Undistracted (2022) is a call to arms against one of the greatest forces stopping you from living your best life: distraction. Life is full of it. The 24/7 news cycle. Your smartphone. Worrying about what your colleagues think and what your neighbors have. Endless to-do lists. All those sources of distraction get in the way of what really matters – a life filled with joy, love, and intention.
Introduction: What’s in it for me? A guide to finding your focus.
Distraction gets in the way of joyful living.
You don’t have to chase every bolted horse.
You know more about your true path in life than you think you do.
Overthinking things keeps you distracted.
Recognizing where you are now will help you move forward.
About the author
Table of Contents
Video and Podcast
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview
Motivation, Inspiration, Mindfulness, Happiness, Religion, Spirituality, Christian Living, Stress Management Self-Help, Christian Personal Growth, Christian Self Help,
Introduction: A guide to finding your focus.
Guh-guh-guh-guh-guh. If you’ve ever drifted to the side of a highway, you’ve heard that sound. It’s the noise made by rumble strips to warn inattentive drivers that they’re in danger.
Undistracted, the title we’ll be exploring in this summary, is a metaphorical rumble strip. It’s designed to help you stop drifting: to get you back into your lane and onto your life’s true path.
What is that path? That’s for you to decide. But here’s author Bob Goff’s argument: whatever paths we choose for ourselves, we all face common obstacles. And the biggest obstacle of all is distraction.
Distraction means losing focus. Our minds wander. We forget our real goals – the things that matter most of all. That’s when we start drifting off the highway.
In this summary, we’ll explore techniques that will help you regain focus and lean into a rich and fulfilling life. For Goff, a Christian, that life is centered on God, and lots of the stories and advice you’ll be hearing are filtered through that lens. Don’t worry if you have a different perspective, though – there’s plenty of insight here for everyone.
Distraction gets in the way of joyful living.
Life is full of uncertainty. How could it be any other way?
We enter the world helpless and the people who we rely on for everything – our parents and guardians – are pretty much amateurs. There’s no owner’s guide to raising happy, focused, successful kids, after all. Like the folks who raised them, they have to make it up as they go along.
Sometimes, they get it right; often, they don’t. We’re the products of that mishmash of triumphs and failures. The good and the bad. And then, around the age of 18, it’s suddenly up to us to weave those contrasting threads together and craft the tapestry of a life worth living.
That, too, is an ad hoc process. It’s improvised. Made up on the go. No wonder there’s usually more ambiguity than clarity, more confusion than certainty, in our lives. Thing is, though, getting those ad hoc, improvised decisions wrong can leave us miserable and broken. The stakes, in other words, are high.
It’s no surprise that we’re plagued by uncertainty and fear knowing what we do about those stakes. We anxiously watch what others are doing and wonder if we should follow in their footsteps. We worry that we’re not popular, or attractive, or rich enough to be happy. We question our choices. Our ambitions. Our partners. The advice of our parents and teachers. Oftentimes, we get downright angry and resentful.
Add all that together and you have the perfect recipe for distraction – a life that’s lacking a sense of true north. That’s unguided and feels purposeless. That’s full of stress and short on joy.
But the fact that life really is confusing – there’s no getting around that, unfortunately – doesn’t mean you’re helpless. Hiking through unfamiliar terrain is hard, especially when it’s full of terrifying ravines and tangled forests. It’s a lot harder, though, if you don’t have a map and a compass. Or, even better, a smartphone with GPS.
The real question, then, is about tools.
What’s going to help you navigate this big scary world? What’s going to help you plot your journey toward goals that really matter and ignore all the distractions around you?
Finding answers to those questions is what Undistracted is all about. So let’s dig in!
You don’t have to chase every bolted horse.
A while back, Bob Goff bought a horse called Red for a single dollar. Red had injured a tendon, so his career as a racing horse was over. That’s why he was so cheap – his old owner had no use for him.
Horses are measured the way they have been since ancient times – in hands. That’s exactly what it sounds like. Before standardized measuring tools became common, people counted the number of times their hands – the palm plus a thumb – fitted between the ground and a horse’s shoulders. Today, a hand is defined as four inches.
Red came in at 17 hands – that’s eight feet from hoof to head. He was an imposing animal.
You can’t just throw a saddle on a horse that size. To break Red in, the author took him for a walk in a pasture. That’s when Red got spooked. He reared up on his hind legs and bolted across the 100 acre field. Bob didn’t know what to do, so he ran after him.
