“GO EPIC” Part I

This first, narrative-based section focuses on asking and responding to some basic, but crucial, questions, such as “Who am I and what makes me unique?” Before you write yourself into a particular story of need, you need to reflect on your own story, especially your passions, dreams, gifts, talents and experiences. To complete your inventory you’ll need:

  • 4 hours — You could work on this during your lunch break for a few days or knock it out in one evening.
  • Companions — Have a few trusted friends go through the process with you so that you can all serve as “sounding boards” for each other.

Check here for list of the sources I used to create this inventory.

If you’d rather go through the inventory online, just keep scrolling!

The inventory has four sections:

  1. Prepare a brief autobiography.
  2. Reflect on your past.
  3. Articulate your dream.
  4. (Re-)Envision your story.

Section 1 — Prepare a brief autobiography

Time to complete: About an hour

  • Full name, gender, age, hometown, address, education, occupation, work history, languages you speak, accomplishments, hobbies and awards.
  • Describe your personality and pet peeves? What makes you tick? What drives you crazy?
  • What do you do with your time in a typical week/month/year?
  • What are your important relationships (parents, siblings, relatives, friends, enemies, etc.)?
  • What are the best choices you’ve made? Your worst choices?
  • Think through things you always find yourself doing, your favorite subjects in school, the things you’re most proud of. What are you good at? What have you always been good at? What are your greatest gifts or abilities?
  • What are you not good at?
  • What makes you unique?

Section 2 — Reflect on your past

Time to complete: About an hour

This part goes deeper into how your life has turned out so far. Start by thinking of your life as a timeline from birth to the present.

  • Tap your family history or living family members to fill in the blanks between your birth and your first memory. How did you fit into the story of the people around you, including your family, their friends and the larger world?
  • Describe your earliest memory.
  • When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? Why?
  • Summarize your childhood and adolescence.
  • When was it that you began thinking of yourself as an adult (if applicable)? Why?
  • Looking back on your life to this point, has it turned out like you expected? Like you hoped? Why or why not?

Answer the following questions for each stage of your life (childhood, adolescence, adulthood):

  • What did you spend most of your time doing? What were the circumstances around you? What was going on in the larger world? What changed because you were there?
  • What are your most vivid memories? What do you remember fondly? What have you tried to forget? What are the most important highlights and lowlights?
  • What is the most important thing you learned about yourself?
  • Choose a word, symbol or short description to represent each stage of your life.

Section 3 — Articulate your dream

Time to complete: About an hour minutes

To figure out how your story could best overlap with a story of need, you have to understand what it is you are living for, what you’re reaching for and dreaming about. To narrow the scope of your potential answers here, we assume your needs and desires for survival, sustenance and stability have been satisfied at a level that enables you to want something beyond them. What you desire from life could be something tangible like “a six-figure salary” or “a big house with a three-car garage and white picket fence” or something intangible like “security,” “success” or “significance,” or it could be both.

  • What, if any, dream guides your life?
  • Is there an overarching narrative or story that you have been trying to live by? Perhaps the “American Dream” as you understand it? If so, how would you describe that story and what it means to you to “live the Dream”?
  • Looking back on your life up to this point, what have you been working toward?
  • Get out your daytimer/mobile phone/calendar. Review how you spent your last week. Your last year. Using just that resource, answer the question, “What is it that I want?”
  • Look back at your “brief bio” and your answers to the questions, “What are you good at? What are your greatest gifts or abilities?” Do you use those gifts and abilities in your life? If so, how?
  • Get out your budget/checkbook. Review your bank account statement, credit card statement and investment portfolio, if you have one. How do you use your financial resources? After you pay essential bills, what do you do with what’s left over? How do your financial choices reflect what you currently want from life?

Fill in the blanks:

  • “What I want most of out life is____________.”
  • “The way I try to get it is________________.”
  • “I first started wanting it when/because/after_______________.”

According to Henri Nouwen in his book In the Name of Jesus, the main temptations we face in life cause us to see ourselves in the following way:

  • “I am what I do,”
  • “I am what I control or have power over,” and
  • “I am what others say I am.”

Do you identify with any of these statements? Which ones? How do you express them in your life?

To fully articulate your dream, you need to identify the foundation that supports the life you’ve built so far. For example, you might dream about a big house with a white picket fence, because that’s the picture of life that you’ve always had in your mind or seen on TV, and it represents a happy, successful life. Or you might want “security,” because your dad left when you were four and never came back and you never want to feel that way again.

  • What do you want to avoid at all costs? Why?
  • What is your greatest fear?
  • Think back on what, if any, dream guides your life. Where did it come from? When did you first start trying to pursue it? Why?
  • Think back on what you’ve been working toward. When did you start working toward it and wanting it? How has your desire influenced the trajectory of your life?
  • Think back on who you are and what’s happened to you. Why is it that you want what you want so much? What will it get you? How will it help you win, succeed, be safe, achieve significance, avoid the mistakes of others, etc.?

Fill in the blank:

  • I want what I want because_______________________.

The things that keep your dream from happening give your story power and appeal. In literary terms, that’s called “conflict.” You’ve never heard a riches-to-riches story, because going from being rich to being rich has no apparent conflict, no struggle, no obstacle. Ah, but a rags-to-riches story has conflict, forcing the protagonist to overcome countless difficulties, dangers and prejudices to get rich. If your most foundational desire in life is for financial security and a comfortable retirement, your conflict might be the danger of getting laid off, the onset of a major medical problem or the uncertainty produced by a volatile economy.

