Using Our Stories to Find our Niche

June 1 st 1999

In my previous article ("The Story of My Life," WRF Comment, Spring 1999), I suggested that an understanding of our personal narratives may be the best method for identifying our unique God-given talents, then developing them into specific jobs in specific organizations. Here, I want to show you that method in action.

This is the story of John, who is no more remarkable, no less ordinary, than thousands of others when it comes to finding their niche in the world of work. Although John is not a professing Christian, I chose his story because I think the hand of God is unmistakably gracious.

John's story

As a child, John was always collecting things and storing them in a special junk closet. When he needed a light for his CCM bicycle, he went into his closet and pulled out wires, batteries, light bulbs, and a little electric motor and made himself a smart little bike light.

In grade six, he built a little robot out of cardboard tubes and boxes. It had arms and legs that would telescope, and hands which could be positioned anywhere from open to closed. His teacher liked it so much he asked if he could keep it.

In highschool, John volunteered as photographer for the yearbook. He needed a dark room, so he built one in his basement. He found a small electric motor in his junk closet and added a fan blade, then mounted this in a box and installed it in the wall. A special baffle constructed out of cardboard vented the air without letting in light from an adjacent storage room. In the school's shop, he built a print dyer from a set of plans from a magazine. He also built an enlarging light meter from plans.

Whenever he was confronted by a practical problem, John would automatically sketch it out. He gravitated towards the use of lines and drawings to give the thing its shape. He was full of original ideas and concepts, and had a natural inclination to draw them out through design.

His achievements attracted attention from family, friends, and teachers around him. He spent a special summer in the Mechanical Engineering department of a local university and worked on a pedal-powered car with a graduate engineer; assembled a plastic working model of a Wankel engine; and talked about his crazy idea to build a man-powered helicopter which he'd been thinking about and sketching for many months.

He was really in his element, being exposed to a variety of new technologies which gave him a greater appreciation of how applied science could be used to solve problems and advance objectives in many areas of human activity. But first he liked to draw out his plans, put his ideas to paper. Enginering or architecture school? This was the choice John faced after highschool.

Test of faith

So many of us make career decisions without an understanding of how God calls us to certain work. Rather than seek His will, we exercise our will through the veil of circumstances, experiences, emotions, family expectations, social pressures, and friendly advice that clouds our intuition, our "gut feeling" or leading of the Spirit.

Like all major life decisions, this first real career decision for John was a test of faith. But faith in what? He had no guiding philosophy, no worldview, no centre which defined the circumference.

John felt architecture would give freer range to his creativity. And, indeed, during his first year, he explored and played with many different media and forms of design. The designing was easy because he just designed intuitively without knowledge of what was right or wrong.

It was in his second year that John first encountered problems: his professors informed him there was a right way to design. He couldn't get it. He enjoyed being creative and artistic without having to be too mechanically rigorous. He hit a wall and dropped out of school.

But his God given talents didn't leave him. He continued to gravitate towards activities that motivated him. For example, he designed and built a health-food store for his brother: he developed an innovative rack system for carrying large bulk pails very efficiently, and throughout the store he designed and built custom shelving, bridge units, counters, and a desk.

For the next two decades, John dropped in and out of school and the workforce. He worked as a draftsman for several architectural ventures; did repair, renovation, and construction work; started and operated a small catering business (but what he really enjoyed was designing and building a special oven from discarded equipment).

Like so many others, John's career path was not a straight line to career mastery but a roller-coaster ride of frustration. Trial and error is almost unavoidable when carving a niche for yourself in the world of work.

At the heart of many stories is a riddle, a test, a problem to solve, and that, surely, is the condition of our lives—both in general terms and in the particular terms of our work. Richard Bolles, an Episcopalian minister who admits he did not have the talents necessary for pastoring a church and was fired by his last congregation, is the author of What Color is Your Parachute? He says the reason so few people find their God given niche in life is precisely because so few are willing to do the hard work required.

Faith is hard work

The hard work, I suggest, is having faith in God as both Creator and Provider. It takes a good deal of faith to seek God's will for us in the world of work. And an inadequate faith will always let us down.

It never seemed to come all together at the right time for John. Like many of us, his career stumbled over sins of greed, envy, pride, and fear. But through it all, he was never drawn far away from his junk closet.

