse 18, it says, "But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. The acts of the flesh are obvious: Sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy, drunkenness, orgies, and the like."
I love that this list has selfish ambition, envy right before like witchcraft and after orgies or whatever, 'cause I think that when we talk about the acts of the flesh, people will look to these external behavioral things like, "Oh, are you doing drugs and witchcraft?" Things that just would... If you grew up in a religious setting like I did, that would be like the really bad stuff, but no, selfish ambition is listed between witchcraft and orgies. I don't think as Americans, and the way our culture is, I don't think that that gets nearly enough of a highlight in terms of a behavior that can have really destructive fruit. And that's what I mean by success is a cult. Cults, they're bad for the world. They hurt people. They take people away from their families, and you end up losing all your money, and all these things that I was... Happened to have watched some of those Netflix documentaries on some of these recently, so I was thinking about that. They're really pernicious.
But selfish ambition, putting yourself and what you achieve above what is good for other people, and who you wanna be in your heart, that's really destructive. That does cause people to lose time with their families as they're chasing something else, or to break relationships, or to lose all their money as they chase things. That causes you to make bad decisions, and so I think when I think about the fruits of the Spirit, you also have to think about the counter to that, which is things that we could do that are destructive and what we're doing instead.
MR: So I appreciate your bringing up the other... What comes before the fruit of the Spirit, because partly as you say, it's such a striking list, having things that most anyone would think of as being really bad things, and having things that many of us would say, "Oh well, it's not so bad." [chuckle]
Or it's what we gotta do, right? Yeah, there are gonna be dissensions and factions, and we're gonna be that kind of people. So I think this is a challenging list, so this one really holds up a mirror to me and it says, "Where are you not living out your faith as you ought to?" The other one is, to use the same metaphor, it's more like it's holding up a mirror to Jesus and saying, "To what extent am I reflecting His way and His glory and His character?" And you get them both together and it's a challenging thing, especially in your case, when you're working in a field that has an awful lot of selfish ambition and dissension and factions, and so you're challenged to be the kind of person that you wanna be, that you know that God wants you to be and will help you to be even in the midst of some pretty challenging context.
NP: But I do feel like if you were... If you had work... And I apologize for the background noise... It's right below next to my window right now... Can you hear this, by the way, or is it...
LA: A little bit... It sounds like someone's cultivating some actual fruit outside. Like there's a little gardener, something going on.
NP: Yeah, anyway...Yeah. I do think that... Listen, I don't think that all my co-workers would say, oh yeah, that I'm like this kind of monk or something in the work. I'm a pretty passionate person. It's part of being an organizer is you really have to be heart forward because that's how you make connections with people, but I would say that the people who've been around me for a long time can see the difference, like how I've matured as a person, because I pay attention to things like the way other people feel because of the way I do the work, and it's like it helps me actually learn some of these lessons, which are... I don't know what I'm gonna be doing for the rest of my life, I know what I'm doing today, but that stuff, it always has value in the bank, it's not that Dogecoin, here today, gone tomorrow. Being a kind of person that makes other people feel more confident, feel more comfortable, feel more accepted, I really treasure that I've been able to add that to my character because that was a struggle for me. I really was quite a hothead when I started this work.
LA: Well, Nate, something that I noticed about you today, we're trying to record this conversation about how to deal with success and failure at work, and here we are in a challenging situation. There's background noise, we're in the middle of a pandemic, there's a leaf blower outside, we're having technical challenge, a bit like... We're having our share of failure in our work today, and nonetheless, here we are in our conversation, valuing our relationship over the ego boost we might get of making a perfect point with perfect audio recorded perfectly, which we are clearly not doing. We're failing at that. So I think we have a little microcosm of experiencing God in our failure today and experiencing the goodness of relationships in that. Back me up, tell me that [chuckle] can be a takeaway.
NP: Yeah, you know, it's funny, there's a woman we know who throws elaborate house parties. And I haven't been to one in a long time. I haven't been out of my house in a long time. She throws these parties. She invites everybody. The people who take away the garbage, all of the local neighbors... One time, I had a friend for years and we called him CVS guy because Esther ran into him in line at CVS and then invited her to her house, 'cause she was having a party, and she makes an insane amount of food, and she doesn't even clean her house before. This is one of the most liberating experiences of my life to go to Esther's house. There's 300 people there. She kinda knows people. She doesn't... She's just feeding everybody. Everybody's having a good time, and she doesn't clean her house because...
LA: It's 'cause it's just gonna get dirty.
NP: Yeah, it's the wrong goal. [chuckle] She's not projecting anything about her homemaking or her perfect life or whatever, she's just... She's putting the priority in the right place, and I think there's opportunities for us to do that, to reflect those kinds of values all the time, to realize that actually what we emphasize and de-emphasize creates space for other people to feel connected and... Yeah, and I think that all of us, if we just spent time, if that was our goal, if that was the race we were running, we could find those opportunities in what we're doing to make people feel heard, to make them feel comfortable, to make them feel connected. And that's just worth doing.
LA: Amen to that. Nate, thank you so much for coming on our show today and sharing what you do, not only in the political sphere. We do hope for more politicians and organizers like you who exemplify the fruits of the Spirit, but I also hope for more of this equanimity with success and failure for all of us in our own work, so thank you.
NP: You're welcome.
MR: Yes, indeed it was great to have your input and, you know, it's just good to know that you're out there fighting the good fight, as Paul said in one of his last letters, by which he didn't mean winning the election or the whatever. It was living his life in such a way that in the end, God was honored. And he says, "From God, I will receive the crown." So, keep it up. Thank you for encouraging the rest of us to keep it up in whatever work we're doing.
NP: Yes, and to that I say keep it up. Yeah, do good work, and take heart in every day that you do something that was hard and you did it because that's what you felt was the right thing to do. Regardless of whether or not you had 80,000 downloads or 4, take heart. It is a great honor to do good with the time that you have, and it's its own reward, but sometimes it takes that reflection and it takes somebody else saying, "Hey, you did that the right way, and that was good." Whether or not you competed with Joe Rogan's podcast spot or not.
NP: Which, by the way, I'm pretty sure that you don't, but you know...
LA: We don't.
MR: Do you think he gets a few more downloads than we do?
NP: A few. A few more. I did throw in a Dogecoin mentioned, so maybe that'll up it a bit.
LA: Oh yeah. [chuckle] Speaking of keeping it up, Mark, this is our last episode of season two of our podcast.
MR: I know, and we're going out in technological glory, but with great content and a great guest, so it is yeah, an amazing second season, and I know there are plans afoot for a third one. Do you know...
MR: Anything more about that, Leah?
LA: We can tell our listeners that we will be back in the fall, so in the meantime, you can follow us on Instagram at @depreecenter and @theologyofwork to stay up-to-date with our work. You can also visit depree.org and theologyofwork.org to learn about other resources we offer to connect to your faith, the Bible and your work, and we will see you back in the fall for more conversations about making it work.
MR: Wonderful, thank you.