What Mary J. Blige taught me about work

WORK | 7 mins

In her 2007 single, Work That, Mary J. Blige encouraged her listeners to “follow me.” Turns out, when it comes to work, that’s some great advice.

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I worked in corporate america for seven years before leaving to work for a church. When I put in my two weeks notice, the faith conversations around me started to explode like never before. I was floored. People I’d rarely spoke to came up to me and said in a low tone “You’re going to work for a church? I love Jesus too!” It was like a secret confession. Some of these conversations, though, happened with people I’d worked alongside the entire time. Something along the lines of, “How did I not know you loved Jesus?!” Facepalm.

The one redeeming factor in this was that none of my coworkers were shocked that I was leaving to work for a church. I got comments and well wishes that mentioned my integrity in the workplace and how well I cared for the people I managed. Amazingly, without using words like “sin” and “faith,” I’d been able to show people that my work was a representation of my faith.

Mary J. Blige has been in the music industry for 30 years, setting standards and showing out. From Family Affair to No More Drama to Real Love she has created hit after hit. In January she was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and this weekend, BET presented her with a Lifetime Achievement Award. After thirty years of success, in any business, you’re sure to have accumulated a lot of wisdom. In her acceptance speech at the BET Awards, Mary J. was teaching a masterclass on how to do good work. Below are four ways she took me to school.

1. Be Yourself, For The Sake of Others
Presenting Mary J. with the award, recording artist Rihanna had this to say about the R&B superstar, “Mary J. Blige, you have set the bar for relatable, timeless, classic music. You opened multiple doors for female artists in this industry… On behalf of all the women who came after you, like myself, thank you for being you so we can be comfortable being ourselves.”

Mary J. was the first female artist, and the youngest, to sign a contract with Uptown Records. Being the first or only in any space makes it easy to succumb to the pressure of what others want you to be. Don’t do it. We need you to be you, because doing so paves the way for others to do the same.

2. No Matter Your Skill, You Can’t Do It Alone
Mary J. began her acceptance speech by acknowledging others. “When you have a lifetime of achievements,” she said, “there is no way you could have done it alone.” Her sentiment is absolutely true. Community and relationships have power. We all need people to support us, to help us learn from the bad, and to celebrate the good.

You may have community and friendship at home, or in your spare time, but who is supporting you at work? Who at the office knows you personally? When a situation goes bad, who can you go to for wisdom (and not gossip)? Is there anyone who will stop and pray for you? Building this community in your life will make all the difference, no matter if you work in an office, a school, or a construction site.

3. Confidence, Humility, Service
Confidence and humility are a powerful pair. Reflecting on her career, Mary J. said, “Although I’m a leader, a queen, a living legend… Although I’m all these things, I’m a servant as well and I’m here to serve. Being a servant is not always glamorous or popular, but it’s the job and the assignment that I was given.”

Humility is not putting yourself down. Rather, it’s recognizing the true worth of others. It’s choosing respect, compassion, forgiveness and love for the people working alongside you—and it’s giving it to them, even when they don’t deserve it. And that choice doesn’t have to come at the price of your confidence. By all means, believe in yourself, your ideas, and your abilities. But also recognize that your coworkers may have just as legitimate ideas. That annoying co-worker… even he is worthy of compassion. The most humble thing you can do today just may be choosing not to send that snarky email response.

The biggest way to show humility is in service. And there will be plenty of opportunities to serve others at work—to take some weight off their shoulders, cover a shift, or write a thank you note. It’s easy to pull the trigger on that service when your boss stands to benefit from it. But what if it’s a peer? What it’s someone under you on the organizational chart? Those acts of service are just as powerful. And because you don’t stand to “benefit” from them, they mean that much more. No matter your job title, those acts of service are true examples of leadership.

4. Build a Legacy… and Give the Glory Back
For me, Mary J. dropped a bomb when she said, “In order to become an authority, I had to come under authority. It’s because, when the glory is placed on me, I give it back to God.”

When I was in my corporate job, I shied away from talking about my spiritual journey or Jesus. I didn’t want people to think I was trying to convert them or associate me with those angry people who shout on street corners. No one wants to be those people.

But the honest truth is that there were places in my corporate job when I could have pointed back to God. I had enough relational equity with my coworkers to be understood. I didn’t want to be the people on the street corner… and no one thought I was. What I’m saying is, I think I played it too safe. When given the spotlight, Mary J. did what I wish I would have done—she seized her moment.

She didn’t just recite the rote “I want to thank God for this award.” She spoke about spiritual authority, submitting to a plan higher than her own, and giving honor where it was really due. In front of that audience, and thousands watching on TV, she declared God as the foundational reason for the great work she has done over her career. He was the reason she got up everyday and worked hard; the reason she found value in her work. I want that. I want to leave a legacy through my work and have other people be able to clearly see my why…and know it was all God.

Work is so much more than just forty hours a week. It can be a launching pad, a blank canvas that God can paint a masterpiece on—whether you’re doing a shift at McDonalds or a Fortune 500 company. And work is much more likely to be that—to be fulfilling—if we take the advice of thirty-year veterans like Mary J. Blige. Remember to be yourself, find a supportive community of good people, serve everyone, and give the glory back.

Turns out, the best way to represent Jesus at work is by doing good work, not by smacking people in the face with him.

Written by Brittany Wade on Jun 25, 2019