The Achievement Story

How can mentors authentically get to know their mentees? We believe that really getting to know another means to understand their story – which is, as Norris Clarke describes it – “the key moments and phases of our own past, so that the meaningful pattern hidden within them emerges”

Asking Good Questions

Open ended questions oriented around the person telling stories about themselves is the right direction to go for mentors who want to understand their mentees. In this article, though, I’m going to introduce a specific kind of story which is especially powerful for mentees to unfold themselves and for mentors to really grasp essential features of the mentee’s unique personhood.

Let’s consider a scenario where a catechist doing youth ministry is trying to get to know a young woman, Maria, that she has recently met. The catechist asks her, “so tell me about yourself.”

Now, what kinds of responses is she likely to get?

– Family or place of origin (I come from an Irish Catholic background. I’m from Virginia)

– Conversion story, walk from dark to light (recently come clean from drug use and back in Church!)

– Schooling (went to Jefferson and Lee High School where I was in the band)

– Relationships (well, my family and I are very close. I have a steady boyfriend who is really supportive. I’m a dog person and have a little pug named Jasper)

– Major interests (I am a dancer. Love sports. Soccer has been a big part of my life ever since I was 7 years old)

It is certainly true that all of these dimensions of the Maria’s life are important to her. It is certainly true that the catechist is learning about Maria as she shares one or all these aspects of her life. It is also true that the catechist who really wants to learn about Maria will and should learn these features of her life.

Achievement Stories

But what is the best way for mentors to quickly and deeply get to know their mentees?

The kind of story I want to now introduce provides an excellent way to do that. It helps to unfold the core aspects of the mentee’s personality.

This is the achievement story.


By “achievement” I simply mean an activity that the person enjoyed doing and believe he or she did well. Such an activity could be anything, just so long as it action oriented (not simply a passive experience like soaking up the sun’s rays on a beach or vegging out with a 6 hour movie marathon) and brought the client a sense of fulfillment.

Before I describe the kinds of open-ended questions used for drawing out a story of achievement I want to pause on a key mode of knowing that Aristotelian philosophers identified, a key mode of knowing that we find in St. Thomas Aquinas work:

A being’s action reveals its essence: agere sequitur esse. Action follows being.

This means that when we get clear on a being’s action we can see its essence.

When Aquinas drew on this term he mainly employed it to describe the essence of things at the species level. The action of human beings indicates that our essence is that of embodied rationality. The action of plants indicates plant essence.

But this same principle that action reveals essence applies at the individual level. We can deeply get to know a person by exploring his/her authentic action! We all now that some of our actions are half-hearted and lazy, some of our actions are done out of compulsion, some we have a sense of hating, some we do half-well. But these actions do not reveal us like the action of deeply satisfying engagement. When we recollect stories of such joyful activities and then began to recount the narrative, we express unique essence.

In other words, we recount those things that we had a deep affective longing to do, a love for.

Expressing Unique Essence

Such stories are deeply powerful for shedding light on those key aspects of unique personhood addressed by Paul VI in his encyclical On the Development of Peoples, in which he said that in the design of God “at birth, everyone is granted, in germ, a set of aptitudes and qualities for him to bring to fruition.”

Now it is of course true that one achievement story told by the mentee to his/her mentor is not some kind of relational magic that always enables the mentor to plumb the depths of the other, but I can tell you in over 20 years of working with persons as a coach, a teacher, and a consultant that drawing out a person’s achievement stories is an incredibly powerful way of getting to know him/her and quickly.

There are three basic questions that can help you quickly and powerful draw out and understand an individual’s uniqueness (these were developed by Arthur Miller, Jr. and described in the book The Power of Uniqueness):

1) “Tell me about an activity, from any time of life, that you really enjoyed doing and believe you did well?”

2) “Describe what you actually did.”

3) “What did you most enjoy about that activity?”


What’s Your Story?

We tell stories because we live stories. We believe that understanding our narrative is critical to becoming who we are. It means uncovering the story at the heart of our life, and understanding how it fits into the Big Story of salvation history.

