In a popular
book on realizing one's personal potential, entrepreneur Harvey Mackay
offers a simple recipe for living successfully: You must want to
achieve a dream “more than you want anything else in the world.”
Only pursue a goal that passionately enthralls you, Mackay
But, he adds, “most important, you have to be sure
you never get it.”*
Mackay is talking tongue-in-cheek, of course. He isn’t
recommending that we prevent ourselves from reaching our dreams,
nor is he encouraging self-sabotage. Nor is he saying that we
shouldn’t celebrate our victories. Far from it. What he is
saying is that we shouldn’t let a success become our final
resting place. We should take what inspiration from it we can,
then move on to new pursuits.
We do best not to let ourselves feel
too successful, in other words. It’s far healthier to
continue to feel that we still have worlds to conquer. He adds,
“The successful people I know always have a carrot in front of
them, slightly out of reach, no matter how many carrots they
John Updike offered similar advice to
writers in an interview featured in Time some years ago.*
I’ve never forgotten his counsel, which has seemed like a
personal admonition ever since. No one “goes bad” more
frequently and thoroughly than writers, Updike noted. Authors
who have a brush with success may conclude too readily that
anything they write is wonderfully appealing. They stop
agonizing over their material so much, and begin publishing
first drafts rather than third. They lose their edge, and their
readers lose their interest.
Humility, Updike observed, is one of the most essential
requirements for good writing. We who write do best not to focus
on our successes--the reviews, the accolades if they come. We
should give our energy instead to the work ahead of us, and keep
that challenge as great as possible. And we should never imagine
that we’ve reached a plateau where we no longer need to go
through the same arduous process that has enabled us to write
effectively in the past.
Psychotherapist David Richo offers such
counsel more broadly in Unexpected Miracles. Life
presents us with many welcome surprises, Richo explains. Yet we
must stay adequately challenged to be in a position to
experience them; if we let ourselves become too comfortable, we
blunt the possibility of surprise. “Are you setting up your life
so that there will be no surprises?” Richo asks. “Is everything
too orderly? What do you lose that way? Is fear behind your not
being surprised very much these days?”*
Keeping Motivation Strong
One of the greatest challenges we face is knowing how to move
forward with our life once we experience success or have a taste
of it. Success can be a tonic to us--in the healthiest
sense--boosting our self-esteem, giving us confidence that we
can achieve our goals, and spurring us on to new dreams.
Success can also be a tranquilizer,
lulling us into a life that’s too comfortable and predictable.
Or it may inspire us to keep some challenge present, but not at
a level appropriate to the potential God has given us or to our
own need for growth and stimulation. Halford Luccock notes,
“There is a major disaster when a person allows some success to
become a stopping place rather than a way station on to a larger
goal. It often happens that an early success is a greater moral
hazard than an early failure.”*
We are always happiest, healthiest and most productive when
our life is strongly in a growth mode. We are most likely
realizing our potential when we are being driven by childlike
enthusiasm for a dream, which fires us to spring out of bed when
the alarm rings and move as quickly as we can to salvage every
moment possible for working toward our goal.
This isn’t to say that we have to have a radically new dream
on the horizon at all times. Dreams come in two varieties--those
we pursue, and those we live out. Some achieve a dream early in
life which fits them so well that they spend the rest of their
life living it out--yet they do so with energy and creative
initiative. In reality, they are responding to many new dreams,
but these are ones that fit clearly within the cherished role in
life they’ve attained.
Many of us go through periods like this. We’ve achieved a
dream so meaningful, and demanding in its responsibilities, that
we’re compelled to give our full attention to living it out.
While we may pursue many goals related to this dream, we’re
wisest not to let unrelated interests divert us.
Over a lifetime, though, most of us are not so unilateral in
our approach to life, but we discover God’s plan through a more
circuitous route. From time to time we need a clearly new dream
to keep our life on the growing edge. For us, the temptation may
be to settle prematurely for a level of accomplishment that
doesn’t represent God’s best for us.
