Several weeks ago, I had the incredible privilege of speaking at the graduation ceremony for the 2016 class of my old high school, High Point Christian Academy.
The gist of my message focused on two terms, ‘foundation’ and ‘direction,’ and more specifically, how the interplay of these two things—how they relate, how they inform one another—is what will ultimately make the biggest difference in your life when it’s all said and done. In other words, how your sense of foundation informs your sense of direction (and vice versa) is what will most shape how you live—possibly more than anything else.
So, in the following post, I’ve essentially redacted the speech into a more blog-esque format for readability’s sake.
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So, foundation and direction. What do I mean when I say ‘foundation’ and ‘direction’?
Let’s do ‘foundation’ first: what do you think of when you hear the word, ‘foundation’? You probably think about a building or a house, right? Large structures need a sturdy foundation; otherwise, they will threaten to collapse under slight circumstances.
In college, I would frequent this house that hosted dance parties, and that house…shall we say… had very loose foundations. In fact, now the house has been condemned because it literally cannot support the weight of 200 kids jumping up and down in it anymore. Houses have a foundation: it’s the structure that gives it stability and resilience.
As people, we have foundations as well, and it’s what is at the very bottom of who we are. Namely, it’s where we find our greatest degree of personal significance or ultimate sense of self-worth or identity. It undergirds pretty much everything we do and why we do them.
What do I mean what I say ‘direction’?
This is more self-explanatory. Whereas foundation is ultimately about what’s at the bottom of who are you, direction is ultimately the overflow of what you do. It might be going to college, getting a certain major, or setting your hopes set towards a certain career path.
That’s foundation and direction. Foundation is the who. Direction is the what.
HOW THEY RELATE
Mainly, what I want to talk about is how these two things—foundation and direction—relate to one another. Everyone has a foundation and a general sense of direction. But—how these two things play out in your life is what will make the biggest difference in your life.
Ultimately, there’s two main ways this foundation-direction relationship can take shape in your life.
The first is this… and it’s by and large the mantra of culture.
It’s believing that our foundation and direction are wrapped up together and completely dependent upon one another.
It’s the idea that our foundation—who we are, where we find our significance, self-worth, or identity is fundamentally found and achieved in our direction—what we do, what your grades are, what college you’re going to, what profession you have, how much money you make, etc.
Essentially, it’s the idea that personal significance is found in personal performance.
And there’s only one other alternative. So, if the first paradigm of how foundation-direction can relate is by being completely together, the second paradigm is that they can relate by being completely apart as separate, non-overlapping categories.
So, instead of finding your personal significance in your personal performance, instead of looking for your foundation in your direction—these things are separate categories. It’s the idea that your personal significance is not based on your personal performance. This is what I want for you all. This is where you’ll find freedom and joy in life.
But naturally, you might object, saying, “What’s wrong with having your foundation and direction totally wrapped together? Why is it ‘wrong’ if I base my self-worth on what I accomplish? My achievements make me feel good about myself!”
It’s certainly acceptable to celebrate your achievements; however, the danger with making your personal significance totally dependent on your personal performance is that whenever you approach your job, work, grades, your athletics, or etc.—it won’t ever just be about your grades, job, or work… it will ultimately be about securing your self-worth. Which means anytime you approach your work, your self-worth will always be hanging in the balance of your success or failures. We can all agree that this is dangerous place to be.
I read a NY Times article recently that talked about people’s insane, obsessive, workaholic habits nowadays—that students and employees every where are running themselves into the ground, bleeding themselves dry, and striving with break-neck levels of ‘moderation’ when it comes to their work. Why?
The author was a little sarcastic in his interpretation, as he said: “Do you think employees and students are really sacrificing their sleep, their health, and their relationships on the altar of work or schooling… just because people really love their jobs or because they just really love their calculus homework?” His rhetoric makes anyone readily admit, “No.”
So, then, why are students killing themselves over every point? Why are there employees striving so intensely up the corporate ladder?
The columnist said this—and I think it’s profound—“There’s a bigger, more critical type of work that’s going on underneath their vocational ‘title’ or ‘job description’—and it’s the unending, tireless work of trying to establish a sense of personal significance through their work. If they achieve this or that, then they are something. But if not, then they are nothing.”
People are using their direction to get a foundation, and because of it, it’s making people miserable and it’s making their work a personal ‘Roman Coliseum’ of sorts to prove their self-worth and to find their personal validation.
I certainly don’t bring this us as if I am completely detached from that kind of experience either. In fact, in high school my entire self-worth was written on my resume. My personal validation was found in my personal accomplishments. I felt like I mattered because of all these things I did. My foundation was totally wrapped up in my direction. My personal significance was based wholly on my personal performance.
And when I got to college, all the accomplishments I had worked so hard to achieve and the personal significance I had strove so tireless to secure, immediately didn’t matter any more. In college, all those didn’t matter any more, and as such, I was left with a gaping whole for my foundations.
