New Kind of Success Story
are we to do with this enhanced story of ourselves? Can what-we-do really
be in alignment that deeply with
who-we-are? I think it can, if we let Im going to be truer to
myself be the principle that drives our decisions every time we come to
a crossroads. Through trial-and-error, we are pushed to greater
recognition about what we really need. The Big Bold Step turns out to be
only the first step.
story demonstrates this more cleanly than John Butlers.
The first time we talked, John
was in his law office in Santa Clara. Hes about six feet one, with
ruddy cheeks and short auburn hair and a diamond stud in his left ear. He
still had the sweeping shoulders and tapered hips that he developed almost
30 years earlier, when he was ranked #2 nationally in the 200-meter
breaststroke. Hes 47 now. John was preparing to shut down his divorce
mediation practice so that he might become ordained as a minister by the
Unity church. This was a two-year program at Unitys world headquarters
in Missouri. John expected to hear any day and did, the next day, by
letter. His application was turned down. The church told him he had
anger issues. John had spent his life struggling to overcome his
anger he thought he had
overcome it so this rejection was doubly devastating. It almost
extinguished his hopes.
The next time we talked in
depth, we met in the Portland, Oregon airport and traveled down to the
southwest corner of the state, to a two-stoplight town called
Bandon-by-the-Sea. The Unity chapter in Bandon had given John a six-month
contract as their interim minister, even though he was not ordained. Their
regular minister was on sabbatical. John was two months into his contract
(hed come back to the Bay Area that week for training), and he
absolutely loved it. It had convinced him his instincts had been right.
Already I cant imagine not being a minister. Im not even sure I
can go into the ministry training program next year. Why wait two years to
do something Ive already gotten to do and am good at?
While this jump from lawyer to
minister sounds like one of those radical 90-degree turns, Johns been
narrowing in on this his whole adult life, and the theme thats brought
him here has been consistent. When he was young, he was abrasive and quick
to assign blame and he found work that aligned with that personality.
But his life has been a gradual step-by-step away from that hostility.
This latest step has brought him to the other end of the spectrum; now
hes calm, good-natured, and forgiving.
journey began shortly after college. He had a personal motive for becoming
a lawyer hed suffered a great injustice in court. John had started
out as a carpet salesman for a building materials wholesaler. They stiffed
him on $80,000 in commissions, so he sued. John hired a letterhead-litigator
from one of San Joses best firms to represent him, but the guy did a
lousy job and was unprepared. John thought, If this guy is supposedly
the best, Im in the wrong
business. He took the LSATs a week later, paid the extra hundred bucks
to be FedExd his score quickly, and persuaded Santa Claras law
school to take him at the last minute. He was sitting in Property class a
flashed that same kind of bullheadedness after school, when he joined the
San Jose District Attorneys office. Within a year was the lead
misdemeanor attorney in the office. His specialty was drunk driving
arrests. John went after everyone. He refused to settle. He was feverish
with his righteousness. These people had done something wrong;
they had to be punished. If that
meant he had to work 90-hour weeks, he would do it. If it meant he tied up
the courtrooms, so be it. There was no excuse for letting offenders plead
to a second or third offense as if it was their first offense. There was
no excuse for not making them go to AA meetings and fulfill their
community service. John became infamous in Santa Clara County courts, and
soon no attorney wanted to take him on. They began to plead guilty without
couple of things ended this vindictiveness. First, John realized how much
of the anger he had for drunk drivers was actually misdirected rage at his
father, who drank excessively when John was young. As soon as he made the
connection, he no longer felt this hatred for the offenders. His zeal for
prosecuting these cases was gone. The District Attorney bumped him up to
felonies, and his first two cases were ones that the D.A. wanted to drop
because they were too hard to prosecute. But John couldnt do that. When
he saw blame, he would stop at nothing to get a conviction. One was a
molestation case involving a patient at a mental institution, the other a
child endangerment case. He took both cases to trial and won convictions,
but they required an incredible amount of his energy. He could see that if
he were to prosecute rapists and murderers, he would never escape from
this cycle. His tendency to take these cases so personally, as if he were the victim, meant the cases would swallow him. He needed to
learn not to take it so
personally, something he would never do if assigned to criminal cases. So
he quit and spent three months soul searching.
thought about being a minister, but it was so far-fetched, It was like
a football player suggesting he wants to be a ballerina, John said.
