The season right after earning my bachelors degree was one of the most difficult I have ever had. I was trying to be a mature and responsible adult and felt like I was absolutely failing. I made a rushed decision on purchasing a car, I started my Masters degree work without much direction, and I couldn’t get a job. I had moved back to my hometown of San Diego, but it took some time to find community, people in my life stage who I could live life with and connect to. My wife (who was not yet my wife) lived four and a half hours north, and while that is not the longest distance imaginable, it was far enough to make me miss her. A lot. All of this compounded to make life difficult, but what made it almost unbearable was the expectations I had of myself. I dug a hole I couldn’t get myself out of.
Back in Santa Barbara, I had just graduated from college and was about to move to the city I was raised in. I should had all the hope in the world for my future. I was the first one in my family to graduate, we were all so proud and happy, but I couldn’t even fully enjoy that season because I was so preoccupied with the one ahead of me. I was about to say goodbye to my girlfriend, I had no job prospects, and I had no way of “making something of myself.” I looked around and saw my engineering friends getting jobs, and my teaching friends going for their credentials, but I was continuing in an educational program that didn’t have a clear profession at the end of it (Missional Leadership) and I couldn’t get Starbucks or Best Buy (or any of the 60+ places I applied to) to call me back. I could clearly see what wasn’t going well in my life and where I thought I should have been post-college, but I had no way of getting where I thought I was supposed to be. My only thought was, My ship is sinking before it even sets sail.
This isn’t an incredibly instantaneous and unexpected success story. I found odd jobs to work for my first year back and still had no idea what direction I was headed in professionally. I was barely keeping my head above water back in San Diego, and in reality I was getting a lot more water in my lungs than I wanted to. But I did realize something at the end of that season, something that I was reminded of when I was chatting with my friend Aron the other day. One of the best things for me at that time was the identification of the expectations I had of myself, the ones of myself that I projected onto others, and then, finally, appropriate expectations. Here’s what I found:
- I expected myself to be able to conquer the world after college, or at least get a job that sustained me through my graduate work.
- I expected myself to make “enough” money and to be a fully functioning member of society.
- I expected myself to have clear career goals and to be working or interning someplace in the field of my choice.
- I expected myself to be able to afford a decent car and an engagement ring without much strain on my budget.
- I expected to be impressive in the same ways I thought everyone else was impressive.
- I expected that others expected the same.
And I suspected that I was looked down on by society because I couldn’t do any of these things, and I definitely looked down on myself for it. But I realized that I was living in a world dictated by “isn’t” and “should be”, and that was keeping me stuck in a pit of expectations.
It is so common to live our lives with an eye towards where we aren’t and the things we don’t have. Social media can definitely mess with my brain in this way, and I end up looking at the lives of others with jealousy, painting a picture of what life should look like: comfortable, easy, and enviable. We end up comparing elaborate and fantastical lives that we’ve dubbed “successful” with our current realities and sink deeper into frustration, sorrow, and pity over our complete “failure” that we call life. But this is the furthest thing from the truth! And the very people we get frustrated with for having it all together will debunk this myth one by one, just ask them! Their reality looks just as messy as yours and mine, and in realizing this I unlocked the key to wading through a life of letdown into hope: Instead of living in a world of “isn’t” and “should be”, I can live in a world of peaceful “is” and hopeful “can be.”
In relation to leadership, I think it is so important for a leader (or anyone for that matter) to be living in reality, for the sake of knowing both the difficult things but also the good things, things just as they are. Without knowing the current reality, how could leaders change things for the better? If a leader lives in the “isn’t” and “should be”, then they’ll never be satisfied with their work, they’ll relate in harmful and overbearing taskmaster ways to their followers, they’ll forever miss the good that exists in their world, and they’ll always be driven by jealousy and insecurity. Rather than living life according to overwhelming and entirely unrealistic expectations, leaders must live in the realm of “is” and “can be.”
This is a posture of life that recognizes and accepts the reality of where one is right now, and then dreams of where they can go with full belief in their ability to get there. Rather than anxiety about what “isn’t” and frustration over not being where you “should be”, leadership should come from a place of reconciliation with what is and hopeful zeal for what can be. That is where leadership is most effective and driven by dynamic energy, and how a leader becomes someone whom others want to follow.
In reality, this is how life should be lived in general, not just in places of leadership. I don’t want to spend my life digging myself into a deeper pit of fantastical comparison, angry at my current reality and anxious about my unrealistic expectations for the future. I want to spend my time knowing that what is has the potential to go great places, but the fact that it is what it is right now is ok. It just is. When reality becomes acceptable and the future becomes hopeful, I can enjoy the good and beautiful now, and can pursue the future I want to live with expectant hope.