In stressing the importance of continuing to grow and pursue
dreams, I don’t mean to downplay our need for leisure. We each
need times when we turn off the mental generator. We need rest
and relaxation daily and sometimes extended periods of leisure.
I’ve long been impressed that Scripture--especially in its
Sabbath teaching--gives more emphasis to the importance of rest
than work. The Bible unquestionably views overwork as a greater
threat to our well-being than laziness.
Scripture extols leisure, not as an end in itself, but as a
chance to kekindle our motivation for the work God has called us
to do. After Ezra and his highly motivated companions traveled
from the Ahava Canal to Jerusalem, for instance, they “rested
three days” before proceeding with their challenging mission
(Ezra 8:32 NIV). The revitalizing role of rest is shown
especially dramatically in Elijah’s recovery from burnout,
detailed in 1 Kings 19:1-8.
Is it wrong, then, to seek leisure for its own sake? Is it
unhealthy, for example, to dream of retirement as an opportunity
for unending leisure?
I’ve personally known many retired people who for years
yearned for the time to come when they could finally stop
punching the clock and be free to enjoy life with few
restrictions. Some of them disdained their professional work,
and long endured an unsatisfying career with the hope for a
major payback in retirement. Some of them truly enjoy their
retirement--and I must confess they are an inspiration to me.
Their examples encourage me to take life at a more reasonable
pace and not to be so obsessive about work.
When I look at why these people enjoy retirement so
much, though, I find in every case that their life still
includes plenty of activity. Some are active in recreational,
artistic or creative pursuits. Others, with large extended
families, are circuit riders, visiting children and
grandchildren, giving encouragement and helping with problems
where they can. Others give extensive time to volunteer service
or ministry. Retirement for these people is a treasured
opportunity to pursue dreams that have been dormant or
half-realized for much of their life. They are still very much
about the business of realizing their potential.
Others are bored in retirement, and some are simply
miserable. They had looked to retirement and its leisure as
life’s ultimate prize, but it hasn’t delivered what it promised.
They long for greater purpose in life, and a greater sense of
Others begin retirement eager to pursue certain activities
that over time lose their appeal. Now they long for greater
The challenge for those who find retirement unsatisfying is
the lure of the comfort zone. They enjoy a lifestyle now that at
least is comfortable and familiar. And they no longer have
financial pressure--a greater benefit than we usually
realize--to look for employment. The inertia can be broken in
such cases. But it takes courage and decisiveness. It may also
require defying conventional wisdom.
Retirement As Sabbatical?
One such individual who defied both
inertia and conventional wisdom, and long benefited, was Robert
Eisenberg. After working half a century in garment
manufacturing, Eisenberg retired in 1970 at 72, selling Zabin
Industries, which he had owned since 1954. “I was ready [for
retirement],” he said, “but I found it boring after about 10
years.” At 82, he went back to work for Zabin, and continued
working full-time for the company until 104, overseeing zipper
production. “He’s got remarkable mental abilities,” owner Alan
Failoa commented when Eisenberg was 103. “The longer I’ve dealt
with him, the more I find myself forgetting his age.”*
It may be argued that his was simply a case of exceptional
genetics. Yet it’s hard to resist the conclusion that
Eisenberg’s decision to resume his former career added years to
his life; it certainly added vitality to his years. His example
is unusual (he was believed by many to be America’s oldest
worker), and I’m not suggesting that most who are bored in
retirement should jump back into their former profession at full
throttle. It is the right step for some, though. Many others who
are restless in retirement will find relief in resuming some
sort of gainful employment.
What’s most helpful about Eisenberg’s example is that
it provides a different model for thinking about retirement than
our customary one--namely, retirement as sabbatical. This
is a much more inspiring and helpful model for many of us than
the traditional concept of retirement as endless leisure, for it
encourages us to realize that, if we’re unhappy retired, we’re
not locked in to staying so. There may be a multitude of new
directions we can take with our life, including many we’ve never
entertained. These options may include resuming a meaningful
If you find yourself unsatisfied in retirement, at least
consider the possibility that God is intending this period as a
sabbatical for you rather than a permanent vacation. If you take
on a job or some meaningful new activity at this point, you’ll
have a lifetime of experience to bring to your new calling, plus
the benefit of the time you’ve taken to get refreshed and gain
new perspective. The retirement-as-sabbatical model can be
positively thrilling, especially if you’ve felt “put out to
pasture” and doomed to stay there forever.
