Midlife Milestones Unmet

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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Editor’s Note: The following is a condensed version of actual conversations between a 41-year old and his spiritual director on performance vs. potential. Beyond the nuggets of wisdom about work, midlife readers especially will recognize a fellow traveler. Be encouraged.

John Nesbitt: Good morning, Sam. Come on in. How’s life?

Sam Van Eman: Hi, John. Thanks for meeting with me again. Life seems fine—family, work, exercise, time with God. It's all, like, perfect. But, to be honest, I’m not happy. There’s a strange cloud overhead.

JN: Any idea of the source?

SVE: Not exactly. Since turning 40 last year, I don’t know whether I’ve imagined a midlife crisis, or if I’m really having one. I was hoping we could talk about it.

JN: You know, Sam, I think you’ve been sensing this for a while. I’m looking through my notes, and, yes, it looks like we started this conversation last September.

SVE: September? Wow—eight months ago. So you know I’m questioning what impact I’ve made on the world. I really thought I’d be farther along in my career by now; you know, have more to show for myself. Instead, I feel flat. Average. Behind.

JN: Where are you feeling it?

SVE: Um, everywhere? Sorry. It’s just that I feel it all day, every day: in a TED talk about building playgrounds for poor kids, in a John Grisham novel about a guy who revamps a business and then sells it without fear of finding success again, when a speaker holds an audience longer than I can, when my friend only needs one hour to finish what takes me two. Everywhere.

JN: It sounds like you’re experiencing a gap, perhaps between who you are and who you thought you’d be? Between performance and potential?

SVE: That's exactly it. [Stares at the wall.] Is this why I often tell you about my perfectionism?

JN: I think so. That's what perfectionism is—frustration with the gap. I should clarify though. It isn’t the gap between your performance and your potential. It’s between your performance and other’s potential.

SVE: How else would I compare myself? I see all my friends moving up in their companies, getting PhD’s, taking exotic vacations. Every one of them is nearing the top of his ladder, while I’m monkeying around on a bunch of bottom rungs.

JN: I wonder if you and I both practice “selective comparison.” We look at people farther ahead on the particular ladders we value and blame ourselves for not keeping up. Do you think we have peers who’d say the same, only with the roles reversed?

SVE: Maybe. Probably. A former colleague did laugh at me last week when I told him about my ladder issue.

JN: Sam, you’re a person who enjoys variety in your work. Stimulation and entrepreneurship are what keep you fresh. That means the way God has wired you may, in fact, mitigate your potential of getting the recognition and fame you crave. You climb many ladders while others focus on just a few, enabling them to progress farther.

SVE: [Silence]

JN: Let them climb their own ladders. There are other ways to view success. For example, you’re a catalyst—not necessarily in a particular field, but as a person. Do you know what I mean? It takes very little to propel you toward new thinking. That’s what makes you creative in ways you don’t even have to work at; it’s just how you see the world.

SVE: Too bad there isn’t a way to state that on a business card, or measure it somehow.

JN: While immeasurable to us, it’s appreciated by God! None of those peers is more, or less, valuable to the world than you. But I agree that it’s tempting to climb ladders that aren’t ours. I also understand that we don’t just want to be excellent. We want to be comparatively excellent.

SVE: Seems so “middle school.” You know, I used to believe I was capable of anything. Is it possible that my performance doesn’t match the potential I’ve fantasized about, and I’ve worked long enough now to finally realize it?

JN: Perhaps part of the grief you’re experiencing is over the loss of unrealized perceived potential. Think of it this way: As we age, the wisdom gained naturally leads to more realistic thinking, which makes you more likely to have to face, for example, the death of a dream, or the prospect of an unexpectedly less fantastic future. Mid-life crisis is the loss of the idealized you.

SVE: That’s a lot to chew on, John.

JN: And it needs to happen for you to find the real you.

SVE: I certainly know the standard I’ve set isn’t God’s standard.

JN: It’s good that he knows who we are and what we need. God’s intent for your life—if you’re willing to live into it—will be very satisfying; very hopeful. The fact that you’re not feeling hopeful indicates that you’re still in process. The time will come.

SVE: What do I do in the meantime, like on Monday?

JN: I’d suggest a couple of things. Continue letting go of the fantasy and embrace the goodness of God’s real you. Try to be content—with projects, your age, how God made you. In other words, value faithfulness over comparative achievement. I’d also say—if you’re going to ruminate (something you’ve admitted causes trouble)—take Paul’s advice to the Philippian church: "[W]hatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—'ruminate' on such things" (4:8).

A graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary, John Nesbitt enjoys serving West Shore Evangelical Free Church in Central PA as executive pastor. John is also a Young Professionals coach at The High Calling. Away from work, he pursues the competing avocations of physical fitness and eating fine desserts. He and Terry have two adult children and three terrific grandchildren.

Performance vs. Potential

The gap between performance and potential is far from neutral. On the positive side, it inspires. Think of the young professional who sees her future self in a seasoned colleague and dreams of achieving great things for God. Optimism and drive mark this view. On the negative side, however, the gap can be as haunting as it is illusory. Haunting because it confirms just how much we come up short; illusory because the gap tortures us with false truths about rank and value. For those who suffer the latter, even Jesus’ promise to be sufficient in our weakness goes unheard.

In The High Calling series on Performance vs. Potential, we’re taking an honest look at both perspectives. Will you join us? Whether you’re a dreamer seeking growth, or a doubter seeking peace, we believe you’ll be encouraged by what you read.

Image by Cayobo. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr.