far from an exact science. Each of us, as we navigate much
unmapped terrain en route to realizing our potential, make
some good choices and some bad ones. And we make some that are
right for us at one time but not another.
We invariably come to points where we realize that a
situation or a goal we've chosen to pursue just isn't working
for us. Sometimes we discover that a dream we've devoted
ourselves to earnestly doesn't fit us nearly as well as we had
hoped. Yet a big part of us resists letting go of it, because
we've staked our identity on it so strongly.
Jason is a gifted high school history teacher, loved by
students for his ability to make an often-dry subject
interesting. Yet for years he had pursued a legal career.
Although Jason was a talented attorney, he wasn't out of law
school long before he realized that his passion for law was
far less than that of his associates.
By his early thirties he had determined that his strongest
gifts and interests lay in teaching, not in fighting legal
battles. The fact that he had long been fascinated with
studying history led him to conclude he should teach that
subject. And working with his church's youth ministry
convinced him he would enjoy teaching high school students.
Deciding that he ought to become a teacher was one thing.
Mustering the courage to leave the legal profession was quite
another, and it took him three years to do it. Changing
careers not only meant disappointing his parents--who had
urged him to become an attorney and had paid for all his
higher education--but admitting to others and himself that he
had spent years chasing a dream that wasn't right for him. It
also meant financial sacrifice--trading a lavish salary for a
modest one, and finding a way to fund further education. Jason
worried, too, if he had the potential to be a good teacher,
and whether he could find a position with a high school.
Today his only regret is that he took so long to make this
change. It has opened up a much more fulfilling career for
him, and one that has proven to match his potential remarkably
Why Change Is Difficult
Like Jason, most of us take a circuitous route in finding
our career niche; few of us get it right the first time. The
changes in direction we make personally may be less dramatic
than his--like switching college majors, or taking a new job
within the same profession. Yet many of us make one or more
major career changes during our lifetime. Our
self-understanding is always developing. Add to this the
extreme latitude of choice we face in America today, and we
can easily be into our thirties, forties or beyond, before we
find the career that fits us best. Jason's experience is not
at all unusual.
Change is the stuff of our lives in many other areas
besides career and education. Few of us live out our life in
the same town in which we grew up, let alone the same home.
Most of us make at least several moves--some of us more than
we can count--to new homes or regions. We may change our
church affiliation from time to time, and our membership in
other organizations and clubs. We rethink our commitments in
endless other areas--to leisure activities, to leadership
roles, to people, to goals for personal growth, to our style
Our most difficult turning points often involve
relationships. Not many of us make the journey to marriage
without going through at least several dating relationships,
and a variety of hoped-for ones, where our expectations rise
and fall. Most of us endure some painful experiences in
romance, and have to make a number of new beginnings.
What every major life change we make has in common is that
it always requires us to give up something in order to gain
something. No matter how strongly we desire to make a certain
change, we have to sacrifice certain benefits we've come to
depend on and enjoy to do it, and often a dream we've
cherished as well. Letting go of the past is usually the most
difficult part of changing directions. Like Jason, we can get
stuck here, and wait far longer than we should to move ahead.
There are several reasons we may fail to let go of
situations or goals that aren't right for us, even when we
have convincing evidence that we should. Being aware of these
tendencies that can hold us back can help us to avoid them,
and to act more decisively when it's time to turn the page.
Loss aversion. Some people
are highly unsettled by any experience of personal loss or
failure. They abhor loss so greatly that they prefer to live
in denial about unhealthy situations in their life, and will
remain in them way beyond a reasonable point. To break away,
they fear, would be admitting too blatantly to others and
themselves that they have failed. This same mentality makes
them subject to wishful thinking that these situations will
This outlook is termed “loss
aversion” in the financial world. Investment psychologist
Dian Vujovich explains, “To understand loss aversion,
consider this scenario: A friend owns shares of a stock or a
fund that has fallen precipitously over a period of time.
Rather than reevaluating whether the investment is still a
smart one, your friend decides to buy more shares. As the
price continues to slide, your friend decides to hold on to
the shares even though all the signs say to sell. You ask
yourself, Why won't he just get rid of that loser?”*
Part of what fuels loss aversion, Vujovich notes, is that
we tend to value our losses in life more greatly than our
gains. The grief we experience over a personal loss is
typically greater than our joy over a success of equal
measure. The result is that an investor with loss aversion
tends not only to hold on to losing shares too long, but to
sell winning shares too quickly.