We believe that listening to one another’s stories is critical in building a culture of vocation. Our approach starts with your story – one that is unique, unrepeatable, and unimaginable to anyone apart from God. Your narrative is sacred ground, and we treat it that way. By listening attentively, we help you uncover the important plot points and what they say about who you might be at your core.

Truth has a history. When the Son of God took flesh, he lived a full earthly life. He entered into history. And so, as the Truth, we can say that the truth has a history.  The truth of who you are is also inseparable from the story of your life. We explore it with you, shoulder to shoulder, and help you understand what it means for your past, your present, and your future.

Pope John Paul II and Radical Personalism

Christopher Stefanick tells a story about a great saint of our time. Pope John Paul II boldly taught that each unique person is the way of the Church. And helping each person embrace his own vocation must be for her a fundamental priority.

The following story is about a series of encounters between Bishop Robert Brom and John Paul II.

Pope John Paul II

“Brom’s first meeting with the Pope occurred in 1963 during the second session of the Second Vatican Council. Brom was a seminarian at the North American College. Pope John Paul was the auxiliary bishop of Krakow. Brom and several classmates were leaving the Church of the Gesu after a visit there when some Polish seminarians with Bishop Wojtyla were entering. At that time Brom and his classmates briefly met the man who would thereafter become the Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow and the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years. Subsequently, Brom forgot all about the exchange.

In 1983 after his appointment as Bishop of Duluth, Bishop Brom in the context of his first Ad Limina Visit met Pope John Paul for what he thought was the first time. However, John Paul, looking into Brom’s face said, “I think we have met before.” Brom assured the Holy Father that they’d never met. “I believe we have,” insisted the Pope, but Brom was equally sure they had not. After all, a meeting with the Pope isn’t easily forgotten!

Some days later, during the same Ad Limina Visit, the secretary to the Holy Father, then, Monsignor Stanislaw Dziwisz, now Cardinal, approached Bishop Brom to say, “Don’t argue with the Pope, he remembers when he met you.” “When?” Brom asked. “In November of 1963 outside the Church of the Gesu in Rome.” Brom’s memory refreshed, he asked Monsignor Dziwisz, “How can he do that?” to which Dziwisz explained that for John Paul to meet another person is to encounter God.”[1]

There are two key points we can draw from this story.

Lessons from Pope John Paul II

First, the Holy Father’s radical sensitivity to the unique human person. The only way John Paul II could have remembered Bishop Brom and the thousands of others he encountered is through close and loving attentiveness to each person.

Second, John Paul II did not encounter God in an abstract way when he first looked upon the face of Bishop Brom. He recognized (as so many of his other writings also testify) that Bishop Brom and every person manifest in a unique way the face of God on this earth.

According to Pope John Paul II, each person is “the primary and fundamental way of the church” (Redemptor Hominis, 14). He later said in that same document that “every initiative serves true renewal in the Church…”. This happens “insofar as the initiative is based on adequate awareness of the individual Christian’s vocation.” (Redemptor Hominis, 21)

Every initiative!


Jérôme Lejeune: A Geneticist In Defense of Life

Servant of God, Pediatrician, Geneticist

Jérôme Lejeune was a French pediatrician and one of the leading geneticists in the world. In 1959, he discovered that the presence of an extra twenty-first chromosome in certain people, which causes Down Syndrome. He then went on to identify other chromosomal disorders and did pioneering research on chromosomal anomalies in cancer.

Jérôme was a strong advocate for the protection of all life from conception to natural death. He spoke out strongly against pre-natal diagnoses that look for chromosomal abnormalities, which often lead to abortion. He was passionately concerned about the welfare of mentally handicapped children. Jérôme died in Paris, France, on Easter Sunday 1994.

Jérôme Lejeune: Led by Wonder

In a message about his friend, Jérôme, St. John Paul II said:

“Professor Jérôme Lejeune was always able to employ his profound knowledge of life and of its secrets for the true good of man and of humanity, and only for that purpose.”

Jérôme sought to comprehend the mystery of life, but also to express it. He communicated a scientific basis for the beginning of life at conception, and sought to understand the causes of Down Syndrome. Jérôme defended the dignity and rights of people living with Down Syndrome, and often testified at court trials when nascent human life was at stake. He would often ask:

“Is life a fact of a desire?”