You can imagine the folly of that pursuit. Even with an injured tendon, Red was quickly out of sight, leaving Bob panting and clutching his sides. After gulping down some air, though, he came to his senses. There was no way he was catching this horse. And so he went back to the barn and waited. A quarter of an hour later, Red trotted back.
What does that story have to do with distraction? Well, the short answer is: sometimes, you need to stop chasing that bolted horse to go back to the barn. The longer version goes like this:
We all chase after things in life. There’s the dream job – the position that’s not just well-paid but also deeply fulfilling. Or the dream partner who promises domestic bliss. Or popularity, acceptance, or the respect of our peers. You can add plenty of other ideals to that list.
Point is, we run across life’s field in pursuit of these things, but we end up doubled over, out of breath, watching those dreams recede ever further into the distance. Dream jobs don’t solve all our problems and dream partners turn out to have their shortcomings, too. Or we find out it’s possible to be popular but lonely, or respected but disliked.
So what if you stopped chasing these follies and distractions and returned to the barn? What if you returned to the basics – your faith and family, your purpose and joy, your authentic life? If you hit the brakes in your exhausting life, caught your breath, and focused on the things that really matter?
There’s a version of this idea in the Bible. In one of his letters, Paul calls for us to set aside the things that are wearing us out and tripping us up and instead look to the things God has given us. You don’t need to worry about what other people have, he says – you already have everything you need. That’s what the barn represents: the safe place where you can find clarity about your purpose in life.
To live a life of great purpose isn’t to chase everything that’s available – it’s to cast aside distractions and focus on who God made you and find the life best suited to the person he wished you to be. Do that and the things that really matter are much more likely to come trotting into your barn.
You know more about your true path in life than you think you do.
The average adult’s brain weighs around three pounds. If it’s especially big, it’ll weigh in at four-and-a-half pounds. That’s plenty of room to fill with everything you learn as you go through your life.
But as American author Annie Dillard says, we should be careful about what we learn because what we learn is what we know. So what’s in your brain – what do you know? Are you filling it with distractions? Even four-and-a-half pounds of half-truths is a recipe for half a life. To live a full life, you need the whole truth. To be clear-eyed about your path. To be honest with yourself.
Of course, we can’t control everything that goes into our brains. Before we get to make any choices about what to learn and believe, our parents, teachers, and friends fill our heads with stories. Often, it takes years before the penny drops and we realize what we’ve been told isn’t quite right.
But you don’t have to live with false stories. Instead, let’s go on a little journey into the past:
Think back to what you believed when you were five, ten, 15, and 20. Or, if that’s too long ago, try 30 or 40. Knowing what you know now, what would you say to the five- or 20-year-old you? The author, for example, would tell his heartbroken 15-year-old self that the hurt goes away and he’ll find true love one day. His 20-year-old self, meanwhile, could do with hearing that it’s okay to be scared – he’ll do better than barely making the rent soon enough.
So what did you tell your younger selves? Chances are, you dispelled some myths and cleared up some misconceptions. Real life doesn’t work this way – more’s the pity! We can’t go back; we have to live in the slipstream of decisions we made based on faulty assumptions. But here’s the thing: just because you can’t change the past doesn’t mean you can’t change the future.
Let’s do the same exercise again, but shift focus: If your future self could go back in time to give the “you” of today some advice, what would you say?
Here’s the author’s bet. You probably know some of the truths your hypothetical future self would lay down on present-day you. Sure, those truths might not be bubbling around on the surface of your mind, but they’re not exactly buried deep on the seabed, either. Once you start looking, they’re right there, in your grasp. The reason you’re not grasping them is simple: it’s scary. You don’t know how embracing these truths and acting on them will change your life, but you know it will.
But isn’t it better to thrive in a messy full-truth than to survive in a neat and tidy half-truth?
Overthinking things keeps you distracted.
Back in the fourteenth century, a scholar called William of Ockham came up with a simple but effective rule he could apply to philosophical debates.
The rule, which is now known as Occam’s razor, says that the simplest explanation is usually the right one. For that reason, it’s wise to avoid making unnecessarily complicated or convoluted assumptions.
Philosophy is all about avoiding logical errors. You need special rules like Occam’s razor, though, because this skill doesn’t come naturally to our large, but flawed, Homo sapien brains.
