Methods and Mysteries of Calling: Richard Bolles

An interview with Richard Bolles

Richard N. Bolles is a career expert, former Episcopal priest, and author of the book that remade the job-hunting and career-counseling world, What Color is Your Parachute? His approach is infused with motivational high spirits, practical strategies, and Christian hope. In the “Finding Your Mission in Life” appendix to the book, he writes about vocational potential in a brutal economy:“Unemployment becomes life transition, when we can’t find a job doing the same work we’ve always done. Since we have to rethink one thing, many of us elect to rethink everything. Something awakens within us. Call it yearning. Call it hope. We come to realize the dream we dreamed has never died. And we go back to get it. … Now we have a chance to marry our work and our religious beliefs, to talk about Calling, and Vocation, and Mission in life – to think out why we are here, and what plans God has for us.” A new book, The Hunger for God, will be released next year.

REFLECTIONS: It’s been forty years since Parachute was published. It’s been updated annually for decades. What have you learned about calling that you didn’t know when you first wrote the book?

BOLLES: I’ve learned it isn’t what you see; it’s what you notice that counts, when you’re figuring out your mission and calling in life.

Now to explain: when I was younger – much younger – I thought that, to quote Paul, “I understood all mysteries and knowledge.” I had been a student of the Bible since my earliest teens, and memorized large portions of it. When I was in college (M.I.T. and Harvard), I belonged to the Student Christian Movement, where I became highly sensitive to social issues, and at the same time I belonged to the evangelical Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, where we had Scripture reading and prayer groups, every night before dinner. When I heard there was a shortage of Christian ministers I abandoned my plans to be a chemical engineer, and after college enrolled in seminary, first as a student, then as an ordained minister, Fellow and Tutor. I felt I understood mission and calling, and never needed to learn another thing about it. My learning days were done.

Since then, I grew up, a little. I’ve learned something new every day about mission and calling that I didn’t know when I was first ordained or when I wrote the first edition of my book. So, how to summarize what I’ve learned? Well, Jesus healed that blind man, you recall, in two stages. After the first stage, the blind man, half-healed, said, “I see men as trees walking.” Jesus then went on to make the healing complete. I think a sense of our mission and calling comes in two stages, also. It begins for many if not most of us with a spectacularly unclear definition of what our mission is, followed by the realization that that’s okay: it’s okay if we see our vocation only half-clearly – like trees walking – in the beginning. But mission, or at least our understanding of it, is a lifelong journey. It will become clearer and clearer to us, as we get older, if – I say, if – we continuously keep this truth before us: it’s not what we see, but what we notice, that really counts.

In other words, we must define as a very part of our vocation this imperative to notice more, day by day: to notice more about how God works in this world. We must notice more, in our Scriptures, in our prayers, in the people we encounter, and of course in ourselves.

If we do that throughout the second stage of the healing of our blindness, we will see more and more clearly our vocation, our calling, the reason why each one of us, in particular, was put here on earth.

REFLECTIONS: Why is it often such a struggle to discern calling? Is that the way God planned it? Some people grasp their calling by, say, age eight; others never quite do. Must it be such a mystery?

BOLLES: Well, not so fast! Sometimes people do indeed think at age eight that they have identified their calling. But I am the man to whom many of these people turn, at age thirty or forty, and say, “You know, I’m no longer convinced that this is what I was supposed to do with my life.”

Okay, then. Why so desperate to define, or think they have defined, this at age eight or whatever? Well, here’s a clue: when I am driving on a local highway, I am astonished at the people who ride hard on my bumper, even if I’m above the speed limit, then in frustration decide to go around me, then back again to our lane, seven feet in front of me, where they get pinned by other traffic. All that for just seven feet! I turn to my beloved wife and either she or I pronounces a diagnosis of that driver: Hurry Sickness. In a hurry, just to be in a hurry.

So here: I think some people, especially the young, are in a hurry to define their vocation early on, confidently, and permanently. We don’t need to be envious of them. I already said I think defining our vocation is a two-stage journey. To those who have no clear vision about what their vocation is, for starters I say, “Don’t beat yourself up by comparing yourself to these others. If you have no idea what your calling is, then just determine to notice more, day by day. Your vision will grow clearer. Just be patient.”

But now to the other part of your question: why must it be a mystery? And the second question, like unto the first: why must it remain a mystery to some people, but not to others? Well, I think the universe is swathed in mystery, with a capital “M.” And if we think it is faith’s job to remove all mystery – hence if “mystery persists,” that’s proof we have a “lack of faith” – oh my! we are living in a fantasy world. Mystery always remains.

But we do have different mysteries. Every man and every woman chooses not merely what they will believe, but also which mysteries they are willing to live with.

The Christian, for example, chooses to live with the mystery of why we are born on a restless planet, with earthquakes, floods, and famine. And why we live in a world with so much suffering, why the good die young, why endless troubles afflict some people but not others, and why Jesus didn’t return as soon as he prophesied he would, and so on.

