I started out working in engineering, but my passion was business. During my college senior year, I took an elective course in economic evaluations and investment decision making taught by Dr. Frank Stermole, Professor Emeritus of Mineral Economics at Colorado School of Mines. Dr. Stermole also taught more than 650 short courses to industry professionals and was financially successful. His course introduced me to project cash flow analysis, a subject that caught my interest. Not only was he a brilliant engineer and economist, he was also a kind man who was a member of my church in Golden, Colorado. Professor Stermole ignited my business career that eventually led to an MBA and a career in energy trading.
Michael Novak (1933–2017), an American Roman Catholic philosopher, theologian, and author of more than forty books, wrote Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life (The Free Press, New York, NY, 1996, pages 34–36). In chapter one, titled What is a Calling, he lists four characteristics of a calling. These points are “about callings in general and those in business in particular. First, each calling is unique to each individual. … Each of us is as unique in our calling as we are in being made in the image of God.” Even if you are an identical twin, you are still unique and God’s call is personally directed to you. My calling, although similar to other callings, is unique.
“Second, a calling requires certain preconditions. It requires more than desires; it requires talent. Not everyone can be, simply by desiring it, an opera singer, or professional athlete, or leader of a large enterprise. For a calling to be right, it must fit our abilities. Another precondition is love — not just love of the final product.” This love must include the drudgery of long tedious hours perfecting skills with the ensuing struggles, frustrations, and setbacks. To be a competent energy trader, I spent four years studying business at night and years learning from senior traders. I made my share of costly mistakes and endured many bone-weary travels conducting business. But when I accomplished a great trade and saw the resulting positive financial impact, I felt happiness knowing that my abilities were effective in creating value for my employer. To relieve stress and exercise my body, I ran almost every day with the full knowledge that no matter how hard I trained, I could never make a living as a professional athlete. My talent was in energy trading, not competitive running.
“Third, a true calling reveals its presence by the enjoyment and sense of renewed energies its practice yields us.” I enjoyed trading and receiving quick feedback on my decisions. Rarely in engineering did I receive immediate or near-term feedback on my recommendations. Once I recommended a simple well workover that changed the producing zone. The day after the work was completed, the oil well produced 700 barrels per day! This was the occasional exception as most of my engineering decisions took years before yielding results. In energy trading, I received prompt feedback from the daily mark-to-market reports, monthly profit and loss reports, and yearly actuals verses goals reports. This rapid feedback also came with painful losses, unhappy managers when trades went negative, and heated discussions, both internally and with industry counterparts. The enjoyment was coupled with painful periods.
“A fourth truth about callings is also apparent: they are not usually easy to discover. Frequently, many false paths are taken before the satisfying path is at last uncovered. Experiments, painful setbacks, false hopes, discernment, prayer, and much patience are often required before the light goes on.” My engineering training greatly benefited my eventual business calling but I did not enter engineering school to become an energy trader. I studied engineering to work in energy as an engineer. It was Dr. Stermole’s economic evaluation course that perked my inner passion for business. While working my initial assignment in reservoir engineering, I accepted a transfer into the exploration department to perform offshore prospect economic evaluations which allowed me to use Dr. Stermole’s teachings. I went to night MBA classes to gain more business knowledge. I accepted a position in management consulting only to sadly learn that I had no passion for consulting. I searched for a commercial position and was hired by Shell in the Supply Department as an energy trader. It took ten years after college and a few dead ends to find my passion. The journey was complex and painful at times.
During our journey of life, we make decisions. “Ethics itself is a calling; it calls us to change our way of life for the long term. It means grounding ourselves in new habits. It means building—slowly, patiently, deeply—our own character. It means choosing wisely among the virtues we build up in ourselves. It means identifying the vices most difficult for us to resist—the ones we secretly hate to part with.” (page 159) Novak’s words resonate with me. I needed to change my way of life and develop new habits. My character at the beginning of my journey needed refining and vices had to be discarded. My ethical journey is still proceeding after retirement. God’s spirit still nudges me towards having a Christ-like character. Accepting God’s call is only the start of the journey. Christians are also called towards sanctification: the growth in grace and holiness of life marked by good works. This is when the calling leads to eternal joy.