In fact, we love overcomplicating things. So much of what goes on in our minds is driven by the weird and deeply human urge to ignore simple explanations.
Say your friend is short-tempered, for example. Her behavior surely can’t be explained by the fact that her young child is keeping her up at night, and lack of sleep tends to make people grouchy. It’s got to be that ever-so-slightly ambivalent remark you made three weeks ago that, read a certain way, sounded like a criticism of her husband. Yes, that’s it – she’s specifically mad at you for a variety of complicated reasons relating to a weeks-old conversation she definitely hasn’t forgotten! Right?
When these kinds of whirring thoughts fill our minds, we become profoundly distracted. We’re no longer really paying attention to what’s in front of our noses because we’re so busy coming up with complex and hurtful explanations in our heads. To get away from that behavior, it’s a good idea to remember Occam’s razor, which isn’t just useful in philosophical debates.
Is it bugging you that your date always arrives late, for example? Or have you started obsessing over how your friend constantly interrupts you when you’re talking? Pick the simplest explanation and you’ll save yourself a lot of painful ruminating. Maybe her watch is ten minutes slow, or she’s just a bit forgetful. Isn’t that likelier than the story you’ve told yourself about how this is her way of subtly telling you that she’s lost interest? And maybe your friend talks over you because that’s how conversations played out in his family, not because he thinks he’s more important than you.
The bigger point here is that this approach won’t just spare you needless heartache. Going with the simplest explanation also means resentments are much less likely to creep into those relationships.
Recognizing where you are now will help you move forward.
So far, we’ve looked at how distraction can get in the way of joyful, purposeful living. We’re going to shift gears now and tackle a more practical question: How can you start leading a less distracted life?
Before you can move forward, though, you need to take stock of where you are right now. Here’s an exercise that’ll help you do just that.
Start by drawing a circle on a large piece of paper. This circle represents the 24 hours given to you on an average day. Your task is to divide it up like a pie chart, assigning each differently colored segment to a particular activity. We can start with sleep.
How much time do you spend sleeping? Say it’s eight hours – color in one-third of your circle and label it with sleep. What about work? Be honest. Shade in how much time you actually spend working, including commuting – not how much or little time you wished you spent working.
Those two activities probably take up a large part of your circle – and your day. So what’s left? Ask yourself how much undistracted time you spend with the people you love. Put differently, when are you being authentic and going deeper with friends, family, or your partner? Next, shade in the time you make to pursue joyful activities – things like reading, taking walks, or whatever it is that gives you a sense of purpose and peace.
Now take a look at your circle. Are you happy with what you see? Or are the sizes of your pie pieces off? If the way you’re allocating your time doesn’t match the shape of the life you want, there’s a good chance you’re distracted. Recognizing that can be painful, but remember: change begins with clarity. So here’s how to fix things:
Start by surrounding yourself with reminders of who you want to be. A simple way of doing that is to set alarms to remind you when one activity ends and another begins. You can also create a collage to remind you of your deepest values. Fill it with images and symbols of what matters most to you and your family and keep it somewhere prominent; it’ll be your daily prompt to act on those values.
You’ll also want to take a close look at your relationships. Reach out to friends and loved ones who’ve grown distant – you’ll be surprised how often they hold the keys to unlocking the person you want to be. Try to pay closer attention to the people around you, too. Don’t tell your friends that you hope they feel better soon when they’re in trouble – go out of your way to actually help them! Commitment and sacrifice are integral to an undistracted life.
Most important of all, though, you need to have that difficult talk with yourself – the talk you’ve been deferring all this time. Think of it as breaking up with your past. It’s awkward, like all breakups, but it’s vital. You need to make these changes. You need to declare yourself free from distraction and make room for routines and habits that support the person you’re becoming.
You can lock in those changes by writing your own Declaration against Distraction. What’s distracting you? Negative self-talk? Jealousy? People-pleasing? Following your parents’ dreams rather than yours? Whatever it is, note it down and write a sentence about what you’re going to do instead. This document is a statement of purpose – the foundation of a new life of joy and focus!
Your smartphone. Your inbox. The dreams you’ve been following because your friends or parents said you should. Overthinking relationships and clinging on to half-truths. Distraction is everywhere and it takes many forms. And it keeps you from living a joyful life. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The key is honesty. Take stock of the distractions in your life and you’ll find it much easier to make purposeful changes that make space for the things that really matter.
