Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Create your own calling? Lessons from my conversation with the Bear Whisperer

I sometimes wonder if the reason people struggle to find their professional calling is that the best job for them doesn’t exist yet. Maybe they have to invent it! Sometimes finding your calling requires radical innovation.

I found a great example of someone who invented his calling in life when I met Steve Searles in Mammoth Lakes, California a couple of weeks ago. Steve is best known as Animal Planet’s “Bear Whisperer.” But he would be the first to admit that he is an unlikely TV celebrity.

I met up with Steve at a coffee shop in the middle of a blizzard on a Saturday morning, along with my good friend and our teenage sons; we were in town for a ski trip. Steve generously shared his time with us (not typical celebrity behavior) to tell his story. (You’ll want to see him in action too. Check out this site for brief, astonishing segments of his TV show.)

35 years ago, the city of Mammoth Lakes hired Steve, an avid tracker, to solve a bear problem. He was given a “hit list” of bears to kill. But Steve had been observing the local bears and noticed that they maintained an orderly hierarchy based on status behaviors. Steve asked the city if he could try “educating” the bears rather than killing them. His employer agreed it was worth a try. Thus began Steve’s grand experiment: to try to become the biggest, baddest bear in town so that the real bears would know their place.

Steve began to adopt the bears’ status-asserting postures and mimicked their vocal signals. He experimented with pellet guns and pyrotechnics to show the bears that when they were in town, they were on his turf and better behave. But when Steve is in the woods with the bears, he gives them respect through his silence and submissiveness. The result? The bears know where their place is, and they have all come to know Steve personally and respect him (they even allow him to visit their dens). And amazingly, the bears help perpetuate order by keeping out intruder bears who don’t follow Steve’s rules. Mammoth Lakes is now the best place in the world for the coexistence of bears and humans. And in 35 years, how many bears has Steve had to kill because of aggressive behavior? You guessed it. Zero.

When Steve first started sharing his techniques with others, he was mocked by the scholarly community, which didn’t believed bears would respond to emotions like respect and love. Today, he is sought out to train other communities’ wildlife managers in his techniques, which have saved the lives of countless bears. In other words, by following his passions and his instincts, he has literally created a new type of profession. How’s that for a calling in life!

Steve would be the last person to take credit for his accomplishments, however. Like most of the zookeepers we studied, he attributes his professional success to luck. During our conversation, he said:  

“You’ll never find someone as lucky as me in your interviews. They gave me a task [to manage the bear population], and I just looked for the easiest solution. Life just came by and tapped me on my shoulder.”

He went on to express his love for his work: “It’s not just my job, it’s my hobby, it’s my pastime. I haven’t gone on vacation in ten years. I live in a postcard. I work with wild animals every day. I love every friggin’ day. I can’t get to work fast enough in the morning.”

I feel honored to have spent a fascinating and inspiring hour with Steve Searles. He didn’t set out to be a celebrity. He simply found where he could best contribute, and humbly poured his heart into work that he loved. Despite his protestations of luck, I think the reason Steve discovered techniques that no one else has discovered before is that he really, really loves what he does. His love for bears borders on the spiritual. And his love for his community is almost patriotic. It was this love that propelled him to innovate.

So, you can’t find the perfect job? Maybe we should take a lesson from Steve, pour our hearts into creatively solving a problem we care about, and let the perfect job come to us. That’s the sort of luck I can believe in.

You can learn more about Steve, his bears, and his work at

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Parable of the Lilac Bush

When we moved into our home, I planted a lilac bush in our backyard so that my wife would be able to enjoy its blossoms from the kitchen window. I was delighted by how quickly the bushes shot up. But year after year, the lilac bush produced no blossoms at all. After about five years, I gave up, assuming that the bush was a dud (or maybe it was the guy who planted it).

Suddenly, a few years ago, the bush produced a huge profusion of blossoms. We were delighted by their beauty and the fragrance that filled our backyard. And the bush has blossomed faithfully ever since. It wasn’t until wintertime, though, that I realized what had happened.

When I looked at the bare lilac branches, I realized that they were all crooked. They had all s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d crazily to one side. That’s when it dawned on me (yes, I’m not a brilliant gardener) that I had planted the bush in the shade of another tree, and it had taken the bush years of arduous stretching to reach enough sunlight to blossom. I have a great respect for that diligent sun-seeking plant that succeeded despite my ineptitude.

Prof. Kim Cameron, who is an Associate Dean at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, teaches frequently about what he calls the “heliotropic” nature of living organisms. Heliotropic means “oriented toward the sun.” Virtually all life forms – flora and fauna – display an innate striving toward light, or other sources of life. Just like my lilac bush, they stretch mightily to bask in life-giving influence.

It strikes me that we human beings are about the only organisms who occasionally choose darkness and depletion intentionally!

Clearly, there are strong spiritual lessons to be learned from heliotropism. I have personally found that I “blossom” and thrive when I strive toward the light of God. But I also find great parallels to the lesson of the lilac bush in my professional life. How often do I shun opportunities to strive for excellence? For service? The greatest thriving we experience in our careers – and the greatest (and sometimes very uncomfortable) stretching – only happens when we reach toward the light that emanates from inspiration, from passion, from engagement, from devotion, from serving a noble cause.

When work starts to feel like a confined, dark space, try reflecting on my lilac bush. Instead of retreating to the shadows of mundaneness, bureaucracy, or self-absorption, think about how you can s-t-r-e-t-c-h toward something luminous and life-giving at work. You’ll probably find it most quickly by thinking about how you can serve others.