For example, in his thirties, John spent a semester in Rome. When he arrived, he was dragging around a big bag. Most people would walk over to a luggage store and buy a cart. Not John. He spotted a discarded baby carriage from his bedroom window and transformed it into a luggage cart, scavenging parts and tools as needed to complete the job. In the midst of the architectural splendour of Rome, John's most enjoyable experience was the resurrection of a baby carriage. (He still uses that luggage cart to this day!)

When John finally graduated—18 years after starting—with his B.A. in architecture, he couldn't find a job. He carried a passion for design, building, and developing but felt "inferior" to other architects. Where was his niche?

Stiff dose of humility

The temptation, of course, is to solve the riddle by ourselves, to retreat into glorious isolation. Self examination rarely untangles our web of self deception; we must seek the help of others if we are going to be honest with ourselves. This requires a stiff dose of humility. God drives us into relationships to heal us from the wounds of our sins.

John brought himself to my office and began the painful process of writing out his story—painful because he revisited all those crucial decisions in his life which led to such frustrating and dissatisfying consequences.

As I analyzed his material, we focused on those positive experiences in his life, those times when he was doing what he enjoyed most and doing it well. That is, John let himself be shown again and again who he was in terms of his work.

Through his story ran a vein of gold. Story analysis, like mining, is the hard work of moving all the ore to get at the gold. What motivated John was the opportunity to exert a shaping influence on objects (and, sometimes, materials, activities, or organizations, but never people) in such a way as to make an improvement on that object.

At his essence, I suggested John was an improvement engineer. Design was a core talent of his central thrust but we must not confuse the means with the end. He had other significant talents serving that central thrust, specific talents for learning, evaluating, planning, creating, doing, and developing. Those innate talents were triggered by certain circumstances that needed to be in place outside of him to bring out the best inside of him.

John loved to work with structures, materials, machinery, and tools in a technological work setting. His talents were triggered by problems he wanted to solve. He needed to approach those problems with his creativity to design and develop solutions. He worked best when he could think through the problem himself, then work out the solution as a key contributor in a project work group.

John had a very particular way of making an improvement. He had a super knack for identifying untapped, underused, discarded, or recycled things and getting all he could from the least amount of resources available. He truly enjoyed the challenge of shoestring budgets and maximizing cost/quality tradeoffs. He could achieve amazing things with little money.

God has a plan

In our prideful hearts, we all want to wave a magic wand at the world and show everyone how wonderful we are. But God has a purpose. We are part of His plan to realize that purpose. Sometimes His plan for us does not mean a step up the corporate ladder but a step down—perhaps even a step off! This was a difficult thing for John to accept.

Did the disciples really think they were moving up in the world when an itinerant Jew called them from their nets? Moses went from being a prince of Egypt to a desert shepherd. Charles Colson fell from the White House into a jail cell. Their power as workers in God's Kingdom was realized when their natural gifts were harnessed to the Spirit.

John struggled with the conclusions drawn from the facts, people, and events of his life stories. He had invested many years in looking at himself in a certain way, largely in a way that spelled "failure." He was inclined to look for weaknesses, not strengths. As an improvement engineer, where would he apply such talents?

We talked about specific jobs, such as engineering technologist, research and development technician, or model shop assistant. But as we talked about these mainstream opportunities for work, John opened up about a passion he had stored away in his heart: a passion for the environment, especially energy-efficient structures. He had made a secret study of such things in the solitude of his apartment.

John had grown fascinated by straw bale houses, a low cost, energy efficient, environmentally friendly form of housing. We identified architects in his region who designed straw bale homes. He volunteered on one project and received tremendous satisfaction from his labours, considerable recognition and praise from the builders and owners, but no money.

Now over 40, John struggled to see his niche in that construction field. He went overseas but returned a year later and is now employed with a construction firm specializing in bio block technology. His first assignment was to design and build a straw-bale home. He especially enjoys finding ways to improve building processes and tools through low cost methods.

We can respond with our own gift—to glorify God by pouring out our gifts in service to our neighbours. John has recognized this process as a spiritual one. He considers himself a good steward of God's resources. And he has begun to explore his Christian roots.

Natural talents are a great expression of God's love for each of us. He calls us back to them again and again. He provides people and circumstances to help us discover and develop those talents into specific careers. He gives us all we need to find joy in our work. What a gift!

 

George Dutch is a career consultant based in Ottawa, Ontario.

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