About the author
Bob Goff is the author of the New York Times bestselling Love Does; Everybody, Always; and Dream Big as well as the bestselling Love Does for Kids. He’s a lover of balloons, cake pops, and helping people pursue their big dreams. Bob’s greatest ambitions in life are to love others, do stuff, and most importantly, to hold hands with his wife, Sweet Maria, and spend time with their amazing family. For more, check out BobGoff.com and LoveDoes.org.
Table of Contents
1. The Destruction of Distraction
2. The Keyhole of Eternity
3. Breaking Free by Coming Home
4. The Happiness of Pursuit
5. How Many Fingers Am I Holding Up?
6. All-Access Pass
7. Jesus in the Room
8. No Stalking, Please
9. Tooth Fairies and Shrinking Airplanes
10. Count Yourself Among the Stars
11. “Cease Fire!”
12. The Wrong Button
13. Pinocchio’s Nose
14. The Misadventures of a Serial Reject
15. Stop Chasing the Horse
16. Driven Out of the Shallows
17. “Oh my gosh!”
18. Five Minutes from Now
19. Finish Your Work
About the Author
The world has never been more distracting—joy has never been more possible.
You live with a massive amount of distraction:
- desperate headlines
- smartphone scrolling
- an endless to-do list
Not to mention the nagging questions of your heart:
- Am I making the right decision?
- Am I with the right person?
- Will my past mistakes keep me from my best future?
Through the pithy and inspiring storytelling that has endeared him to millions, New York Times bestselling author Bob Goff invites you to laugh with more gusto, dream with more confidence, and love with more intention in this disarming call to live Undistracted.
Bob’s stories are like the rumble strips on the road that make you suddenly alert to how far you have drifted from your lane. From visiting friends in San Quentin to accidentally getting into a stalker’s car at the airport to establishing Uganda’s first space program, Bob shows you the way back to an audaciously attentive life.
Your undistracted life is an adventure waiting to happen. What stories will you live with undistracted purpose and unstoppable joy?
Through his pithy and inspiring storytelling that has endeared him to millions, New York Times bestselling author Bob Goff reassures readers that they can harness today’s distractions, follow Jesus’ example, and find focus, purpose, and joy.
You probably know what it’s like to be driving down the road when you suddenly feel the vibration and hear the guh-guh-guh-guh-guh of the rumble strips–those grooves in the pavement–warning you that you’ve drifted out of your lane. You didn’t mean to get distracted. You only took your eyes off the road for a moment, but you drifted off course. And that’s a lot like life, isn’t it?
In Undistracted, Bob Goff lovingly yanks us back in our lane and helps us get back on track so we can live our lives with real purpose and joy. In his trademark storytelling style, Bob helps us:
- learn the destruction of distraction and the benefits of living a life of undistracted love and authentic connection
- identify the distractions in our lives and either eliminate them or route around them
- catch a vision of our future, undistracted selves where we can experience true happiness and joy
Bob’s inspiring and entertaining stories in Undistracted show us what it looks like to live a beautiful and purposeful life rather than drifting aimlessly from one season to the next. He encourages us to fix our eyes on Jesus and harness life’s distractions so we can find joy despite our circumstances.
Video and Podcast
My new book “Undistracted”arrived today in braille. We’ve done a braille edition for each of my books and it’s so fun sending to new and old friends. The new book comes out 3.1.22 and we’re hoping you enjoy it. pic.twitter.com/xzcgtMjKmx
— Bob Goff (@bobgoff) February 1, 2022
Bob Goff is the founder of Restore International, a non-profit fighting injustices committed against children in Uganda and India. Bob shares leadership in a Washington law firm, Goff & DeWalt, and he serves as the Honorary Consul for the Republic of Uganda to the United States. He is adjunct professor at Pepperdine Law School and Point Loma Nazarene University.
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview
CHAPTER 1 THE DESTRUCTION OF DISTRACTION
Living on purpose is like a horse wearing blinders.
A couple of years ago I traveled with a few friends to Kurdistan, a place near Iran’s border. We had started a school in the region and were building a hospital and housing for refugees. One morning we got up early and went to the top of a mountain that divided Iraq and Iran. It was a rocky and nondescript area. I remembered from a decade ago when three Americans were taken into custody by Iranian border guards for crossing into Iran while hiking on this mountain. I understood how easy it could be to get confused about what side of a border you were on. A line on a map doesn’t always translate to markings on the ground.
