3 Ways Community Can Help You Clarify Your Callings

You alone are called, but that doesn't mean you have to do it all by yourself.

Posted Oct 22, 2017

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Years ago, I interviewed Richard Bolles, who wrote What Color is Your Parachute, probably history’s best-selling book about job hunting and career change. When the conversation turned to the subject of being self- employed, he said that self-employed people can hire out just about any skill—even, to some degree, discipline. You can get someone to call you every week and help keep you on track.

But the only trait you cannot hire out, he said, and without which you’ll “die on the vine,” is the willingness to ask for help.

In considering the work of discerning our calls and passions, it pays to remember that you alone are called, but that doesn't mean you have to do it all by yourself. Resourceful people gather their resources, send for provisions, and join forces, whether they need help in pulling themselves through their own resistance, carrying the torch through the dark places on the journey, or letting go of one calling for the next. Whether they need a loan, a contact, advice or material support. They aren’t above asking for help and seeking allies.

From the first threshold to the last, they understand the need to draw on community to point them toward aliveness and illumination, toward fulfillment of the call. Any calling can be undone alone, but not all of them can be done alone.

Frankly, callings are by definition community property to begin with, because they often affect others. Quitting your job is going to affect your family. Changing your product line is going to affect your employees. Leaving town is going to affect your men’s group. Scaling back your practice is going to affect your clients and patients. That makes a calling, to some degree, public domain.

Below are 3 ways to tap into the power of community to help you clarify and consummate your callings and passions.

Clearness Committees

The Quakers have a tradition of providing what they call “clearness committees” to any member struggling for clarity in discerning a call, and responding to it. And of course it's not just for Quakers.

Before a clearness committee meets, you, the “focus person” who's seeking clarity, compose a brief synopsis of the matter about which you want clarity. This is circulated among the committee members who will attend the actual session. Members are made up of half a dozen or so people you choose from among friends, colleagues, mentors, even strangers.

Once in committee, members first observe a period of silence. This is not the perfunctory “moment of silence” that's merely a polite curtsy to the divine before getting on with business, or a chance to merely figure out what you’re going to say when the time’s up. It's a sincere attempt to shift the center of gravity from the personal toward the transpersonal, toward bringing to an individual dilemma something of the divine, or at least the communal. The silence is also a gracious confession that discernment is a mysterious process and absolute clarity more an ideal than a real attainment. Yet it’s still amazing what can be accomplished, as the Quakers put it, by “listening each other’s souls into disclosure and discovery.”

After the silence, the rules are so simple they’re radical: questions only (to which the focus person responds). No advice, no storytelling, no windy narratives, no problem-solving, no “Let me tell you about the time this happened to me,” no devil's advocate questions that always seem to be a little heavy on the devil and a little light on the advocate, no questions that begin with "Don't you think.....?" (which is just advice couched as a question), and no challenging—though the focus person may request any of these at the end. Simply pose questions in a spirit of caring rather even than curiosity, evocation rather than imposition, and with the goal not so much of comprehending as apprehending.

“People often find it hard to believe that questions can be so powerful and helpful,” says Jan Hoffman, a former clerk of Ministry and Counsel for the New England Yearly Meeting of Friends, and who has been both focus person and member in clearness committees. “But again and again, that’s what people discover. We find that though individuals have their own integrity, it’s easy to obscure their perception of that integrity with advice and devil’s advocacy.

“Our tendency as a culture is toward being very proactive, solving problems and fixing things. By assuming the answer is in the person seeking clarity and that we help by listening, not by 'fixing,' the clearness process is counter-cultural. What we seek is the truth in the context of the focus person’s integrity, not a more general external truth. Asking questions seems to engage the focus person in a way that makes hearing his or her own inner guidance more possible. Even questions that seem off the wall.”

Jan recalls one focus person who was trying to decide whether to take on a new project, though her life was already on avalanche alert. She was asked what seemed like a preposterous question: “How big is your garden?” The focus person suddenly burst into laughter and remarked, “Good question!” Her garden, it turned out, was already bigger than she could handle.

Dream Teams

I used to belong to “Dream Team,” otherwise known as a personal Board of Advisors, for a neighbor of mine, a computer software designer who wanted to move into the construction business and wanted help making that career transition.

He asked half a dozen people to get together at his house once a month for 6 months, and the first order of business was that he fed us. Then we retired to his dining room table for several hours and our job description was three things: we had to 1) ask him questions, 2) give him feedback, and 3) give him homework, so that he was accountable to us the next time we met. I was so impressed by the progress he made in less than a year that I created a Board of Advisors for myself.

Dream teams are a terrific demonstration of the role community can play in the unfolding of an individual's sense of calling and passion, a compelling and purposeful way to simply spend time with people, and an embodiment of a famous experiment conducted in the 1960’s by psychologist Stanley Milgram, called the Small World Experiment, which introduced into the language the term “six degrees of separation.”

It showed that any two strangers in the U.S. could be connected to one another through no more than six intermediaries. In other words, if you picked someone’s name randomly out of the phone book for, say, Hoboken, New Jersey, and then gathered six people together in a room, one of those people would know someone who knew someone who knew that person in Hoboken.

Brainstorming Groups

Among the most elegant tools I've run across for gaining clarity about callings, as well as generating lots of momentum, ideas, the Voice of Yes, and to-do list action items that can help anchor a call in the world—and in the process take the curse off the world “problem”—is brainstorming.

You bring together a group of people, at least half a dozen but ideally several times that many, and tell them what you want brainstorm ideas about, stating it using the operative question in brainstorming: “In how many ways can I…..?” Make money doing what I love; market my services; unstick myself from my own paralysis or procrastination; come up with a new name for my business; work with the resistance of my family, etc.

Then the brainstormers take a few minutes to ask you any clarifying questions they have that will help them help you.

Then you ask for a volunteer who writes fast, who's willing to be the scribe and take down all the ideas that are generated, so that you (the focus person) can simply listen and receive.

Then you loose the hounds. Take 15-20 minutes and let the brainstormers have at it, stating their ideas in what's called the imperative form: Do this! Do that! Not “Have you ever tried….?” Because what that's likely to do is encourage what in brainstorming is called “Yes butting.” And since brainstorming is all about idea generation and wool-gathering, the wilder and woolier the better. No criticism, no judgment, no yes-butting. Just let 'er rip. At this stage, it's a numbers game. You're after quantity, not quality. The more ideas you generate, the more good ideas you'll end up with.

Afterward, you (the focus person) are supposed to ask 4 questions of each idea that got generated, which can turn 30 ideas into 100, or a “weird” idea into a workable one. 1) What's good about this idea? 2) What are its problems? 3) How can they be overcome? 4) What new ideas does this one suggest?”

At the end of a typical brainstorming session, you'll walk away with a to-do list that will keep you busy for a month! And a renewed appreciation for the power contained within even a small circle of friends. 

For more about Passion! visit www.gregglevoy.com