Jérôme always had a strong sense of wonder. He told his children: “admiring a sunset, contemplating beauty, being aware of the Infinite, and hence being able to reason about the human condition – only man has that grace”.

Wonder and curiosity constantly reinforced each other and led to knowledge. “Understanding the human body, its subtle mechanisms, the origin of life – for him it was an object of study, but also of unending wonder,” his daughter said. “What a marvelously ingenious and complex machine is this body that makes us live!”

Jérôme Lejeune’s Core Motivational Drive

Led by his wonder, Jérôme undertook a career in genetics where he sought a cause for the abnormality of Down Syndrome. At the time, it was often called “mongrolism”. Yet we know it today as Trisomy 21, thanks to Jérôme’s work.

Jérôme wanted to understand the causes for Down Syndrome so that he could communicate the truth. At the time of his work, there were many false ideas about the disease. For instance, many people believed that the mother gave it to her child. Others believed that it was contagious. It was common to see people cross to the other side of the street when they saw a child with Down Syndrome.

Jérôme’s ability to express his finding of an extra chromosome in the 21st pair led to a widespread shift in treatment and perception. He dedicated much of his life to providing compassionate, humane care for all of those born with chromosomal abnormalities. One of his favorite lines was:

“A man is a man is a man.”

Stories of Achievement

Two stories from Jérôme’s life illustrate his core motivational drive to comprehend and express. He was never content simply with exploration and knowledge alone; it was in finding pithy, memorable, and often eloquent ways of expressing the findings of his work that he was able to make such an impression on the world.

The Story of Tom Thumb

Jérôme Lejeune wrote a text in 1973 that summed up forcefully all of the conviction, scientific certitude, and rhetorical talent that made him such an extraordinary defender of life. He explained the evolution of life from the first moment of conception. From the time that an egg is fertilized, it contains all of the genetic material that makes one a member of the human species.

In the text, Jérôme told the story of Tom Thumb, “this little man that we all once were in our mother’s womb”. He illustrated the continuity of life, distilling complex genetic and philosophical concepts to words that are easily grasped by his listeners.

The Testimony about Frozen Embyros

Jérôme testified at a divorce trial in Maryville, TN, in which frozen embryos were at stake. The trial was front page news, which gave Jérôme an opportunity to express his research to millions around the country. He describes the satisfaction of the experience:

“It was a question of explaining, as a genetitist, that it is well known that sufficient information – all that is necessary – was there at the moment of conception, and that there was no doubt that these were very young human beings. Extremely young. Incredibly young. But they were living beings, and their biological inheritance allowed us to declare that they were human. And a being that is human is a human being.”

He continued to explain:

“In order to make the judge understand what was at stake, I used a very simple word. I told him, ‘These very young human being are frozen, packed together by the thousands into an extremely restricted space, where time itself is stopped.”

Jérôme had a deep desire to express his convictions, and his desire to speak out caused him much suffering. He had an insatiable, irresistible, enduring drive throughout his life to speak the truth. In a speech before bellow physicians, he called a United Nations body as an “Institute of health that has become an institute of death.” His defense of life was such an unpopular position in the medical community that he wrote to his wife later that day: “This afternoon I lost my Nobel Prize.”

Summary of a Heroic Life

There is evidence in Jérôme’s life of a pattern of seeking knowledge and understanding for the good of humanity. His daughter recounts an experience near the end of his life:

“Some time before his death, at the hospital, he wanted to see a program devoted to the mission in orbit to repair the Hubble satellite. The human ingenuity thrilled him. It was a mission with only one goal: knowledge. Knowledge was the true human genius for Jérôme.” – Clara Lejeune-Gaymard[1]

Jérôme Lejeune’s mission was to comprehend the mystery of the human body and human life. He found deep satisfaction in communicating that mystery to others. Throughout his life, Jérôme followed his thirst to comprehend. Yet he also found great joy in communicating truth. Because he found such joy in expression, Jérôme’s work will live on. And so will thousands of lives in the womb and beyond.

[1] From the book “Life is a Blessing: A biography of Jérôme Lejeune”