As I walked with my friends, we saw a sign indicating a minefield separating the two countries. This must be the border, I thought. I couldn’t read the language on the sign, but the skull, crossbones, and drawing of an explosion told the story pretty clearly. I decided to throw a couple of rocks into the minefield to see if anything would happen. I know, I know, it probably wasn’t such a great idea, but it was the best bad idea I could come up with at the time. After ten or fifteen minutes I looked over at the landmine sign again and noticed it had been dug up. We weren’t on the perimeter throwing rocks into the minefield; it was just as likely that we were in the minefield.
Be honest. From time to time we all find ourselves in dangerous places when we think we are safe. Distraction is what leads us into this kind of minefield. No matter who you are, somehow or somewhere you will cross over and find yourself in the middle of something you thought you were only adjacent to or on the edge of.
You and I need to recognize the signs that we are becoming distracted. While we might notice our minds wandering, we also need to look at the meandering nature of our activities. Rather than making decisions consistent with who God says we are, we might be acting like the person someone else wants us to be. Perhaps comparison is leading you away from yourself. Maybe it is financial pressures or deep-seated insecurities or past failures that are overly influencing your present decisions. We need to recognize these things in our lives before we can begin the courageous work of moving forward.
Try this: Take some notes for an entire day on how you are spending time between the big projects or commitments in your life. Don’t just write down “I worked on writing my paper today” or “I spent the day preparing for my weekend trip.” Write down all the things that distracted you from writing or preparing that day. Again, be honest: “I went to the post office. I chased the neighbor’s dog out of my yard. I compared my failure with someone else’s success. I ate a Pop-Tart.” Keep it real and admit you had three. Distractions like these make up the minefield you are in right now, not the one you think you are still on the perimeter of. A thousand such unnoticed distractions are getting in the way of your joy and preventing you from living with the kind of focused purpose that will produce the life you are longing for.
Don’t feel bad about all the things that have been grabbing your attention. We all become distracted at some point. It is somehow built into our operating systems. We become distracted from our goals and greater purposes by our temporary circumstances. We can be distracted by each other and even away from God and what we really believe to be true. Sadly, the boatload of goodness we could bring to the world is being scuttled by the many things that carry us so far away from the dock we can no longer make the leap back to shore. We get stuck in the past, worry about the present, or get distracted by the future. We no longer lean into our lives right where we are but instead lean away from them and become individuals who bear little resemblance to the people God intended us to become.
I started a retreat center called The Oaks with some friends in Southern California and was filming a series with a fun and really creative group of people. They explained to me that they had a final closing scene in mind where they would fly a couple of cameras in by drone and capture me holding a bunch of balloons while standing on top of the sixty-foot-tall water tower on the property. All I needed to do was climb to the top. It sounded like another really dangerous idea, so we got started with the preparations right away. The water tower is on a big hill covered in waist-high brush, and we took a small road to the top with dozens of brightly colored helium balloons held out the windows.
When I got to the base of the water tower, I looked up at the dozens of rungs leading upward. This wasn’t going to be easy. The wind was blowing pretty hard, and as I looked up I was completely engrossed in counting the rungs, planning my moves, and thinking about how I could get myself and the balloons up to the top in one piece. If I fell, at least I could land on the balloons, right? I continued to stand at the base of the tower for a few long minutes, looking up and puzzling together all the details I thought would be necessary to navigate my way upward. For no particular reason, I broke from my upward stare, glanced down, and discovered a coiled rattlesnake at my feet. Yikes!
Had I been bitten, this would be a much better story. I wondered whether I was flexible enough to get my ankle up to my face so I could suck the venom out. I’m not going to lie; it would have been quite a power yoga move. I slowly backed away, thankful I wouldn’t have to pull a hamstring to save my own life. This episode got me thinking. Sometimes we are so busy looking up and looking forward trying to figure out the next moves in our lives—or looking backward at all the places we have been—that we don’t look down and figure out where we actually are.
In a sense, we have all been bitten by something just as poisonous as that rattlesnake: the massive number of distractions around us. We live much of our lives struggling for focus, unsure of how to interact with our family or friends. We fret about our popularity and our faith. We question our college majors and career choices. Sometimes married couples wonder about their choices too. Did I pick the right person? Am I the right person? Who changed? Me? You? Both of us? And what do we do now?