  • What have you overcome in life to get where you are now? Think back through your timeline to identify roadblocks life has thrown in your way.
  • What have you been unable to overcome throughout your life? What are the things that most keep you from achieving your dream in life? What is your biggest threat?
  • Think big picture. What about your worldview (your way of understanding the world and your part in it) might be contributing to the obstacles in your life?
  • What obstacles are looming on your horizon?

Section 4 — (Re-)Envision your story

Time to complete: About an hour

“[True vocation] is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (Frederick BuechnerWishful Thinking)

It’s time to face “the world’s deep hunger” through the lens of your own story, and, perhaps for the first time, to name your “deep gladness.”

Before you ever try to write yourself into a story of need, you already have a picture in your mind of what it should look like for you. Maybe it means spur-of-the-moment ingenuity like MacGyver. Or maybe it means saintly self-denial and service like Mother Teresa of Calcutta. The problem is you may not be anything like either of them. You are you, not MacGyver or Mother Teresa. As educator Parker Palmer wrote in Let Your Life Speak, “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.”

  • What does your life intend to do with you? What does it keep bringing you back to? Why? What could you not change about yourself and your life even if you wanted to?
  • What have you always loved, ever since you were a kid?
  • What makes you smile? When was the last time you shouted for joy or yelled in triumph? When was the last time you were enjoying yourself so much that you lost track of time?
  • Who were your heroes as a kid? Who did you look up to? Why? What is it that made them so attractive to you? What did they care about that you care about, too?
  • Who are your heroes now? Why? What makes them so admirable? What do they care about that you care about?
  • Up to this point, who has made the biggest difference in your life? How did they do it? Why did it matter to you?
  • What’s the most inspirational story you’ve heard in the last year? What about it inspires you?

Leah Pauline always loved kids, but she never considered helping to start an orphanage until she saw the plight of a group of orphans in Uganda.

  • What have you seen or experienced that changed the way you want to respond to the story of need?
  • When you think about the world’s deep hunger, what people (widows, orphans, etc.), problem (poverty, human trafficking, etc.) or place (the inner city, Sub-Saharan Africa, etc.) most captures your attention, sympathy and empathy?
  • What about the reality of the world you live in makes you angry? What makes you cry?
  • Review your personality, gifts, talents and abilities from Section 1. How do they uniquely equip you to help others?
  • How could you use what you’re good at to write yourself into the story of need? How could you help satisfy the world’s deep hunger in relation to the particular people, problem or place that captures your attention?
  • How might your dream, as you summarized it in Section 3, change as you consider the needs of others?
  • What would you do to understand and address the story of need if you had unlimited time, permission and resources? What would you change about the world as it is?
  • In the 1981 movie Chariots of Fire, Scottish Olympic gold medalist Eric Liddell says, “…when I run, I feel [God’s] pleasure.” Buechner might refer to this “pleasure” as “deep gladness.” What is your deep gladness? When have you “felt” it?

Dave Reierson makes his living as an airline pilot, but he lives to build things and help people. Thanks to his ability to travel cheaply, he helps people around the world gain access to clean water and sanitation.

  • How could you use or redirect your current resources to do what you love and help people in need at the same time?
  • What part could your painful past play in the future chapters of your story? How could you help others from experiencing that same pain?
  • What part could your positive, memorable past play in the future chapters of your story? How could you help others experience that same feeling or fulfillment?
  • What about your life might change as you write yourself into the story of need?
  • If you don’t further explore your unique “vocation” as Buechner defines it, what will happen to the people you could have helped or the problem you could have addressed?

I’m convinced life is more like a story than an encyclopedia, which is why I’ve been trying to help you think narratively rather than propositionally. I don’t have a mathematical personality matrix to plug your answers into in order to spit out some results.

Instead, I want you to put Sections 1-4 of this Inventory together in story form. Review your brief bio, your reflections on your past, your description of your dream and your vision of your story. Then write it out or represent it with photographs, keepsakes, or video or movie clips instead. For fun, refer to yourself in the third person (he/she) to make it seem more like a classical “epic.” Here’s a brief example of how someone’s story summary might read:

Leah Pauline is a college student who grew up in Colorado. She’s always had a love for kids, but has chosen to major in Spanish and psychology. After seeing the film Invisible Children, she, her sister and a friend decide to go to Uganda over their summer break. While there, they tour an orphanage in which the children are living in abject, dangerous conditions. Although they have no prior experience running an orphanage the three young women are moved to do something. They enlist the help of several Ugandans and decide to start a new, self-sustaining orphanage of their own…Leah spends the next several summers in Uganda and moves there after she graduates from college to help her sister run the orphanage they started.

When you’re done, read your summary out loud to yourself. Then share it with your companions who have gone through this process with you. Get their feedback on your story as you have told it. What fits? What doesn’t fit? What did you leave out? What did you miss?

Final words

GREAT JOB — you’ve put in some hard work to complete your inventory! Of course, what you’re exploring here is your true vocation. It could easily take far longer (or, in a few cases, far less) than four hours of journaling and answering questions to figure it out. But hopefully, this will start you along the way toward living into an answer that fits you.

Feel free to check out the sources I consulted to create the inventory. To begin to put what you’ve learned about yourself and your “deep gladness” into practice, proceed to “GO EPIC” Part II: Create an Action Plan.