Joan of Arc had it easy. Unlike other members of her generation – the youth of the 1420s, the “baby boom” that followed the brief recurrence of the Black Death in 1400 – Joan never wandered aimlessly through a series of part-time peasant jobs with no health insurance while she tried to figure out what to do with her life. She had a clear mission statement from the time she was 12 years old: Drive the English out and crown Charles VII the rightful king of all France. Crystal clear, and reliable, too, since her career counselor was the Almighty God, widely regarded as infallible. This was not like your high school guidance counselor saying you’re good at math, you should consider accounting. With that kind of clarity and certainty, is it any wonder Joan accomplished so many remarkable things so quickly? Predicting the outcome of the Battle of the Herrings, lifting the siege of Orleans, retaking Rheims and the Loire valley. All astounding feats, some that had literally been believed impossible, and all done before the age of 19. True, she was then burned at the stake, which was a setback. But still, her dream lived on.
I used to envy people like Joan, who had such a clear vision of what she should do with her life. I longed to receive a magic telegram that would spell it all out for me: Do this and life will be completely satisfying. But recently I have come to realize that what made Joan special was not that she got her message, but that she listened to it. After all, for all we know, hundreds of young French girls were receiving saintly visitations every week, exhorting them to abandon farm life and go out and kick some English butt. But most of them found some way to dismiss the proposition: No way, women can’t lead armies! Sorry, I’ve got all this manure to spread. I think you’re confusing me with my cousin Bernadette. Not Joan. She heard the word, and did not reflexively reject it or minimize it. That was the necessary first step. What followed took faith, intelligence, courage, and really good networking skills – but none of that would have counted for anything without that first listening step.
I took a similar first step a couple of years ago, when another attorney made a point of telling me that she thought I had a real talent for training and managing people. I had undoubtedly discounted dozens of similar compliments over the years, attributing them to politeness or hyperbole, or simply assuming that, even if they were accurate, it would have been unrealistic to act on them. But this time, for whatever reason, I listened, and I began to consider how I could use that message to find truly fulfilling work. I developed a new mission, and as that mission became clearer and more convincing, I began to reach goals I had not previously thought possible.
Do I wish I had started when I was 12, like the Maid of Orleans? That would be one regretful way to look at it, but I prefer to look at it this way: by the time Joan first heard her message, her life was almost two-thirds over. She had only seven more years to live, but look what she accomplished. Statistically, I’m outpacing her easily, and so could most of us, if we start now listening to what the world is telling us.