No wonder we’re confused. We arrive as babies, placed in the arms of parents who are complete amateurs with no owner’s manual and usually no clue how to raise us. Most of us start broke or broken, and some of us stay that way. Some strike it rich but then accumulate a distorted view of their wealth; still others never find healing in their search for wholeness. Add to this that we’re following a God we can’t see, for a lifetime we can’t measure, to a heaven we can’t comprehend, because of grace we didn’t earn. Again, is it any wonder we’re all a little muddled?
In truth, we are all trying to build the airplane while flying it—figuring it out as we go. This means more off-ramps than on-ramps, more chances for confusion than certainty, and more ambiguity than clarity. In a word, much of life can leave us feeling completely, inextricably, absolutely, and totally distracted. When this happens, one of the first casualties is our joy.
All this vagueness plays right into the hands of darkness too. I am not prone to seeing the devil around every corner, but I am starting to see he has got a clever ploy. I don’t think he wants to destroy us with an obvious, all-out frontal assault. No, I think evil wants to distract us from expressing our gifts and doing what we are meant to do. Darkness is rarely content to wound us with one decisive blow when it can injure us equally with a thousand paper cuts. Honestly, it seems like evil has been doing a pretty good job of keeping us out of the fight and entangled in the ropes of distraction.
You know those indentations they put on the sides of the highway, the ones that go guh-guh-guh-guh-guh if you drift out of the lane? Those are called “rumble strips.” I want this book to be like a rumble strip in your life. Listen: You are on a path. You’re going places. I don’t care whether you drive NASCAR or are waiting for your driver’s permit; it’s common to drift every once in a while. And not the cool kind of drift you see in the movies or on TikTok—the bad kind that will leave you overturned in a ditch. This book will give you a few ideas about how to yank back into your lane, refocus, get clear once again on your lasting purposes, and start living a less distracted and more joy-filled life right now. No one asks for permission to stay on the road; and you don’t need permission to live your life either. Just decide right now that you are going to lean into the rich, meaningful, beautiful, oftentimes painful life God has already given you.
We all know someone who won’t pull over and ask for directions. I used to be one of them, and I think I now know why. Most of us don’t want to be told what to do, even when it would be helpful to us. The fact is, we don’t need more information; we need more examples. Stay close to a few people who understand how to resist distraction and direct their energy toward their most lasting purposes, and some of this intentionality will rub off on you. Imagine what could happen if you focused your attention on what really matters instead of all the things that don’t. What an amazing example of love, purpose, and joy you would be to countless others. These are the things both simple lives and grand legends are made of.
Let’s be honest with each other. There is a lot of second-best available to all of us. If we aren’t aware of the alternatives, we won’t realize we are settling for less than what is accessible to us. This book won’t tell you what to think or what to do, but I hope it reminds you about who you already are. You are someone who has permission to live with an unreasonable, unthinkable, totally absurd amount of focus, purpose, joy, and fulfillment.
Here are a few questions I have for you as we begin this journey. Are you willing to do what it takes to uncover the wonder that already surrounds your life? Will you do the courageous work to identify what is distracting you from the better things? And finally, are you willing to do the difficult and selfless work of releasing the beauty you discover into the lives of others rather than keeping it for yourself?
Pulling this off will require us to put on blinders. Like a racehorse in the Kentucky Derby or a dog with a funnel around its neck after going to the vet. We need to block our view of the things that hardly matter at all, stop returning to the patterns that do not serve our larger objectives, start recognizing what is temporary and transitory, and instead focus intensely on the things that will last forever: our faith, our families, and our purposes. When you direct your attention to these things, you will find your joy.
If you’ve read any of my other books, you know I’ve been focused on Sweet Maria since the moment I saw her. She has captivated me for decades, and she still does. It’s easy to stay undistracted when she’s around. Of my countless quirks, one thing I do is sing to Sweet Maria every morning. I won’t tell you what my repertoire is, but I will say that I am horrible at singing. Just plain awful. Think of nails-on-a-chalkboard but goofier, with more arm waving and deeper baritone. It’s like a bad Disney tune sung in the key of a dog howling at the moon.