John decided to go into bankruptcy law. He got two job offers from firms
that specialized in corporate bankruptcy. The first was from a hardball
litigation firm that took everything to court. The second was less
prestigious and less money, but from a boutique that preferred to
negotiate, use workout sessions, and help the debtors business turn
around. John had a deep hatred of debtors (his wound from the $80,000 in
unpaid commissions hadnt healed at all), but this seconds firms
approach tugged at him. John went with them. It felt right. He found in
their methods a better solution for his own resentments, which he held
against his parents and his ex-wife.
spent four years there, then started his own practice. It was another
notch down in pay and prestige, but he thought hed be happier
representing consumers rather than corporations. Consumer bankruptcies
were usually uncontested; the injured parties were banks and credit
companies who didnt take it personally. The whole process was designed
to help a man turn his life around. Again, this felt right. John was very
good at it, and highly sought after. He was in therapy at this time, and
he was realizing how much better he felt talking
things out than bearing grudges and fighting endlessly. One day after
therapy, sitting in the parking lot, the thought occurred to him, Why
dont you become a mediator?
took a class on mediation with the goal of doing one divorce mediation by
the end of the year. John became, rather quickly, the dominant and most
successful divorce mediator in Silicon Valley. Hed been married for six
years, had two children, and divorced during law school he brought his
own experience to his mediation sessions, and he was often in tears as he
described his own experiences to the warring parties. He utilized Men
Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus techniques to help divorcees
communicate better in their sessions. John found the work very rewarding,
and still does. But one of the keys to resolving marital separation
agreements is to always push the question, What do you really
want? She doesnt really want his car, she wants him to say hes
sorry and to admit he handled it badly. He doesnt really want the home,
he wants her to forgive him. And John Butler really wanted to be a
minister. The thing was, he didnt go to church and didnt really
believe. But he still wanted to be a minister! Somehow, it called to him,
quietly. It didnt make sense, but the idea of ministering to peoples
problems seemed the next step in his evolution.
this time, John took a Theology class at San Jose State. It was very
academic and not very spiritual. He looked into seminaries, but he
didnt believe in any of those religions. Then he met a woman who was a
minister, and he fell in love with her, and started going to her church,
and they got engaged. John thought she was his soulmate. She was going to
make this transition easy. Their plan was, after the marriage, John would
become the co-minister of her church. He still hadnt found his belief
yet, but the God part wasnt the appeal of it to him. Shortly before the
wedding, she called it off and broke up with him. No soulmate, no
ministry, no church.
see now that I was using her to make my dream happen, John said. And
there was something false in that. I wasnt willing to do the work
myself. It was devastating, but it was a real test. Was I willing to make
the transition alone, without anybodys help? Thats a lot scarier.
went looking for a new church. He tried the Unity church in Palo Alto, and
more for ritual and solace than religion, he kept going back. The Unity
church did not convert him, not in the slightest. Slowly, gradually, as he
learned more about Unitys teachings, he realized here was a church that
he didnt disagree with or have misgivings about. Here was a church that
aligned with how hed come to see the world. One of the distinguishing
beliefs of Unity is that the world is not a battle between good and evil.