In fact, in my first day of Organic Chemistry, the professor asked for a raise of hands, “How many of you were valedictorians or salutatorians in high school?” No joke, like half the class of 300 people raised their hands. And I felt small and inadequate. All my hard work in high school didn’t distinguish me from anyone else at all. I didn’t feel important anymore.
And when I failed that first Organic Chemistry test, it hurt so much…why?
Because it wasn’t just a shot at my grade point average… it was a shot at my identity. It was a kick to one of the pillars of my foundation.
It doesn’t have to be grades (I know I’m speaking out of the context of being a nerd). But maybe your foundation is what college your going to, how successful you are in athletics, how many followers you have on Instagram, or the girl that you’re dating.
I’m not trying to be Debbie-downer… I want to be realistic. So let me ask you this: What happens when get an injury? What happens when you fail a test? Or don’t get into the business school? Or don’t get recognized like you think you should? Those things don’t just jeopardize your career… they jeopardize your self-worth.
When you depend on your direction—your grades, major, school, sports—for your foundation or your ultimate sense of self-worth, not only is your self-worth always hanging in the balance, but I’ve also seen another terrible thing that happens to many college students.
And it’s that students don’t do a career path that fits with their abilities, passions, and burdens; rather, they try to be someone they’re not… because this ‘Pre-Awesome’ major or this ‘Wealthy Profession’ appears to promise a better type of self-worth than other majors or career professions. Students who are under the influence of the ‘direction-is-my-foundation’ intoxication begin to seek a profession that they think will give them higher degrees of self-worth instead of doing something that God actually created them to do all along.
Students and employees are mutilating their direction on the altar of trying to get a foundation—and by doing so, they are sacrificing their strengths, exalting their weaknesses, and as a result, bleeding their vocational motivations dry.
Unfortunately, you see this all the time. This is the last thing I want for any of you, and that’s why it’s the only thing I want to talk about in this time I have with you.
I want don’t want you to use your direction as the basis for your foundation. Rather, I want you to separate those categories. Direction & Foundation were never meant to go together. Your direction—your schooling, athletics, jobs, and efforts—were never meant to be the means where you would find the foundation of self-worth and identity in life. Your direction was simply intended to bless society, serve others, create culture, enjoy life, and love God through it all.
I want you to get a foundation separate from your direction. I want you to get a direction that is simply just an overflow from who you are, what you love, and what you feel a burden for—not sense of direction that comes from trying to fulfill the need to feel like you matter.
So… that begs the questions: Where do you get a foundation that is not is based on your performance? And how can you have a direction that isn’t constantly paying tribute to a foundation?
Everything in the world says your personal performance gets your personal significance.
But there’s one place that says otherwise. Right now, you’re probably thinking, “Your seminary is starting to show, bro…” I understand that, and I’m certainly not trying to be preachy. I know this isn’t the place for it, so in that case, let’s just approach this strictly from a LOGICAL standpoint.
If your self-worth is wrapped up in your college, career, money, relationships, and accomplishment… those are unreliable foundations because they are subject to circumstance.
If an unstable foundation is one that is subject to circumstance, that means a sure foundation is one that is not subject to circumstance. LOGICALLY speaking… there’s ONLY ONE place where you can have a sense of foundation and self-worth that isn’t subject to circumstance.
And the answer is God; it’s the gospel. Logically speaking, there’s one foundation, one source of self-worth that is not based on circumstance, and it’s what he thinks about you.
He says, “You have ultimate self-worth because I say so, and more clearly than that, I demonstrated it at the cross! You’re worth everything to me!” If you’re a Christian, you have access to a foundation that’s not subject to circumstance. In Christ, you have the ultimate approval from the only One whose opinion of you really matters anyways! A true, sure foundation of self-worth is defined there—it’s ultimate, unconditional, and maximal—and it’s not subject to circumstance.
God gives you type of self-worth, that is better than you could ever give yourself. It’s not earned by your performance, it’s given by grace and you accept it. And oddly enough, it’s in receiving and possessing a foundation that can’t be improved by performance that’s precisely the grounds for empowering you and enabling you to have a healthy sense of direction after all.
Once you have this sure foundation, your direction is redeemed because now your self-worth is no longer hanging in the balance; your direction is no longer about proving yourself… it just becomes about work for work’s sake, serving others, and just enjoying it because you love it. Your direction—your work—is no longer turned inward to validate yourself; it’s turned outward to serve others.
Let me end with a quick illustration that shows how having a foundation separate from a direction actually empowers a healthy, free direction after all.
CHARIOTS OF FIRE
How many of you have seen the movie Chariots of Fire? For those of you who haven’t seen this movie before, the movie is about two Olympic track stars, Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, and it essentially illustrates the nature of each runner’s careers. And what the movie does so well is that it foils the ‘foundations’ of the two runners, showing how different they are from one another even though they have the same career, or ‘direction.’