When I sing to Sweet Maria each morning, she usually groans and pulls a pillow over her head. I’ve told her it’s part of the platinum package she got when she said yes to me. She has asked me a few times to downgrade to the aluminum or cardboard packages. You know, the ones that don’t include a predawn serenade. I’ve told her we’re all sold out. I know deep down somewhere she loves it. I keep singing my awful songs because they remind me who I am and who I love. The songs remind me first thing each day about the center of my life—our family—which is more important to me than anything except my faith. More important than the reminder, these songs are declarations of what I’m going to do about my priorities. Howling through the new verses I make up each morning, I let Sweet Maria, myself, and the world know what my plan is for the day, and then I endeavor to live it out as best I can.
My hope is that this book will help you find your song or help you sing it a little louder if you already know it. I want my words in these pages to knock loose a couple of verses for you that are filled with love and intention and hope and purpose and Jesus. Maybe it’s time for you to hum a few bars each morning about the beautiful life you have been given, the short period of time you have to live it, and the people you could impact if you let your love and creativity off the leash rather than tying it to the past.
This book isn’t filled with fables. Instead, it’s wall-to-wall with stories. Why? It’s simple. Because Jesus told stories. In fact, Scripture says He never spoke to anyone without telling them a couple of good stories to illustrate the truths He wanted to pass along. Stories not only tell us truth but they can also point us toward living lives that are more true. Falsehoods are designed to distract us with deceit; truth, on the other hand, informs and guides us down a brave and more lasting path.
This book is not full of miscellaneous facts either. I ?ve never had a bunch of random, disconnected facts combine into something that changed my life. These days, though, it seems like the world is full to the brim with information. We are drowning in the stuff. On average, human knowledge is doubling every thirteen months, but this deluge of information doesn’t provide any more clarity about our lives. To the contrary, it sometimes feels like the facts become a smoke screen lingering between us and the clarity we truly need. Have you noticed that even when facts seem indisputable, people still find a way to spend a weird amount of time arguing about them? Culturally, I think we all sense that we’re a little uptight and feisty right now.
Are you willing to accept for a moment that all this noise is a distraction? I am not suggesting that we opt for lives of ignorance. Far from it. Facts can be helpful, but rarely are they soulful. We don’t need more facts to find the purpose and kindness and unselfishness we long for; we need a firmly seated faith, a few good friends, and a couple of trustworthy reminders. I hope these stories help you sort out what you believe and why. I want this book to nudge you in the direction of who you are becoming rather than leave you wrapped around the axle of who you have been. Because when you and I are laser-focused and clearheaded, I promise we will find our purpose every time. Find your purpose, and you will experience more joy. The math is simple.
Remember, the delight of darkness is to amplify distraction. Maybe it’s happening in your life this very moment and you don’t even realize it. Distraction is very sneaky like that. The fix to all of this is as simple as it is hard. The way to beat distraction is to become captivated by something much bigger and much better, such as purpose and joy.
That’s where we’re headed in the pages of this book, and I want us to head that way for the rest of our lives. If you are willing to do the heavy lifting required, I promise you will trade up for something way better than what you’ve settled for so far. You will be replacing the distraction that robs your joy with the kind of purpose that nothing can ever take away.
Eyes forward. Buckle up. Here we go.
CHAPTER 2 THE KEYHOLE OF ETERNITY
Take care of your heart and grow your mind, and you will live a life loaded with legacy.
I was sitting on the doctor’s examination table . . . again. My whole life I have been a pretty healthy guy. Rick would be in soon to see what was going on with my heart rate. He has been our family doctor for decades, and I have literally trusted him with my life more than once. He has sewn up deep cuts and repaired a partially severed finger on one of my kids. He was by my side a few years ago when we figured out I caught an aggressive form of malaria while traveling in Africa. On that occasion, it was even money I’d be looking down from heaven by the end of the week, but Rick helped me through that one too.
He came in and we cycled through the standard pleasantries between a patient and a primary care physician, swapping stories like buddies do. Then Rick put the stethoscope on my chest. He must have just gotten it from the freezer or something. I took a startled breath as he leaned in and listened to my heartbeat. He asked about some of the symptoms I had been feeling, such as dizziness as soon as I stood up and shortness of breath just from going up the stairs. I mean, I am willing to confess I’m not the paragon of health, but I didn’t think these symptoms were normal for the shape I was in.