Embracing New Dreams
Let’s say you’re at a point in life where you’re fairly
comfortable. You may be retired. Or you may be young and working
eighty hours a week. But you’ve achieved some goals that are
important to you. Now you’re content with your life as it is,
and not greatly preoccupied with reaching for new horizons.
How do you determine if this comfort zone is healthy, or
whether there is yet another star to which you should hitch a
One critical question is whether you are truly happy in this
state. Your instincts will tell you a lot, if you read them
correctly. In sorting them through, consider these questions:
Is there, in fact, a major improvement that you would welcome
for your life? Do you fantasize about having this benefit?
Is there a skill you have long cherished for yourself, but
have never developed or nurtured as fully as you would like?
Is there a need among people you know, or a more widespread
need in the world, that you would love to help meet? Is there a
problem others face that you dream of solving, or a contribution
to others’ lives you dream of making?
Suppose you were at the end of your life, looking back over
it. Would you feel there is unfinished business? Is there
something you would seriously regret not having accomplished?
Perhaps it’s only too clear that the answer to one or more of
these questions is yes. You have a dream--dormant though it may
be--that could easily resurface with the right encouragement. If
so, then I urge you to consider carefully whether you’re
allowing the desire for security to keep you from God’s best for
Healthy and Unhealthy Dreams
I don’t deny that we can have dreams which are better left
unpursued. Our need to feel important, or our compassion, may
lead us to fantasize about taking a certain step with our life,
when in fact we would have little affinity for the
responsibilities the new role would require.
Jason, 55, has long dreamed of becoming a pastor as a
retirement vocation. One motive is noble: he would thoroughly
love sharing the gospel with people and having the best possible
platform for winning others to Christ. He has another motive
that is more complex and less trustworthy. He attended a
missions conference as a young man, where the speakers urged
those attending to enter the ministry as a career. He has been
dogged with guilt ever since, fearing he may have settled for
God’s second best by choosing accounting as his profession. He
would relish the opportunity to atone for his possible mistake.
And he would treasure the identity of being a pastor--a status
he imagines would boost his self-worth enormously.
In reality, Jason would have little heart for the endless
interacting with people needed to minister effectively--the
consensus building, the handholding, the motivating--not to
mention the denominational politics. He would also find the
preparation process for sermons and talks burdensome.
Jason’s pastoral dream, in short, is based too greatly upon
the benefit he imagines would come to his self-esteem, and too
little on a love for the actual work he would have to do. Each
of us lays hold to a number of dreams like this during our
lifetime--where we imagine we would savor the status of a
certain role, which in reality we would not enjoy living out.
These are dreams that are best kept in the enjoy-the-fantasy
Such fantasizing isn’t unhealthy, providing the roles we muse
about themselves aren’t harmful or unhealthy. A certain amount
of such unrealistic wish dreaming, in fact, is normal, and vital
to being human. It’s part of the necessary process of “trying on
dreams”--where we sort through all the options that appeal to
us, and settle on those that truly work for us. It’s simply
important that we develop the discernment to distinguish between
those dreams that fit us well and those that don’t.
With that disclaimer, we each entertain many dreams that do
make good sense for us. We would not only love the distinction
of achieving the dream, but would relate well to the new
responsibilities required for us. The work and lifestyle changes
the dream entails would fit our gifts and personality well.
These are dreams we should be careful not to let get snuffed
out as life grows more comfortable. The questions I’ve suggested
can help us recapture dreams for which we’ve lost the fire, and
put them on the table again.
