Q&A with Ray Pennings, Vice-President Research, Work Research Foundation
Think tanks are like laboratories. We take ideas that are being promoted in society and test them. We also take problems for which there seem to be few good solutions available and work to develop new ideas.
Inspired by the interviews in the Paris Review and Bomb magazine, "The Questions" in Sports Illustrated, and the regular interviews on the blogs of Tom Peters and Guy Kawasaki, Comment has asked a diverse group of mentors for their stories.
Comment: How would you explain what you do to an interested nine-year-old child?
Ray Pennings: Think tanks are like laboratories. We take ideas that are being promoted in society and test them. We also take problems for which there seem to be few good solutions available and work to develop new ideas. My job as Vice-President of Research with the WRF think tank really has three parts. A major part of my job has been "building the laboratory"—finding the people and raising the money so WRF can achieve its mission. The second part combines project planning and working with our clients to ensure our deliverables match their expectations. Finally, I do some research, writing and consulting in my own areas of expertise.
Comment: What first drew you to this work?
RP: My working life has included positions with political, labour relations, and business organizations. Over the years, I have cultivated especially my analytical, strategic planning, and communication skills. I was attracted to WRF out of the growing conviction that a Christian think tank was a necessary addition to Canada's public square conversation. So when the opportunity arose to utilize my particular mix of skills in support of a mission I was passionate about, the decision was a relatively easy one.
Comment: As a novice, what were your most valuable learning experiences?
RP: I have been involved in the political process since my early teens. It took a long time for me to learn that as important as specific campaigns are, be they election campaigns or issue campaigns, in the long run they matter much less than they seem. Society is shaped by basic ideas and structures. We tend to get our hopes raised way too high when someone we support is elected as if they will suddenly be able to fix everything that is wrong. Lasting change is a process that usually takes years, if not decades. Therefore, learning to think much more long-term is the most valuable lesson I have learned.
Comment: What is the best advice you've ever been given?
RP: When I was a fourteen, I was in the hospital with a diagnosis that led us all to believe that I would never walk again. On a Sunday afternoon, a visiting pastor who was preaching in our church that day stopped by the hospital and we ended up having a very honest conversation about the things in life that I had hoped to be able to do but now was afraid I wouldn't be able to. He listened very empathetically and apart from reading Scripture and praying with me, only said a few words. What I remember is this sentence: "Raymond, if the sovereignty of God means anything at all, or to say it differently, if God is really God, then His purpose will be perfectly accomplished. If it's His will, then nothing will be able to stop you." Those words were instrumental in teaching me a valuable spiritual lesson. It is when you are prepared to give everything up and die that you are really prepared to live for God's glory. I also think about this often when day-to-day challenges arise and it helps me put things in perspective.
Comment: From what sources do you draw inspiration for your work?
RP: While spending time daily in the Scriptures and good books (from both historical and contemporary authors) are essential in framing my thinking, the challenge is also to connect truths that matter to the questions of everyday life. For that, biographies are valuable. They provide examples of how others have struggled with the application of theory in practice and the messiness of everyday life. My favourites include Ian Murray's two-volume biography of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and George Marsden's biography of Jonathan Edwards.
Comment: What rituals and habits structure your workday?
RP: I have a "home" and "away" routine, given that approximately 40% of my workdays are spent in cities other than the one in which I live. Those times are filled with meetings with very few gaps. Although this can be tiring, it is also invigorating as usually the meetings are with interesting and accomplished people from whom I learn a lot. We often explore creative projects, many of which never see the light of day, but are fun to think about. My rule of thumb is that it takes at least ten ideas on the table before a good one emerges. The little bit of downtime that I do have on the road, I am usually too brain-weary to do tedious administrative sort of stuff.
My "home" routine is very different. I work from a home office and our structured family times for meals and breaks are very important. In organizing my office time, I tend to be quite systematic. I usually have one major project I am working on, while "juggling" up to five or so other projects with phone calls and emails to keep them moving ahead. It is when I am at home that I manage to put structure and "legs" to the various ideas we are considering. Indecipherable to most, there is actually meaning and great importance in the illegible scribbles that fill my journal pages.
Comment: What are your favorite tools?
RP: My books. Although I am a news junkie and have read multiple newspapers and magazines a day for almost thirty years now (a task made much easier with the internet!), reading a book is a different and much more rewarding experience. A well written book develops an argument that you can usually summarize in a sentence or two. Still you know that even as you summarize it, there is so much nuance, beauty, and texture to an argument an author has developed that someone who hasn't read the book can't get.
My daily journal/notebook is the other essential tool. It is almost always with me and I write down key words of a conversation, phone numbers, to do lists (transferred to Outlook tasks before the day is over), and "lightbulb insights" that come to me. I am not sure what it means about mental processing but most often the "aha" insights regarding one project come while I am working on a very different one. My computer (Toshiba Satellite Pro M70) is an essential but underappreciated tool. I value it most when it is not working right and I realize how much I rely on it.
Comment: Tell us about a project that delighted you.
RP: I have just completed three chapters for a book celebrating the 500th anniversary of John Calvin's birth, forthcoming from Ligonier in September, 2008. It was a chance for me to try to summarize key teachings of the Bible and 500 years of Reformed thinking on work, politics, and worldview. I have spent much of my life thinking and reading about these subjects and I hope this book will excite the passions of some who may not have thought much about these subjects. However, even if no one else will ever read it, there was a wonderful clarity in my own mind and thought that reconfirmed the God-glorifying importance of what I do. That alone made the project worth it!
Comment: How do you plan your work?
RP: My days usually start fairly early—something that helps my connecting with work colleagues since I live two time zones west of most of them. I make a priority of working with an empty inbox. I always have a weekly project list which I keep "realistic," and I am able to complete 75% of the time. I also keep a daily list which includes phone calls and so forth—rarely completed. Given that most office days have five "working blocks" between breaks and meetings, I break down assignments into pieces that can be achieved in those blocks. That way, the accomplishment of reaching a goal for me is rarely more than three hours away and I can finish most days feeling good about what I have done! Given that many of the projects I work on are quite large and last months, the motivation derived from meeting short term goals is valuable. The old saying "Take care of the little things and the big things take care of themselves" is true.
Comment: How does your work connect to other aspects of your life?
RP: Some years ago, I developed a personal mission statement. It reads:
"To advance the understanding of the Christian community in a manner that will assist her in providing a public Christian witness in contemporary North American society. More specifically, this includes assisting individuals and organizations in developing and implementing strategies that reflect a desire to faithfully live out their God-given calling in a manner that brings honour to God, cultivates the full range of gifts which God has provided in the creation, and does not compromise the claim of Christ to be Lord of all of life."
I have been very active in my church (where as an elder I preach, teach classes and serve on several committees both locally and denominationally); Christian organizations (where I have served on the boards of at least eight organizations over the years, presently serving as the Chair of Redeemer University College and a board member of the Paideia Centre for Public Theology); and community (from advisory editorial boards of major newspapers to the umpire in chief for the town in which I lived, with managing political campaigns and working with local political action groups thrown in between).
I can truly say that my life is "of a piece" in that the passion, mission, and satisfaction I find in my work I also find in the other elements of my life. As I often say to my wife, the amazing part is they actually pay me to do what I do, for if I had to do another job, my free time would be spent doing my current job.