The atheist chooses to live with the mystery of why there is so much beauty, music, wonder, and love in the world, when it doesn’t seem called for by implacable evolution. Why our bodies sometimes run so well, why order sometimes arises out of chaos, why faith in the idea that we have a Creator seems to persistent in the world down through history, why heavenly music evolves out of someone’s little brain, why some people experience genuine miracles (for example, I actually died in 2002 but then came back, I know not why or how).

And, to our point here, why do some people receive certain gifts, certain insights, while others do not? Does God play favorites? We do not know. It is a mystery. And neither faith nor lack of faith can explain mysteries. Mystery is a part of life – some- times irritating, sometimes baffling, sometimes spectacularly dazzling.

REFLECTIONS: Individuals seem to be more empowered than ever – more technology and knowledge at their disposal, more choices. Does that make discernment of vocation easier? More difficult?

BOLLES: Well, I like Jesus’ answers to anything that he did give an answer to. And, to this subject of discernment of vocation, he said, “Except you become as little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of Heaven.” So that settles it, we must become like little children. Therefore, if your technology and your knowledge make you more childlike, then I would think it makes discernment easier for people. But if because you have technology and knowledge, you become “more adult” – which usually means more serious, less trusting, more demanding of proof, more “sophisticated” – then I think it makes discernment more difficult. It all depends upon your heart, not on your technology or knowledge.

REFLECTIONS: Are people more alone in the adventure of discernment today? Some say churches used to be more active helping individuals clarify vocation.

BOLLES: I don’t think it’s an issue of what’s happened to the subject of vocation in churches, but what’s happened to the subject of stewardship. Re-read the Psalms. Re-read our Lord’s teachings. They’re full of the concept that the earth is the Lord’s, and all that therein is. The earth is the Lord’s, and we are appointed by Him stewards of whatever comes within our ken and province. That means we are stewards of everything in our life – of our body, our talents or gifts, our possessions, and the loved ones given into our care. That’s a full definition of stewardship and it includes, therefore, vocation.

Is this taught in our churches? Generally speaking, No, no, and no. Instead, what we find taught these days is the narrowest conception of stewardship imaginable. In all too many cases, stewardship is restricted to the question of Offerings, and Pledges, and Tithes. Once a year.

And so to your question: were churches more active in the past in helping individuals clarify their vocation than they are now? Well, that depends on the church. Some churches teach a much richer concept of stewardship today than before. They teach about oil and energy, and going green. Other churches teach virtually nothing about stewardship – in its deepest definition – but I don’t know that they ever did. So: it’s a toss-up. But as individual churches on various streets in America struggle to survive, they tend to turn to a narrower and narrower teaching about stewardship – money, money, money. And this has made for a dumbing-down of the concept that vocation is a matter of defining how you are going to be steward, reporting to the Lord, of your brain, your body, your arms, feet, and heart.

REFLECTIONS: Why you? How did this subject (and this book) become your calling?

BOLLES: Well, boy do I wish I knew! The historical facts are simple: I was canon pastor of Grace Cathedral, back in 1966-68, I was let go, due to a budget crunch, my boss the Dean of the Cathedral found me another job, working for ten Protestant denominations, which required me to visit all campuses in the nine western states, to see what help the various campus ministers on each campus needed. I found, over time, that they too were being let go, one by one, for the same reason I had been: budget crunch! I determined to help them, traveling some 68,000 miles (I kept a log) on a handsome travel budget, asking three questions wherever I went: one, “How do you change careers without going back to school?” Two, “How do you find a job if the traditional methods – resumes, agencies, and ads – don’t turn up anything for you? What’s plan B?” And then three, “If you don’t know, who do you think might know?”

When I was done with these travels, I put my findings in a self-published book of 128 pages (typed by me in my office, copied by a local copy shop in San Francisco) on Dec. 1, 1970. Two years later, after selling 2,000 or so copies (at $6.95 a copy) a publisher appeared (the late Phil Wood, owner of Ten Speed Press in Berkeley) who wanted to publish my little book commercially. I said he could if he’d let me revise, rewrite, and update it every year. He said yes, he published it, and shortly it leaped onto bestseller lists all over the country, staying on The New York Times list for over five years – until they reconfigured their lists. It is not just cosmetically updated but is dramatically rewritten and revised each year, by me, myself, and I. It has sold ten million copies to date, been translated into twenty-two languages, used in twenty-six countries, is the bestselling job-hunting book in the history of the world, recognized by the Library of Congress as one of twenty-five books that have shaped people’s lives down through the ages, and chosen by Time magazine (last summer) as one of the 100 best non-fiction works to appear since 1923.

Now, if somewhere in there, you see an answer to “Why you?” I’d love to hear it. I think we’re back to our earlier subject of Mystery. And that’s okay by me.