Jim Downing, the Pearl Harbor survivor who I had been meeting with every Tuesday for a few years, and I were talking about how he first came to faith in Jesus. “Virgil Hook is the one who helped bring me to Jesus.”
Jim told me, “We were on work duty, and I remember Virgil and I were handling frozen beef. It was a hard job, an unbecoming task, and I was angry about it. But Dianne, do you know what I noticed? Virgil’s face was shining. He was humming a tune and having the time of his life.”
“Holding frozen beef?”
“Yes,” he said. “Isn’t that amazing? He was just happy as could be as we were stuck with this mundane task. I knew he had what I wanted: an inner resource to cope with all the outer circumstances. I had to know more.” “That’s like when I met you, Jim,” I said.
When Jim told me he was totally fulfilled, he wasn’t exaggerating. I’ve never known a person more content with his life. “I have a formula for fulfillment,” he told me. “I call them the Four Ds. The first one is Discover your gift. Discovering your gift and who you are—this one is often the hardest.”
I pondered this, replying, “When I was in college, it was so hard to know what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I knew I wanted to be a journalist, but I didn’t have the guts to do it. I lived through my sorority sister, Erin Andrews, who was chasing the dream and eventually made it big. Why is it so hard to discover your gift?”
“It sounds like you knew what you wanted to do, but you needed courage. Even there, though, you’re an exception. At least you’ve known what you wanted to do from the beginning. Most people don’t know. Young boys often want to be truck drivers at first. Then they want to be pilots, aviators. But many of them are not equipped to do that. I feel the best way to discover your gifts is to consult with someone who knows you and loves you, someone whose life you have influenced. They have the courage to be objective, and they will tell you where you come across strong and weak. The people who know you and love you will give you a clue to what your gifts are.”
I was curious. Jim had lived such a rich life and seemed to have such clarity about what he was meant to do. “How did you discover your gifts?” I asked him.
“I invited my three closest friends to evaluate me. It’s hard for family members to be objective, so I didn’t ask them. I asked my friends. I said, ‘Please tell me how I come across to you. To make it easy, put it in the format of strengths and weaknesses. How do I come across as strong, and where do I come across as weak?’”
“You must have really trusted them. That’s a vulnerable question to ask, to tell you the truth.”
“Well, to be honest, they weren’t very comfortable with it. They didn’t want to do it. So I said, ‘Let’s do it anonymously. Each of you write it on a card, and then we’ll have my secretary type it, so I won’t even see your handwriting.’ And they did.
“Just before doing this, I spent some time in personal evaluation, looking at my strengths and weaknesses. When these cards came in, I got the shock of my life. What I thought was a primary strength, all three friends classified as a major weakness. And two of the things I thought were weaknesses, they named as outstanding strengths! I was shocked. I am convinced that no person can be objective enough to effectively evaluate themselves. You need to invite someone on whom you’ve made an impact.”
I asked, “Was it clear to you after that?”
Jim replied, “Yes. I retired what I thought were my strengths, and I brought out of retirement the things they said were my strengths.”
He continued. “The second D is, Dedicate your gift to a higher purpose than yourself. Find a way to invest in the lives of others, and join God in what he is doing in people, in relationships, and in the world. Next, Develop your gift to the maximum. Do whatever you must to become an expert in your field, to achieve excellence in your craft. And finally, Deploy your gift. Everything that’s ever been created has been created for a purpose. When something is fulfilling the purpose for which it is created, it is, at that point in time, perfect. By discovering and deploying our gifts, we are doing what we are made to do.”
“That’s so good, Jim,” I said. “And it can be so hard to find. It took me a long time. I earned two master’s degrees before I figured out what my gifts are. As soon as I picked the gift that I knew had been in my heart for so long, everything fell into place.”
“A Greek philosopher once said, ‘The world steps aside to make room for the person who knows where they are going.’2 Dianne, a secure person has that image. They know where they are going.”
“Oh, Jim. This I get . . . well, at least the ‘going’ part. I knew exactly where I was going when I decided to become a journalist. Nothing stopped me. I followed every step and every piece of advice to get there. Everything flowed. EVERYTHING. I encountered plenty of challenges along the way, but nothing stopped me.”
“That’s a strong sense of direction,” he said.
“But it wasn’t easy. The first challenge started with a journalism professor, before I even got accepted to his graduate program. I asked to meet with him to learn more about the program, and as I sat down in his office, he immediately said, ‘You know this business is more than just a pretty face.’”
Jim raised his eyebrows.
“Right? I told him, ‘Yes, I understand. I already have one master’s degree. I’d like to get one more.’”
“Good answer,” Jim said. (Mental gold star.)
“Thank you. He was the grumpiest man I have ever met, but I had to learn from him. He certainly wasn’t going to sugarcoat anything on my behalf.”
“And did you get into the program?”
“I sure did. A few weeks later, I got my acceptance letter in the mail.”
Jim nodded. He shared, “I once read of an eighteenth-century author who said, ‘There is something about conviction that makes beauty out of the commonest of clay.’3 So, real beauty is the beauty of conviction.”
Jim’s wisdom remained with me long after his death, meeting me in moments I could never have anticipated. And in those moments, I learned something more: The wisdom of a man like Jim is only the beginning of the path to total fulfillment. On that day when I talked with him about my purpose, I thought journalism, the endless yeses, was the center of it. That, I thought, was my way forward to total fulfillment. But Jim was never talking about doing. He was talking about being, about who we are wherever life takes us.