Some decisions are easy. Career decisions, often, are not. Deciding whether to leave or accept a job, to go to grad school, or to take the plunge into entrepreneurship or freelancing can be some of the most difficult decisions you make in your career. Before you draw out a pro/con list or flip a coin, consider using St. Ignatius of Loyola’s “discernment of spirits” approach to help you make your decision.
Importantly, discernment is only needed when you’re deciding between two good decisions; after all, you don’t need discernment to decide between a good decision and a sinful decision. (It may be a difficult decision to make – but you know what to do.) So, for instance, if you have a job selling software for a tech company and are considering taking a job at a different tech company, assuming neither company is doing anything immoral, you can use discernment to make that decision.
St. Ignatius said that the thoughts that occur to us while we are making a decision come from good spirits and “bad spirits.” He believed that the good spirits come from God and His angels, and the bad spirits come from “the evil angel.” Both good and bad spirits can cause either spiritual consolation or spiritual desolation, which can bring us closer to or take us further away from God. The key to discernment is to understand where the consolation or desolation is coming from.
For example, if you are generally living a prayerful life that follows Church teachings, and then you experience spiritual desolation, you can bet that desolation does not come from God – after all, He doesn’t want to sway you from the good life you are living. On the other hand, if you are living a life that’s apart from God, and you experience spiritual desolation, that’s definitely coming from God.
The first key to using Ignatian discernment is practice. Like any skill, you can’t just start using it and expect it to work overnight. So, start practicing Ignatian discernment before you have to make any big career decisions. Use it for the small, even silly decisions. Should you take a vacation this year? Or ask your boss for a raise? Maybe work remotely next week? Which task should you prioritize today?
There are a few Ignatian practices to help you build this discernment muscle. One is the Examen, a daily, five-step meditation that includes gratitude, prayer, reflection and planning for the next day. Another is the “colloquy,” which is a type of prayer that involves intimate conversation with God (or Mary, or a saint). As with anything in the Catholic life, having a solid prayer life is the foundation of successful discernment.
Once you are ready to make a big decision – let’s say, whether or not to quit your job – it’s important (and difficult!) to try to create some distance between yourself and the consequences of the decision. This distance doesn’t mean you don’t care about those consequences; it just means that you try to leave your natural biases and emotions to the side so you can examine the decision as clearly as possible. With this detachment, writes Loyola Press editor Vinita Hampton Wright, your “decision-making process can become more well-rounded and holistic.”
In other words, if you’re angry at your boss, try to put that anger aside for the moment. If you were not angry, what would be the reasons you’d want to quit your job? Do you have to take a new step to move further toward your career goals? Or maybe you need to freelance to have more flexibility at home? Perhaps you need more money to support yourself or a family? These questions are easier to answer without the anger that could cause you to make a rash decision.
That’s easier said than done, of course. Here are a few tips to make it easier:
Asking for God’s will to be done is hard. It takes faith that His will is, in fact, best. It means silencing that voice in the back (or maybe the front) of your mind that says, “But what if His will is something I don’t want?”
St. Ignatius had a prayer for that: the Suscipe. It might be difficult at first, but after practice, it can bring comfort. After all, if God’s in charge … do we need to worry?
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.
Taryn Oesch is the owner of Everyday Roses Editorial, LLC, where she writes and speaks for Catholic women. Her role models are all named Teresa, and she keeps discovering new ways they influence her work and her life. An active member of the Raleigh Catholic Young Adults community, Taryn is also a contributing writer to FemCatholic and managing editor of Catholic Women in Business.