There are not good people and bad people, the right and the wrong, the
saved and the damned. Unity teaches that all people are inherently good,
even if they might have made some mistakes. This is exactly what John had
slowly gravitated to in his work! Then, Unity teaches practical
Christianity, meaning it models how to handle lifes everyday
difficult situations, which are their own reward when handled well. Unity
ministers dont wear robes and arent the congregations conduit to
God. John found in the Unity church a way to add a spiritual dimension to
his evolving skills in handling conflict resolution. With everything in
alignment, his spiritual belief gradually came to him.
being religious was not enough, John said. And bringing spiritual
ideas into my mediation practice was not enough. I still had a calling to
be the one delivering the sermon.
joined the board of the church and became a well-regarded mediator for
church conflicts, both at his church and at others. It was at one of these
mediation sessions, for a Unity chapter in another county, when John
learned that their minister had to leave town on a family medical
emergency. Who was going to deliver Sundays sermon?
love to do the sermon, John found himself saying.
had three days to prepare. Hed never felt more alive. His mentor
attended, and so did his mother and father. When John talks about his
father, his voice trembles and cracks with emotion. After the sermon,
he came up to me and blessed me. It was He choked up, then let go.
It was the first time in my life he blessed me. He said I had a
the next couple years, John delivered an occasional sermon and took some
week-long classes at Unitys world headquarters in Missouri. (I
discovered him through a friend who attends the Unity church in San
Francisco, where John gave three sermons last year).
we talked last year, it amazed me that he was once an abrasive man, but he
assured me that was the kindest word one might use to describe him. He
understood himself enormously well and had nothing to hide. He was never
afraid to reveal his weaknesses. I assumed he was going to be accepted to
the ministry program how could he not? hed clearly done his
told I had anger issues was such a blow, John said, now nine
months later. I was infuriated at being rejected. I was angry at them.
And yet every time I felt anger, it was like I was offering them evidence
that Im angry. Of course
Im angry, because I felt they were wrong, but I couldnt protest or
appeal their decision, because they would see that state I was in and
think they were right. Oh, it was a trap.
you get out of it? I asked.
first, spending a lot of time forgiving them for what I perceived was
their mistake. And then, kind of on the wings of that forgiveness, I
realized they were probably right. Id been a little on edge when I went
for the week to Unity Village. I dont like being judged and evaluated.
And they had these knickknack rituals that bothered me, sort of treated us
like children. There was a dress code, just casual clothes, but Im an
adult. I dress appropriately. Then, I had to sign in for classes every
morning, as if I might skip class. Id paid over a thousand dollars for
the plane tickets, hotel room, and rental car was I really going to
skip class? So these things put me on edge, and they could feel it when I
was there. I had a bit of a grudge.
did you go back?
I went back for another week, to sit in more classes from the very
teachers who had denied me permission to the program. That was a real
test. It would have been so easy to see them as my enemy, my tormentors,
and bear a grudge. When they saw I did not bear this grudge, and I was no
longer bothered by the knickknacks required, they realized I was a better
man than they had known.
sounds like you will get admitted to the program next year.
theyve indicated that, and Ive applied. But I dont think I want
to go, he said.
I love being a minister so much.
Id rather find another short-term position than sit in school. My
contract is up in June. That will be a very tough decision.
told me the story of how he received this position in Bandon, Oregon. When
he was back in Missouri, he grabbed a newsletter for
Unity ministers. In
the back pages were classified ads from churches needing ministers. Bandon
had advertised. John called and sent them a CD of his sermons, but he was
told they already had two ordained candidates they were interviewing. A
month later, they called back. Neither of the two candidates were quite
right. Could he be there in four days and deliver the Sunday sermon? John
agreed, but then was told they couldnt pay for his plane ticket, which
was about four hundred dollars. He bristled. It was standard procedure to
pay for a candidates travel costs. He didnt want to be taken
advantage of. Finally, on a friends advice, he decided to drive, a
12-hour trip, spend the night, give the sermon, and drive back the next
congregation loved him. He was offered the six-month contract.
know it now seems like a dream come true, but it still was very hard for
me to accept, John said. Most of my friends and my mentor thought I
shouldnt take it. I would have to pay other lawyers to take over my
mediation cases, and wrap up a practice Id taken years building, for
what? For a six-month gig that led nowhere. That offered no next step, no
future. My success is not measurable. I used to make $250 an hour.
