Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Two Fears that Keep Us from Our Professional Callings (Part 1)

I had a fascinating conversation with one of my students the other day. We’ll call him Marcus (not his real name). His experience highlights one of two major fears that I believe prevent us from finding and pursuing our calling in life. 

Marcus is an imposing figure. A former collegiate athlete, he is large, confident, and passionate. From past conversations, I knew that he had overcome a great deal to get into college, including a violence-filled adolescence. Today, though, he practically oozes natural leadership...

…which is why I had been a little puzzled that Marcus often seemed to hold back in class, and to adopt a somewhat passive role on his team. My questions were answered, though, when he came to speak to me in my office. As near as I can reconstruct, this is what he said:

“I have realized that, with my large stature and my loud voice, I can easily dominate other people. I don’t want to be the kind of person that dictates out of force. So I’ve really been trying to stay more in the background with my team.”

I had two reactions to that comment: 
1) This guy is remarkably sensitive. I really admire that.
2) What a waste of a natural gift!

I commended Marcus warmly for his maturity in recognizing the dangers of forcing his will on others, and we talked about how challenging it was for him to overcome the aggression of his younger years. 

But then I said, “Your stature and your voice are great assets, Marcus. What a shame not to use them to serve other people.”

Marcus seemed a little surprised by that comment. I then shared with him a wonderful quote. It’s often misattributed to Nelson Mandela, who used it in a speech. The original author is Marianne Williamson. You may have read it before, but it merits frequent pondering:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

I have to admit that I didn’t really understand that quote for some time. But then I started reflecting on the many ways I have chosen to fade into the background, to worry about others’ perception of my talents, to pass up a chance to speak out about something when I knew I should have. There are dozens of ways that we can “play small.” And we sometimes feel that modesty requires us to suppress our talents. Jesus' words for that were "hiding our light under a bushel."

Marcus has figured out that his gift for influence is dangerous if he uses it self-servingly. Now he has to discover that it will be glorious when he uses it to serve others. I think that’s true of virtually any of the thousands of human talents we might be blessed with.

So, which of your gifts are you suppressing so that others won’t feel awkward around you? Do you fear your own innate greatness? I don’t believe you will discover your professional calling until you allow yourself to “shine, as children do.” And, as Williamson pointed out, when we shine with a spirit of giving, we don’t overshadow other people. We “unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

Stay tuned for my thoughts on the second fear!


  1. Excellent point about not "hiding our light under a bushel". I believe in the case of Marcus it was hard for him to come to an understanding that a strong voice and presence can indeed be used to instill love and comfort not control etc., as he might have been used to when growing up in a challengin environment.
    To make that shift for him must have been a big incredible step and that's commandable. The beauty is also in the learning, at least, that's part of my philosophy...
    The fact we all can change for the better, while in the process of discovering and using God given talents, shows once again the capacity we have in this life for renewal,for new learning and for action, despite any barriers. Most of the time, the way to eliminate those barriers, is to first envision a new path, and then proceed to make a step-by -step plan to change our circumstances and remain flexible in the process...
    Wanting to support those around come at times as a form of gratitude and a desire to "comfort those who stand in need of comfort".

  2. Just read this morning and have been pondering on the inspiring interaction between Moroni and Pahoran, one of my favorite stories about how people in power deal with one another, and was led to check your blog. I love that quote, but I really struggle with it.

    One of the favorite stories from my childhood, told often by my now-deceased father, was how I came home from Kindergarten some time in the first month with a note pinned to my dress. It read, "Bonnie talks entirely too much." With their laughter through my growing years and the shaking of their heads that I couldn't be simply moved to another table because I got to know those children and then began talking again, it is emblazoned on my soul, and probably (I've just realized) the source of my blushing whenever I speak and people look at me. It has taken the greatest possible courage to make myself speak and I always feel foolish afterward, even though I do still speak too much.

    I believe we all, as your young student is discovering, have to ride the pendulum from one side of ourselves to the other. Our strengths are our greatest weaknesses, and we have to come to terms with both, enlisting both in the service of others. One day I will speak, without foolishness and without blushing, when it truly serves, and I will have the wisdom to know and feel confident in my ability to recognize that. I'll never get there without trying and failing and learning. Kudos to you for mentoring your student as he, too, rides that pendulum.

  3. Here's a comment that one of my friends shared with me, and would like me to post anonymously:

    All of us have fears, but those fears give us something to achieve. Gives us a mark to measure, reach, overcome. There is nothing greater when we conquer or progress our fears, to simply move on to next one. As I thought about Fears, we all should spend a lifetime trying to fulfill as many as possible. If we let fears rule our lives, then we just sit back and watch the world go by. Also I really liked the quote that you put in part 1, wrote it down and read it often to make sense of it.

    You asked, "Do you fear your own innate greatness?" After thought, I would say yes. My thought was we all should at some point. Some are blessed with many talents, others maybe not so many. But none of us are perfect at anything, let alone everything. I think as we take steps to improve on those fears is when will find ourselves magnifying our callings. The reason, As we progress in our fears, that is when we find the calling that fits us individually.