Mark D. Roberts

Today, I was exploring The High Calling, a website that features “Everyday Conversations About Work, Life, and God.” As I read several articles, I was struck by a curious overlap in content, an intersection of ideas that spoke incisively to me.


I began with “The Work of a Handyman” by Philip Faustin. The author reflects on the meaning of his work as a handyman, something he has been doing for 26 years. One particular section of the article stood out to me:

The voice on the other end of the phone was sad, but resolute. Her
beloved dog had “died a year ago.” It was buried in the back yard in a
plastic tote box, “the kind with the snap-on lid,” she said. The family
had to move and “naturally,” she blustered, “Ben needed to go with us.”

As a regular customer of mine she knew that I was very versatile. She
called, hopeful. After all, a handyman can do anything, right?

I actually thought about this for a while. I called her back, thankful
for an answering machine pickup. I explained that I would have to pass. I
tried to be sensitive, knowing the emotions involved. For the record, I
realize that exhuming animals is not something I do – ever.

And that’s a big part of my challenge – knowing my limitations. Certain
things are better left to someone else. I have a simple business plan
and I stick to it.

Faustin was wise enough to say “no” to a job that just didn’t fit his sense of calling.

Next, I clicked to a piece entitled “Lessons from Elite Leaders: Limits, Accountability and Marriage.” This article, written by Christine Scheller, summarizes the work of Rice University sociologist Michael Lindsay. Here’s how Scheller’s article, the first in an eight-part series, begins:

Setting limits on ambition, being accountable to peers, and getting
married don’t seem like the keys to career success. But these are three
surprising longevity factors that Laity Leadership Senior Fellow D.
Michael Lindsay found in his latest research on elite leaders. The Rice
University sociologist has interviewed 500 leaders to date, including
two former Presidents of the United States, cabinet secretaries, senior
White House staff, Fortune 500 executives, and professionals
from entertainment, non-profit, and media. He talked with leaders in
each area about the personal, moral, and social factors that have
sustained them over the course of their careers.

Lindsay says setting limits is probably the biggest challenge that
ambitious, talented people face because it is so tempting to “ride the
tailwind of achievement.” Effective leaders set limits by establishing
regular rhythms that nurture their lives.  Having a regular practice of
Sabbath rest, for example, is a practical habit that differentiates
people who are successful over the long haul from those who have “a
trail of broken relationships” and significant difficulty creating
life/work balance.

Setting limits is a self-cultivated discipline, not one that is
externally imposed, says Lindsay. Making a commitment to be home for
dinner at a certain time every night, for example, means choosing not to
work late at the office. CEO John Donahoe told Lindsay that he
developed the habit of regularly making pancakes for his kids on Sunday
mornings as a way to both stay engaged in family life and to bridle
professional ambition. Unplugging from electronic devices on weekends is
another simple way some leaders create a boundary.

Isn’t that coincidental . . . or perhaps providential? Michael Lindsay is reflecting on lessons he has learned from the most obviously successful leaders in America. Setting limits, he says, is central to their success. And that’s exactly how Philip Faustin begins his piece on working as a handyman.

Setting limits . . . being able to recognize what we’re supposed to do and what we’re not supposed to do . . . choosing to do the best things only . . . saying “no” to opportunities beyond our limits . . . how crucial this is, and how difficult for some of us. I would confess that I struggle with limit setting. Take my unrealistic optimism, plus my desire to use promising opportunities, plus my tendency to want to please people and not disappoint them, and you have in me a pattern of taking on more than I should in life.

Today, I am learning from an eloquent handyman as well as from some of the most powerful leaders in the world. I need to know my limits . . . and live within them. How about you?