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How To Find Your Mission in Life

Richard Nelson Bolles        

It takes the total person to learn one's total Mission.


When used with respect to our life and work, mission has always been a religious concept from beginning to end.  It is defined by Webster's as "a continuing task or responsibility that one is destined or fitted to do or specially called upon to undertake," and historically has had two major synonyms:  Calling and Vocation.  These, of course, are the same word in two different languages, English and Latin.  Both imply God.  To be given a vocation or calling implies someone who calls.  To have a destiny implies someone who determined the destination for us.  Thus, the concept of mission lands us inevitably in the lap of God, before we have hardly begun.

I emphasize this, because there is an increasing trend in our culture to try to speak about religious subjects without reference to God.  This is true of spirituality, soul, and a mission, in particular.  More and more books talk about mission as though it were simply "a purpose you choose for your life, by identifying your enthusiasms."

This attempt to obliterate all reference to God from the originally religious concept of mission is particularly ironic because the proposed substitute word — enthusiasms — is derived from two Greek words, 'en theos,' and literally means "God in us."

In the midst of this "redefining culture" we find an oasis called the "job-hunting field."  It is a field that was raised on a firm concept of God.  That's because most of its inventors, most of its leaders over the years — the late John Crystal, Arthur Miller, Ralph Mattson, Tom and Ellie Jackson, Bernard Haldane, Arthur and Marie Kirn, myself and many others — have been people who believe firmly in God, and came into this field because we think about Him a lot in connection with meaningful work.

Nor are we alone.  Many, many job-hunters also think about God a lot.  In the U.S., 94% of us believe in God, 90% of us pray, 88% of us believe God loves us, and 33% of us report we have had a life-changing religious experience — and these figures have remained virtually unchanged for the past 50 years, according to opinion polls conducted by the Gallup Organization.

It is hardly surprising therefore, that so many of us are searching these days for some sense of mission.  We want to do more than plod through life, going to work, coming home from work.  We want to find that special joy that comes from having a sense of mission in our life.  We want to feel we were put here on earth for some special purpose, to do some unique work that only we can accomplish.

Career counselors are often afraid to give help or guidance here, for fear they will be perceived as trying to talk people into religious belief.  It is a groundless fear.  Clearly, the overwhelming majority of U.S. job-hunters and career-changers already have their religious beliefs well in place.

But we want some guidance and help in this area.  What is not so clear is whether we think about God in connection with our work.  Often these two subjects — spiritual beliefs and work — live in separate mental ghettos within the same person's head.  We want to marry our religious beliefs with our work, rather than leaving the two — our religion and our work — compartmentalized, as two areas of our life which never talk to each other.  We want them to talk to each other and uplift each other.

Unemployment offers us a chance to fix all that: to marry our work and our religious beliefs together, to talk about calling, and vocation, and mission in life — to think out why we are here, and what plan God has for us.  That's why a period of unemployment can absolutely change your life.

This marriage takes the particular form of a search for a Sense of Mission because of our conviction that God has made each of us unique, even as our fingerprints attest.  We feel that we are not just another grain of sand lying on the beach called humanity, unnumbered and lost in the 7 billion mass, but that God caused us to be born and put here for some unique reason: so that we might contribute to Life here on earth something no one else can contribute in quite the same way.  At its very minimum, then, when we search for a sense of Mission we are searching for reassurance that the world is at least a little bit richer for our being here; and a little bit poorer after our going.

Every keen observer of human nature will know what I mean when I say that those who have found some sense of Mission have a very special joy, "which no one can take from them."  It is wonderful to feel that beyond eating, sleeping, working, having pleasure and it may be marrying, having children, and growing older, you were set here on Earth for some special purpose, and that you can gain some idea of what that purpose is.

You would be wise not to try to approach this problem of "your Mission in life" as primarily an intellectual puzzle — for the mind, and the mind alone, to solve.  To paraphrase Kahlil Gibran, Faith is an oasis in the heart that is not reached merely by the journey of the mind.  It is your will and your heart that must be involved in the search as well as your mind.  To put it quite simply, it takes the total person to learn one's total Mission.

I have learned that if you want to figure out what your mission in life is, it will likely take some time.  It is not a problem to be solved in a day and a night.  It is a learning process which has steps to it, much like the process by which we all learned to eat.  As a baby we did not tackle adult food right off.  As we all recall, there were three stages: first there had to be the mother's milk or bottle, then strained baby foods, and finally — after teeth and time — the stuff that grown-ups chew.  Three stages — and the two earlier stages are not to be disparaged.  It was all eating, just different forms of eating — appropriate toward development at the time.  At each stage had to be mastered, in turn, before the next could be approached.

There are usually three stages also to learning what your mission in life is, and the two earlier stages are likewise not to be disparaged.  It is all "Mission" — just different forms of Mission, appropriate to your development at the time.  But each stage has to be mastered, in turn, before the next can be approached.  And so, you may say either of two things:  You may say that you have Three Missions in Life.  Or you may say that you have One Mission in Life, with three parts to it.  But there is a sense in which you must discover what those three parts are, each in turn, before you can fully answer the question, "What is my Mission in life?"  Of course, there is another sense in which you never master any of the stages, but are always growing in understanding and mastery of them, throughout your whole life here on Earth.

As it has been impressed on me by observing many people over the years (admittedly through Christian spectacles), it appears that the three parts to your mission here on earth can be defined generally as follows:

  1. Your first mission here on Earth is one which you share with the rest of the human race, but it is no less your individual mission for the fact that it is shared: and it is, to seek to stand hour by hour in the conscious presence of God, the one from whom your mission is derivedThe Missioner before the Mission, is the rule.  In religious language, your mission here is:  to know God, and enjoy Him forever, and to see His hand in all His works.

  2. Secondly, once you have begun doing that in an earnest way, your second mission here on earth is also one which you share with the rest of the human race, but it is no less your individual mission for the fact that it is shared:  and that is, to do what you can, moment by moment, day by day, step by step, to make this world a better place, following the leading and guidance of God's spirit within you and around you.

  3. Thirdly, once you have begun doing that in a serious way, your third mission here on Earth is one which is uniquely yours, and that is:
a) to exercise that Talent which you particularly came to Earth to use — your greatest gift, which you most delight to use,
b) in the place(s) or setting(s) which God has caused to appeal to you the most,
c) and for those purposes which God most needs to have done in the world.

When fleshed out and spelled out, I think you will find that there you have the definition of your Mission in life.  Or, to put it one other way, these are the three Missions which you have in life.

 

Excerpt from What Color Is Your Parachute? by Richard Nelson Bolles (2005) published by Zondervan

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