Lesson From a Mentor

Richard Bolles was an early mentor of mine.

Young and unsure where to apply my energy, I read his book, What Color Is Your Parachute? Absorbing that book gave me important clues about my life direction. I could see why 10 million others had read it.

Something in me wanted to meet the author. So I called him up on the phone.

Reaching his assistant, I pleaded with her to connect me with her boss, but she refused, explaining that he was tied up with speeches and writing.

In his book, Bolles advises persistence.

I took his advice, and persistently called his assistant. Every week. For months. The two of us formed a nice connection.

She eventually arranged a meeting.

As it turned out, Bolles invited me to have lunch with him near his home in Walnut Creek, California. I told him my story, and he invited me to participate in his annual, two-week training event on Life Work Planning.

Through that process, I made several enduring self-discoveries. One breakthrough was the clarity that I wanted my life’s work to be teaching and influencing others.

I am indebted to Dick Bolles for helping me see who I am, and starting me on the path of doing what I love and am good at.

In one of his last blogs before dying, Bolles told this story, which summarizes what I learned from him:

There was a man named Don, who was married, but was going through a very difficult time with his wife. In fact, he was thinking seriously of divorce. Consequently, he went to see a marriage counselor.

"Tell me," said the counselor, "What's the problem?" "Well," said Don, "to put it quite simply, my wife has an explosive temper, and she is a constant complainer and a nag. The other night, for example, she wanted to attend an evening meeting down at the library. I offered to stay home, feed the kids their supper, clean up the kitchen, and put the kids to bed in due time.”

“When she got home from the meeting, do you think she thanked me? No, she looked in the kitchen and saw there was one pan I had forgotten to wash. And all she said was, 'Why didn't you do that pan?' Can you imagine? After all I'd done that evening, so she could attend the library meeting! That's gratitude for you. She's a nag."

The marriage counselor was full of sympathy at what Don had to put up with, and told him so. "You poor guy. That must be very difficult to live with." Don nodded, appreciatively. "But incidentally," the counselor continued, "why didn't you do that pan? Do you always leave out one little thing when you're doing something for her?"

In the days following, Don thought long and hard about this question, and realized that, indeed, every time his wife asked him to do something, he would always leave one thing out of the assigned task. He hadn't created her explosive, ungrateful nature; but he knew, unconsciously, how to set it off. It gave him a sense of power over her. He realized that in his dealings with his wife, he was not as powerless as he had told himself he was.

In the simplest exchanges of daily life, we can see that people always have more power over their lives than they think they have. They are always less of a victim than they first imagine. No matter how much of their life they think they cannot change, there is always a part of it that can be changed.

The central idea in this story has become a conviction that has guided my teaching, consulting and living for the past four decades: that no matter what difficulty we experience in a relationship, or what adversity we are up against - there is always some freedom, even if miniscule, to determine how we will respond.

This is not to minimize the tremendous suffering that many face in life, or the injustices and setbacks that befall some more than others, or the challenge of living or working with highly immature individuals. This is not to suggest that the wife in the story is excused for her irascible temperament and constant complaining.

The point is that even when we feel powerless, or victimized, our response to an unsavory or horrendous situation is, to some degree, in our hands.

And in that response, there is at least a sliver of choice that can make a difference in the outcome.