We can be subject to loss aversion in any area of life. We
may find it easier to stick with the unhealthy relationship
than to break it off, less threatening to stay in the
profession that doesn't match our potential than to start over
in a new career. We dislike giving the impression that we've
failed to anyone, including ourselves.
To move ourselves beyond loss
aversion, it helps to understand that a number of losses are
usually necessary to merit a success in any pursuit.
Successful investors understand this principle well. Some
investment strategies follow the principle that far more
securities in a portfolio will post losses than gains; one may
still come out ahead by keeping these losses as small as
possible and the gains as substantial as possible.*
In the same way, our aim in life shouldn't be to insulate
ourselves against all possibility of failure, but to keep the
losses we do experience as small as possible. The real loss is
when we hold on to a bad situation too long. “Cutting your
losses” is a helpful concept in business, for it implies you
are taking a positive step by putting a stop to an
unprofitable venture. This is a good way to regard dropping
any losing situation in our life. Thinking in terms of cutting
our losses reminds us that we're gaining, not losing, by
letting go of it.
In the same way Jesus taught his disciples an extremely
redemptive concept when he urged them to depart from towns
where they weren't warmly received, shaking the dust off their
feet as they left (Mt 10:14; Mk 6:11; Lk 9:5, 10:11; see Acts
13:51). He not only indicated that it was normal and
acceptable for them to experience some failures, even when
they were following fully in his will, but he gave them a
positive, assertive step to break the emotional inertia of
Most important, he implied that they would enjoy some
rewarding successes if they pressed on (Lk 10:2-9). The key
was to keep their losses as minimal as possible, and their
gains as significant as possible.
Jesus' teaching on shaking off the dust is good to keep in
mind whenever we need to gain the courage to cut our losses in
any area. Reflecting on it can help us find the heart to move
Being true to ourselves. In some
cases we've identified so strongly with a certain dream for so
long that it has become part of the fabric of our personality.
Even if we find that a new direction suits us better, the
thought of letting go of our old dream feels like an act of
treason against ourselves.
When a friend of mine was in his young twenties, his
parents told him they would one day move from their plush
suburban home, and allow him to purchase it for a minimal
price. For many years Rob looked forward to the time when he
could move his family there. It would mean a major increase in
living space for them, and a much quieter neighborhood.
Eventually his priorities changed. He and his wife decided
they preferred to move to a more modest home in the country,
near recreational activities they enjoyed.
Not long after they made this decision, his parents
announced they were ready for him to buy their home. “The
hardest part,” Rob confessed to me, “was admitting to
myself that I no longer wanted to do this particular
Rob fortunately had the maturity to abandon his dream of
purchasing his folks' home, in spite of his mixed emotions.
Some people, though, in a similar situation would feel
compelled to stick with their original intention, out of
concern with being true to themselves.
No matter how attracted we may be to a new dream, we may
still feel like we're forsaking an old friend by relinquishing
our original one. We should recognize that it's normal and
human to feel this way. We are actually going through a
grieving experience in this case. It may help us to take some
time to mourn what we're leaving behind, and allow ourselves
to face these feelings fully. There is no shame in doing so;
it's part of the adjustment process often involved even in
We may also need to redefine what it means to be true to
ourselves. We should regard it as staying faithful to an evolving
understanding God's will and our own potential, rather than a
static one. As we make the changes that this growing
understanding requires, we'll probably feel less than
authentic at times with new roles and identities we
assume--simply because we aren't used to them yet. This
doesn't mean we're selling ourselves short by moving forward.
Change of any sort can feel unnatural at first. The key is to
allow ourselves reasonable time to adjust, and in time we'll
likely grow comfortable with our new situations.
God guides us not by revealing elaborate blueprints of his
future intentions for our life, but by inching us forward step
by step. We cannot be more true to ourselves than by
committing ourselves fully to this process, and to all of the
emotional adjustments involved.
The fear of hurting others.
Another concern we may have is that others will be hurt if we
take a new step with our life. This fear can have some basis.
Friends and family members who've grown accustomed to how we
are now may feel threatened by our changing. If they've
supported us and rooted for us as we've pursued a certain
dream, their pride may be hurt if we abandon it for a new one.