Giving Personal Vision a Fair Chance
Perhaps you’re not certain whether your answer to any of
these questions is yes. Before you write off the possibility
that important aspirations might still be brewing inside you,
let me ask you to consider Moses’ example. God called him to
spend the last third of his life in a role he found immensely
satisfying. He thrived on the chance to lead his people and make
a critical difference in their destiny. His relationship with
God grew extraordinarily through it all, and his health seemed
to benefit as well, for at the time of his death at 120, “his
eyes were not weak nor his strength gone” (Deut 34:7).
Yet Moses initially held the opportunity God was offering him
in contempt--even though God had spoken to him directly, with
dramatic signs, and had assured him of success and of every
measure of divine assistance. Moses was certain he didn’t
want the job, convinced he would be a failure,
positive he would detest the work. With the possible
exception of Jonah, we don’t find a more stunning example in
Scripture of someone resisting a call and failing to appreciate
the fortuitous opportunity in front of them.
The opportunity God presented Moses, though, was ideal for
him and fit his gifts and personality perfectly. Moses had grown
up in Pharaoh’s household, and probably understood the palace
culture and how to communicate with royalty better than any
Israelite living then. He had also lived for decades with Jethro,
the priest of Midian, certainly learning volumes about how to be
an effective spiritual leader.
Most important, Moses had a burning, though long-repressed,
instinct to fight injustice and champion better conditions for
his people. In his late thirties, he killed an Egyptian whom he
caught abusing an Israelite. Public resentment of his
vigilantism, however, compelled Moses to flee Egypt for Midian.
There he married Jethro’s daughter and, for the next forty
years, tended sheep for the priest. Life in Midian was
comfortable for Moses--an early retirement of sorts (Ex 2:21).
Now, after four decades of peaceful shepherding, the passionate
zeal of his youth had all but flickered out. God knew it was
capable of re-igniting strongly, though, with the right
Moses’ example strikingly reminds us that we don’t always
understand our own aspirations well. Fear--of both failure and
success--as well as simple inertia, can keep us from perceiving
what we most want to do or would be most effective doing. We
shouldn’t be too quick to think we’ve recognized all the
important horizons God has for us. Moses’ experience stirs us to
look carefully at whether we’re allowing security needs or
unreasonable fears to shut down our ability to dream.
This isn’t to say that if God leads us into a new vocation
after retirement, it will necessarily require the radical
acceleration of activity that occurred in Moses’ case. There are
other important biblical examples to consider. Abraham, for
instance, took a more leisurely approach to life in his later
years than Moses did. Following his father’s death, Abraham
“went out not knowing whither he went” (Heb 11:8 KJV). God
brought major new adventures into Abraham’s life: the birth of
Isaac, the experience of parenting, a military mission to rescue
his cousin Lot, and remarriage after Sarah’s death--to name a
few. Yet these events unfolded at a more relaxed pace than
circumstances did for Moses. God never laid upon Abraham the
intensive leadership responsibilities that he required of Moses.
And overall, Abraham experienced much less disruption to his
life than Moses did.
If Moses gives us a model of “retirement as sabbatical,”
then, Abraham shows us the possibility of new dreams and
adventures emerging within retirement. We see how widely
God’s plans can differ for any two people. What Moses and
Abraham both teach us is the importance of staying open to new
adventure and of continuing to dream big about our life. We’re
reminded, too, that we should never assume our life’s most
important chapters have all been written.
Their examples also remind us that:
God gives us the ability to carry out important dreams, in
spite of what we may perceive as inadequacies or even severe
He enlightens us to such opportunities both by inspiring new
dreams, and by resurfacing old ones that have long lain dormant.
The fact that we’re not experiencing some burning new
inspiration for our future at the moment doesn’t necessarily
mean we’ll never experience fresh vision again. God’s timing in
this matter varies greatly for each of us.
This last point is perhaps the most
encouraging of all, for we can feel guilty or disheartened when
no new dream seems to be emerging. We may berate ourselves for
not thinking big enough, even though we may be trying sincerely
to do so. If, in fact, we are eager to grow and enjoy new
adventure, and stay open and expectant about our future, and
continue to pray earnestly for God’s direction and
strength--then we have strong reason to expect that he will, in
his time, inspire fresh dreams that bring important new purpose
to our life.