The movie portrays that Harold Abrahams was someone whose running career (his direction) was his source of self-worth (his foundation). His running career is what made him feel important and distinguished—it’s what gave him significance. And his self-worth, naturally, rose or fell based on how well he did. But the movie relates that Eric Liddell was someone whose running career was not his source of personal significance. Rather, he had a source of self-worth separate from his career—and it was in what God thought about him.
There’s one scene in particular that I’ll never forget.
An interviewer asked Abrahams a probing question, “What’s on the front of your mind right as you approach the starting block?” And his response is startling, horrifying, chilling. He says, “As I get on the blocks, right before the gun goes off, there is one thing that goes through my mind. And it’s this: ‘I have 10 seconds to justify my entire existence.’” (Bang).
No pressure, right? That’s insane! But at least he was honest enough to admit how most of us approach our lives, too.
However, the same question is directed at Liddell, and if you’ve seen the movie, you already know what his response was to this question. He said, “When I run, I just… feel God’s pleasure.”
In those two statements you have two completely different approaches to life. Abrahams and Liddell are both Olympic runners. On the exterior, they might look exactly the same. But on the interior, they couldn’t be more different.
Abrahams ran because he needed a foundation; and his career was essentially a self-salvation project. But Liddell ran because he had a foundation, and running, or his direction, was just the natural overflow of his life.
Here’s the good part: Who do you think had more success in his career? Abrahams or Liddell? You got it, Liddell. Why?
Abrahams ran FOR a foundation, FOR validation, and FOR personal self-worth—and it absolutely ruined him. Sure, he had marginal success… but he was absolutely miserable because of it. But Liddell, on the other hand, ran FROM a foundation, FROM validation, and FROM a sense of personal self-worth—and it was oxygen in his lungs.
When you make your direction the means to get a foundation, your life will be full anxiety, discontentment, and jealousy because your identity will always be on the line every time you approach your work.
But if you have a foundation separate from your direction, then you’ll have freedom and joy in your work because your identity won’t be hanging in the balance. Instead, you can work and love what you do. You won’t feel forced into a major. You’ll see a burden in your society, and you’ll help it.
And even when you fail—because it will happen—you’ll be free to fail. You’ll still have an identity that is just as in tact as it was before. A vocational failure will not be a stamp of ‘FAILURE’ across your existence or foundations; rather, the red ink will only go as far as the direction of your project or grade. If your foundation is Christ, then the red ink of vocational failure will never be able to color over or overrule the blood of Jesus on your life, which is the permanent ink of self-worth. Vocational red ink can be eventually washed out; Jesus’ blood can’t be.
Indeed, if you have a foundation separate from your direction, then you’ll be able to weather the storms of circumstance precisely because not one drop of circumstance will be able to affect your foundation. Your house will be built on the rock. And even when the waves of failure or disappoint come ashore, you’ll still be left standing.
Your Foundation and your Direction will define the rest of your life.
Graduates, you are exceptionally smart. You are extraordinarily talented. You are inordinately driven. I’m confident that I will be watching some of you on TV one day, whether it’s reporting the news, blocking a shot into the stands, or marketing an incredible product.
BUT, if you make your direction your foundation—if you make your self-performance the basis of your self-significance—it won’t matter how smart, athletic, driven, or successful you are… you’ll be miserable.
Right now, you’re metaphorically stepping up to the starting blocks of life as it were… you’re getting set… And before the gun goes off… I just want to encourage you: Don’t run your life in order to get a foundation; run because in Christ, you have a foundation. And because of that, when you run—whatever it is you end up doing—when you run, you’ll feel God’s pleasure.
So take a beautiful photo, and feel God’s pleasure.
Dunk a basketball, and feel God’s pleasure.
Write an article, and feel God’s pleasure.
Create a phone app, and feel God’s pleasure.
Put a cast on someone, and feel God’s pleasure.
Fight injustices, and feel God’s pleasure.
Teach the next generation, and feel God’s pleasure.
You can do that well and you can do it with joy if you have a foundation separate from your direction. So get a self-significance that isn’t based on self-performance –for doing so will be like hoisting large sails in your life. And wherever the wind of your direction blows, it will propel your vessel forward more naturally; in fact, sometimes it might not even feel like ‘work.’ You’ll be able to spend more time soaking in the scenery and enjoying the company of others—and less time below the deck, rowing to no avail, and exerting yourself to no end, all the while paddling with no destination in sight, except yourself and an empty hull. But…if Someone has achieved the work of your identity for you–and given you a foundation at the very bottom of who you are–only then can you climb out of the hull, and instead, tend to the sails and see where you’re really going… enjoying the view and the company along the way.
So get a hold of This foundation, and then let your direction get a hold of you.
Thank you guys and congratulations once again!