Articles By Dick Bolles

How Do You Explain Your Life?

Author: Dick Bolles

We Are, By Nature, Storytellers. 

Most of us, anyway. Day by day, we love to tell stories to our family, friends, coworkers, clients, and phone pals: stories about what's happening to those around us, and to our partner, and our children, and how things are going at our job, and what happened to us over the weekend, and what happened to us on our last trip – not to mention the latest fascinating gossip that we've heard somewhere, about somebody. We are storytellers, but we are more.

The sum and total of our life is that, from our birth until our death, we are walking stories, here upon the earth.

Of course we cannot tell the whole story of our life to everyone we meet (though some have been known to try), but most of us pick and choose random bits. And it is always interesting to notice, for ourselves, which stories about our life we choose to tell to others: the everyday stories, or the funny stories or the joyous stories, or the sad, even tragic, stories.

The Story We Tell Ourselves

But, more important than the stories we tell others, is the overarching story we choose to tell ourselves, about our own life.

We choose this overarching story in order to make sense out of all the little stories – this time dealing not with the 'what,' but with the 'why." Why we think 'all this' has happened to us.

Here we enter into the land of fable, myth, philosophy and faith. Here we choose from a menu that the universe has offered to everyman or everywoman, down through the ages.

We get to choose between: our life as a story with ultimate purpose running beneath all that happens to us, like some great underground river; or our life as a string of meaningless events, without rhyme or reason.

We also get to choose between: the story of our life as one where the chief actor on the stage is God, or coincidence is, or some horrific event, that (as we tell it).has crippled our life forever.  

The Victim Mentality

All these stories we may choose between, boil down in essence to just two basic categories. Passive or active.

Active stories are where we portray ourselves (to ourselves) as basically in charge of our own life, and responsible – in whole or part – for how our life is turning out.

On the other hand, passive stories are where we portray ourselves (to ourselves) as having been basically the victim of other people's actions, or some tragic event(s) or outside force(s) over which we had no control, so now we are responsible not at all for how our life has turned out.

Which of these two basic categories we choose – to explain our life – is of great consequence, because which we choose, determines whether our life is ever going to change or not. No, that's not overstating the case. 

Work on the 10 Percent

Lots of us like to think that if we ever want to change our lives, all we need are some practical tips, some helpful exercises, and a little nod or push, in order to get going. 

I thought this myself, once upon a time. But now, many years and ten million job-hunters later, I have learned this just isn't true.

I have learned the most important question you can ask of someone, when they 'say' they want to change their life is, "Do you believe that you have had a lot to do with how your life has turned out thus far? Good and bad? Do you believe that with respect to any problem in your life, no matter how desperate, no matter how much power seems to lie in other's hands, you still have a least 2 percent that is in your control and power? And you can work on that 2 percent?"

Heaven waits for their answer. If they say "No," if the story they cry out is "Victim," then all the tools for change will be useless in their hands.

On the other hand, if they say "Yes," then great change can happen to their lives in the future; indeed, they can turn their lives around.

So, no matter how much of your life you think you cannot change, in every problem area there is always a part of it that can be changed. To look for that part, to find that part, and to work on that part, is the secret of finding the life you want.

What story are you telling about your life?

Not Enough Life Experience. Yet

Author: Dick Bolles

Life/work planning is my beat. And there are a thousand stories in the naked city.  Oops, wrong column. Let's start again.

She was 22, and as bright as they come. But she had just been through an experience which she felt she had not handled very well.

"Guess I'm not as bright as I thought I was," she said.

I argued, "Of course you are. You just haven't had enough 'life experience' yet." She stared at me, quizzically. So, I told her the following story.

I once found myself on an airplane, sitting by the window. No one was in the middle seat. But on the aisle was a woman in her early forties, reading a manuscript of some sort. What drew my attention to her was a nervous habit she had, of which she seemed oblivious: she was constantly moving her right hand and wrist in circles in the air. I felt sorry for her.  "I'll bet she doesn't even know she has this nervous mannerism,"  I thought to myself. We didn't speak to each other.  We just devoted ourselves to our work.  And to our thoughts.   

But when lunch appeared, she was apparently in the mood to chat, so she sweetly turned to me and said, "You know, I never would have believed how long it would take to get strength back— after your arm has been in a cast for six weeks.  The doctor makes me do these exercises endlessly." I slunk down in my seat, feeling like a complete idiot. I had completely misread the situation. But later, as I thought about it, I realized she had given me a beautiful metaphor for what happens to all of us in life. 

The Metaphor of The Cast

From the time we are little, our ability to make decisions is put into a kind of 'decision-cast.' The grownups make all our major decisions for us in our first years.  "Do as I say."   "Be home by 10."  "Don't do that."   "Don't play with that."  "Eat your food."   

And then suddenly we are told, "Okay, now you're old enough.  Go, and make a lot of decisions. What to do with your life.  What school to attend.  What place to live.  What field to major in.   Who to fall in love with.   What to do about drugs.   Whether or not to smoke.  Go into the military.  Or not."

But we just sit there, figuratively messaging our decision-making arm, trying to get some strength back into this ability which has been in a kind of emotional cast for years.

