What happens when you’ve made a fortune challenging yourself in your profession and then you wake up one day and realize you’ve been holding back?
This is the story of Jesse Itzler. Itzler founded Marquis Jets (a private jet card company) and ZICO Coconut Water. When he sold these companies and others, he made hundreds of millions of dollars. Itzler is now co-owner of the Atlanta Hawks basketball team.
Always one to challenge himself, Itzler got involved in running several years ago, when he began training for marathons and even ultra-marathons. During one ultra-marathon, he witnessed the herculean efforts of a Navy Seal who had no support team, brought little food and endured significant physical injuries.
Looking for a new challenge, Itzler invited this man to move into his home for 31 days. The one stipulation made by this Navy Seal was Itzler would do whatever he was asked or the Seal would leave.
Itzler outlines his experience in his book, Living with A Seal: 31 Days Training with the Toughest Man on the Planet. During a podcast interview about the book, Itzler was asked what his biggest takeaway was from this experience. His answer?
“I realized I had more in the tank”
As I listened to this interview with Itzler while on a road trip last year, I personalized that reflection. “What if that is true for all of us? What if we all have more in us than we realize?”
Itzler’s desire to challenge himself led him to the realization that he was capable of more – much more than he realized.
The Itzler interview I listened to while driving reminded of an image I had saved on my phone. For the last couple years, this image has regularly popped up in my social media feeds. It illustrates an important truth.
The “magic” does not happen in our comfort zone; magic happens in our growth zone, also known as our “discomfort” zone.
While most of us would say we want to grow and thrive, we regularly drift into a “comfort zone.” We forget that there’s a fine line between a routine and a rut, between being comfortable and being complacent. We don’t drift into growth. We drift into mediocrity.
I talked to a friend recently who said she had become bored in her work. She didn’t set out to be bored and initially she loved the work. But over time, the challenge diminished and she became comfortable. She started going through the motions and things became too easy.
As I reflect on what happened in Itzler’s life and my friend’s story, I realized the one common element – challenge. It was the difficulty, the adversity and the struggle which brought meaning. Those experiences engage us in a way that easy, serene seasons do not. Think about it in terms of driving – which engages you more – a pristine drive on the interstate or a torrential downpour in the middle of rush hour? The second one, right? You wouldn’t dare text message someone in the midst of that, right?
Well, which one better describes how you are living? Are you living on auto-pilot or are you having to use both hands?
(As a follower of Jesus and a pastor, one might think that I wouldn’t use this kind of language. After all, shouldn’t we be singing “Jesus Take the Wheel” with Carrie Underwood? Shouldn’t we let Jesus be the pilot? I’m not sure if metaphor works that way. I don’t think faith and trust obliterate our agency and responsibility for our lives on a daily basis. I can trust God and seek His guidance while still driving my life. Being a follower of Jesus and becoming the person God created me to be doesn’t make me more passive; it makes me more engaged and less passive.)
For some time, I’ve been challenged by a quote from author and pastor John Ortberg. “People who doubt God’s existence list suffering as their primary objection, while people who follow Jesus list suffering as the main thing God used to transform them.”
If it’s the challenge (as Itlzer puts it) or suffering (as Ortberg describes), then we should rethink our approach to comfort and routine.
If we were to take this kind of approach, what would it look like? I think it would involve four disciplines.
1) Giving thanks for difficulty.
Gratitude is one of my primary habits to reshape my perspective. I truly believe that gratitude doesn’t change our experience, gratitude changes our perspective on our experience. I love how Eugene Peterson translates the words of Jesus’ brother James in James 1:2. “Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.” The difficulty is a gift which makes possible growth which couldn’t happen any other way.
2) Leaning into the fear rather than running away.
One of the problems with even a little bit of success is you now have something to lose. However, it’s the willingness to risk and face possible failure which produced success in the first place.
Author and speaker Christine Caine challenges us all when she writes, “It’s not easy to go the distance, is it? There are casualties in this race. People will disappoint you. You will fumble and fail at times. Most things will take longer than you think. The circumstances will be painful…but when you learn to see areas of fear as places where trust is about to grow, fear gives way to courage.” While many of us treat fear as a sign to stop, fear is actually a compass or even a green light. It shows us the way and tells us to go forward.
3) Refusing the path of least resistance
As a pastor, one of my pet peeves are the spiritual cliches I hear thrown about by church people as they interpret and tell stories about their experiences. One of the most popular statements involves the image of a door. If an opportunity has presented itself and it’s positive, then people say, “Well, it seems like God is opening a door.” When an opportunity is closing and the desirability of it has diminished, the phrase changes to “it seems like God is closing the door.”
This is where we need to heed the words of Richard Rohr. Rohr, a Franciscan priest and prolific author, writes, “Once we reach the age of thirty, success has nothing to teach us. Success is fun and rewarding, but we don’t learn anything new from it. It’s not a bad friend; it’s just a lousy teacher. The only thing that can teach us, that can get through to us and profoundly change us, is suffering, failure, loss, and wounds.”
4) Being present in the current season
One of the most difficult practices in 2016 is the discipline of presence. Through Instagram, we compare our boring moments to other people’s highlight reels. We’re constantly tempted to be physically present with those we love, while we are electronically engaged with those we barely know much less love.
Comparison kills contentment. It builds bad habits which sabotage our future. If we’re not present in the current season, we won’t be present in a future one. If we resent our present reality, we’ll likely be ungrateful for a future one.
I believe it is in learning to be present and wholeheartedly give ourselves to an imperfect situation that we develop the character and habits which prepare us for what’s next. The people we are in less-than-ideal circumstances will be the same people we are when our dreams become reality.
I hope that you can see places where implementing these practices can reframe your current season and prepare you for whatever is next. I’m praying for you today as you step out of your comfort zone into your growth zone.