A more serious problem is that they may lose important
benefits that they derive from their present relationship with
We can never know for certain, however, how someone will
respond to a step we want to take until we carry it out. Nor
can we foresee fully how it will affect them. Sometimes we're
During college I dated a nursing student for a year and a
half. We enjoyed a strong supportive relationship, and talked
seriously about getting married. Gradually, though, I began to
realize that we weren't a good match for marriage, since our
vocational goals didn't mesh well. My interest in continuing
the relationship began to wane.
Yet for over a month I hesitated to tell her, fearing that
the news would be crushing to her. Finally, I brought myself
to do it, nearly certain she would break down.
She did break down. Not in tears but in laughter. She went
on to tell me that her feelings about the relationship had
been changing in exactly the same way, yet she had been afraid
of hurting me by admitting it. We parted amiably, and today
both of us, happily married to others, remain good friends.
My experience brings out one of the most important
principles of faith we can keep in mind in weighing a major
change: If God is influencing us to take a new direction
with our life, he is influencing others about it as well.
He is changing others' thinking--preparing the way for us to
move forward, that we may benefit, not devastate, those in our
path. While we have no guarantee that others will applaud what
we're doing, we're likely to enjoy some encouraging surprises.
And if God is leading us to make the change we're considering,
we may trust that what is best for us will be best for others
This isn't to minimize the pain often involved in ending a
relationship. My experience in college was unusual,
unquestionably; breaking off a relationship can be the most
difficult step we ever have to take. Yet we cannot
second-guess how someone else will respond when we share our
feelings honestly with them. Nor can we predict how God will
strengthen us to handle the challenge of communicating on this
Beyond terminating a relationship, others have the
potential to be hurt by any major change we make. The desire
not to purposely hurt others, of course, is commendable, and a
vital part of caring for them with the love of Christ. Yet we
can become too concerned about unintentional hurt someone may
experience when we follow through with what God wants us to
We should remind ourselves that God will be changing
people's hearts as we move forward. Some whom we fear
disappointing may respond quite differently than we imagine.
Chances are good that, in the long run, they'll be grateful
we've followed our star. In any case, we're not responsible
for their feelings. We may trust that by faithfully carrying
out what God wants us to do, we will best enhance his
providing for the needs of others--including those whom we're
concerned about hurting.
The fear of failure. While there
are many fears that can discourage us from a new venture, the
fear of failure is often our greatest deterrent. Some fear of
failing is healthy, for it prods us to plan carefully. Yet an
inordinate fear of failure will prevent us from pursuing goals
that are appropriate for us, including many that God will
enable us to achieve.
As in dealing with loss aversion, part of the solution to
overcoming an excessive fear of failure is to revise our
thinking about failure itself. It's not the ultimate disaster
to fail. With hindsight we so often realize that certain
setbacks helped pave the road to a cherished success. The
important thing is to be willing to cut our losses if we do
fail, and to be ready to do so. Simply knowing that we can
cut our losses if we need to, helps to blunt our fear of
failure and to give us the courage to risk.
It is just as important to remind ourselves that we may not
fail. If Christ is leading us to take a certain step, we may
trust that he'll work in countless ways to bring about his
best. Whatever the outcome, we'll be better off going ahead.
And we have strong reason to stay optimistic that we'll reach
the goal we've set out to accomplish.
Scripture encourages us also to expect considerable comfort
from God in the face of fear. It reminds us often that as we
seek his help, he calms our fears and inspires us with
courage. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in
everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present
your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends
all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in
Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:6-7 NIV).
Yet it also warns us not to let fear rule our lives or keep
us from realizing our potential for Christ. The tragic mistake
of the servant in Jesus' parable who hid his talent, was that
he gave in too greatly to the fear of calamity. “I was
afraid,” he confessed to his master (Mt 25:25).
Especially interesting is how often Scripture exhorts us
simply not to be afraid. “Do not be anxious about
anything.” The implication is that as we take decisive
action to move ahead in spite of fear, we'll not only
experience God's blessings in many remarkable ways, but relief
from our anxieties as well. We overcome fear most
substantially not by reflecting but by acting.
If God is leading you to take a new direction with your
life, ask him to give you courage to embrace life and move
forward. Don't ignore your fears--in fact, face them
carefully. But determine not to let them control you. Resolve
to step out in faith and to operate in the realm of faith. By
doing so, you'll find the strength to leave the past behind,
and to open yourself fully to God's best for your future.