This pays $425 a week. Its
not like I was unhappy with my mediation cases. I love that work. Plus, I
really want to find a soulmate. Most of the people in Bandon are retired
and older than I am. He went on with more excuses until I cut him
you needed to know if this was really for you, I argued.
much more than I ever anticipated.
chapel in Bandon is an aluminum-sided, aluminum-roofed barn across from an
oil change shop off the coast highway. Its a humble place. Theres no
cross on the roofs peak. Inside, the walls are plastered and the
ceilings are suspended and the light flickers from long florescent tubes.
The floor is covered from wall to wall with cream carpet. There are no
pews, just semicircular rows of ordinary metal chairs. I had no
expectations, so I wasnt surprised. But now describing it, Im at a
loss what makes it a church at all? It was entirely in the minds of
the congregation. They hadnt inherited a place of worship. Theyd
started this chapter themselves, and the church required their
participation or it would not exist. During the week there are
childrens classes, a writers group, a science-of-mind class, a
meditation class, a prayer support group, and at 9:30 on Sunday mornings,
an Adult class with about fifteen feisty people who wanted John to
challenge them. This was incredibly refreshing. Most of them were retired.
Theyd come to tranquil Bandon from Californias busy cities, but they
werent here to golf and play bridge. Theyd gone north, not south. In
their 50s and 60s, they were using this time for personal growth.
had given them homework the week prior, and most had done the exercises.
Hed asked them to write down their limiting
beliefs essentially, their opinions of themselves, reseen not as
identity statements but as self-constraints. One womans limiting belief
her whole life was that she wasnt smart and couldnt learn
shed realized she did learn, but slowly. Another womans limiting belief was that
she could never ask for help. She had to fix everything, and by herself.
John urged her to learn the feeling of helplessness. Wow!, she
exclaimed, unable to imagine ever going there, but willing to think about
it. Another woman said that her limiting belief was that there was never
enough money. One of the principles of Unity is to be aware of our
abundance, that we already have plenty and we will not go hungry,
that the world will take care of us. She had real trouble accepting this,
and as a result she was preoccupied with the material world.
began to get the hang of this exercise, and I wrote down the limiting
beliefs that had stopped me over my lifetime that my dream of writing
wouldnt come true and I needed to find another career, that my divorce
had wounded me, that being a parent was not compatible with my calling,
that nobody would read what I wrote unless I was funny
Many of the
constructs John was teaching these retirees were ones Id arrived at
over the course of this book that our fears should be attacked, not
run from. From our deepest wounds come our greatest gifts. Everyone in
this book has overcome his or her own limiting beliefs. Theyve
discovered that their hard-earned skills mean more to them than the
talents they were born with. John said, Most of us can trace our
problems back to two or three limiting beliefs. In his own case, he had
believed he was a fighter, and so he went looking for fights in the
swimming pool, in the courts of justice, and in his family. That fighter
turned out to be a shell, and inside was a man who hated to fight.
11:00 the chapel filled with about 70 people. John took the microphone and
led the service. People felt free to interrupt with questions or joke
lightly with him. During his sermon, he involved several as actors in a
skit. He never bludgeoned them with scripture, and quoted poets and
philosophers and politicians more than Christs disciples. In a voice
quaked with feeling, he told long stories from his own life, from times
that he was challenged to love unconditionally or grant forgiveness.
told me, All week long, Sundays sermon is on my mind. It really
pushes me to think and observe. This is not about me lording over the
congregation, me being better than them. Ive got tons to learn.
Delivering a weekly sermon accelerates that growth.
arc is, in my opinion, the clearest example of how Ive come to think
the question What Should I Do With My Life? be approached. What I so
admired about John Butlers journey was not
that he ended up a minister. Most people jump through life, asking
whats next, and choosing based on where can they make the most money,
what offers the most upside, or opportunity. A conventional success
story is one where, with each next, the protagonist has more money, more respect, and more
possessions. Id like to suggest an alternative success story
one where, with each next, the
protagonist is closer to finding that spot where hes no longer held
back by his heart, and he explodes with talent, and his character
blossoms, and the gift he has to offer the world is apparent.