It's not surprising that many of us have trouble. Trouble deciding what college to go to, or whether to go to college at all. Trouble deciding what our major should be. And trouble deciding what occupation to pursue after graduation, from high school or college.

We're not dumb.  We just haven't had enough 'life experience' at that point.  So, we may choose  the wrong occupation in life, the wrong life-partner, the wrong habits, the wrong diet, the wrong value system, and the wrong addictions - often turning our back on spiritual strengthening and opting instead, for 'better living through chemistry,' as the criminologist Dr. Joel Fort used to put it.

Sometimes we cause great hurt to others, by these wrong decisions, and wake up one morning to find ourselves living on a street littered with regrets. Ah, what to do then?  Well, "Life/work planning" teaches us three important steps toward making our peace with those regrets.

First, learn to forgive yourself.

It's relatively – I said 'relatively – easy to ask God to forgive us, harder to ask others to forgive us, but hardest of all to learn to forgive ourselves. It perhaps helps to understand what that means. "To forgive yourself," someone has said, "means giving up once and for all, all hope of ever having a better past." We have the past we have; we must understand it made us stronger. 

Secondly, understand that, for humans, mistakes are the way we best learn.

Many, many times I heard Buckminster Fuller emphasize this: "Man is a creature intended by His creator to learn primarily through making mistakes." And - he would add mischievously - in school we should give an A to the students who have made the most mistakes, for they are the ones who have learned the most. It helps to think that life too gives an A to those of us who have made the most mistakes, if indeed we learned from them - mostly not to repeat them. As the old saying has it, "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." By mistakes, we acquire wisdom. 

Thirdly, we must understand that experience is intended to teach us compassion.

The Old Testament has this exactly right. "You shall not oppress a stranger, you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Every experience we have in life must be remembered, for this is the source of our compassion toward those we encounter later on, who are now in the same fix we once were.

'Life experience' – it is to be valued, even the times we made mistakes, for, wisely used, it becomes the source of our wisdom, our forgiveness and compassion. In other words, the things that make us valuable human beings on this planet Earth.

The Pain of Time

Author: Dick Bolles


We live in time as a goldfish lives in water. It is our great preoccupation, and the omnipresent subject of our language. You have only to listen to people's daily conversations:

We occupy our time, say we,
with the passage of time,
while we keep time,
or mark time,
and try not to be behind the times;
still we find ourselves taking our time,
or wasting time,
or even killing time.
So it is no surprise that
time after time,
we run out of time,
and regret we didn't have more time.
We learn then, over time,
to try to make time,
by using time-saving devices,
or shortcuts that help us to make excellent time,
so that if things work out, we can end up being on time,
Or even ahead of time
Most of the time.
And when we have time on our hands,
we have a pastime
Wherein we try to have a good time,
even a grand time,
or perhaps the time of our life.

But, as it has been
since time immemorial,
we find ourselves at various times
looking back, and mourning
the passage of time,
remembering when times were better;
and telling people
how it was in our time,
when we enjoyed life
times without number,
even though we did suffer for quite some time
when it seemed that truly the time was out of joint.
Strange things happened to us
at the right time
or the wrong time,
for a short time,
or a long time,
or for some time,
even considerable time.
We tell these stories time and again,
And you know we'll keep telling them
in the time to come –
so long as it is not yet our time. 

Yes, but that day will come
when our time is up,
and we are out of time.
Then to whatever realm our souls will go,
We will at last achieve our dream
To be beyond the bounds of time
Or, as we put it,

Yes, time is our addiction and obsession.

Almost every popular invention of the last twenty or thirty years has had time (saving) as its principal feature and benefit – be it fast food places, FedEx, Uber, fax machines, pagers, cell phones, e-mail, ATMs, etc. We want instant meals, instant communication, instant access to people or information, at any time of the day or night, and instant response.

Words like: patience, savor, relaxation and the like are only now beginning to be back in vogue. The passage of time remains for many of us a truly royal pain. We reach for wrinkle creams or hair pieces or even plastic surgery as we grow older, but on our mortal face is etched the pain of time.

How to heal the pain of time? We need some rules. Here are four.

1. Avoid 'hurry sickness.'

This is the disease that seizes us, when we are hurrying just for the sake of hurrying. Like trying to get one car length ahead of where you were on the highway, so you can arrive home five seconds earlier. Hurrying is not an end in itself; it is only a means to an end. Calm down. Build slowness into your day somewhere.

2. If there are two things you need to do within a set time, always do the the more important one first.

Half of the pain of time results from doing the trivial first, then finding one has run out of time to do the essential thing.

3. If your memory isn't great, and you think of two things to do immediately, always do first the one you're most likely to forget.

If it's 'put something in the car,' and 'put on your shoes,' the shoes can wait. Beyond the immediate moment, lists help. Many of us shrink from them because we think it's a sign of growing old. Listen, at any age we have "a cell phone memory." Sometimes it's within range, sometimes it's out of range.

4. Find time to think of what you appreciate.

Time always arouses one of four emotions: mourning, worry, hope, or appreciation. The last is key. Count your blessings, for as one wise person says, "If you're not grateful for what life has already given you, why do you think it will give you anything more?"

There is magic in hourly gratitude; it redeems and heals the pain of time.