Rick usually has a good poker face, but not this time. I watched as he furrowed his brow and focused his attention even more on my heartbeat. The concern I saw was unmistakable. In a hurry he brought a bunch of equipment into the room, put patches and cables on my chest, and started making recordings. The tape coming out of the machine had squiggles on it like a seismograph. Had this been a lie detector machine in disguise, he would’ve had enough wires attached to really get the goods on me.
After Rick was done with his bevy of tests, he looked me square in the face and said my heart wasn’t beating the way it should. He rattled off some of the likely causes, and at the top of the list was that serious case of malaria. I won’t go into details because I didn’t fully understand all Rick said, but I knew it wasn’t good news. In summary, my heart beat faster when I was sitting than some people’s when they were running a marathon. It also didn’t beat consistently.
Think of it this way: Your resting heart probably beats between 60 and 100 beats per minute if you’re in average shape. Maybe a little slower if you’re ripped and a little faster if you’re not. Rather than the predictable thump, thump, thump, Rick recorded my heart beating rapidly and sporadically. It beat as fast as 220 beats per minute. It didn’t take a medical degree to understand what could go wrong there. There’s a big, long name for this condition, but the bottom line was, it didn’t look like I would be breaking any records for “World’s Oldest Living Person.”
But I’m going to try anyway. Truth be known, I like the ring of 150 years old, which is the current age I’m aiming for. If I come up a little short, find a way to bury me on Tom Sawyer Island at Disneyland, okay? Even if you need to sneak me through the gate in a jar. I have a season ticket, so they won’t mind.
Over the next several days, Rick got me appointments with some really smart cardiac specialists to confirm his findings and drill down on the core issues. After more freezing stethoscopes, wires, beeps, and furrowed brows, these experts said the only way to get my heart beating correctly again was to stop it momentarily and restart it with a huge electric jolt. You read that right. They would have to stop my freaking heart to help it find a new beat.
Here’s my question for you: Would you do it? Would you be willing to risk dying in order for your life to be more lasting? Would you risk everything for the chance to live your life more fully? That’s the kind of reset Jesus said following Him would entail. He told His friends it would be like dying and starting all over again. He said it would take something as drastic, invasive, and complete as a do-over to be fully His—undistracted by everything else.
We can all be new creations if we want to be. The cold hard truth is most people don’t. We settle for the safe and distracted life we know rather than the one God has promised is available to us. Sure, we can agree that Jesus wants us to be new creations, but if we keep doing what we’ve always done, we’ve got to admit there’s nothing new about it. A total reset isn’t easy, and it involves risk. Maybe an enormous tragedy or loss causes us to reset. Or a reset might be the result of making time to clear our minds in the morning. Find a new rhythm for your heart. Here is my simple suggestion: Decide in advance that you will do whatever it takes to get your heart right, and then do it—even if it will kill all previous versions of you.
You need to ask yourself what makes your heart beat in ways that make you stronger, more courageous, more giving, and more loving. Figure out what makes your heart skip a beat with joy and what makes it miss a beat with dysfunction and distraction. Be willing to change all of it if you need to. Our hearts all beat a little differently, and I’m glad they do. Some thump fast, and others thump slow. Things that instantly blow your hair back might be a yawn for someone else. What totally bores you could totally light up someone else. What makes you weep may not cause someone else to notice. Something that is no big deal to you could fillet another to the bone. Be patient with each other when this happens. We all have a heart condition; it just shows itself in different ways. Someone who doesn’t know me might make assumptions about my heart without knowing what it’s actually doing. In the end, we’re all looking through a keyhole at eternity as we try to figure out our lives today. Don’t be distracted by how different you are from everyone else. Our hearts were meant to beat together, not the same.
If you want to dazzle heaven, stop being distracted being everyone else. Go be you. Do anything less, and the unique gift God wrapped in you will never be fully opened. Jesus said a rich relationship with the Father is only possible by having a right relationship with each other. In other words, if we say we love God but don’t love the people He made, even the ones as weird and insecure and fallible as you and me, we have a heart condition we need to address. Don’t keep ignoring, medicating, or being indifferent to it. If you want to find a richer faith than the one you have right now, the fix isn’t more knowledge or arguments or distractions. Go be “one” with the people around you. You don’t need to get in their faces to be in their lives. And don’t just pursue the easy people either. If you want to move up to the graduate level class in this, find the difficult people around you and be “one” with them too. If you are thinking yikes about this new way of doing things, I’m right there with you, but it’s a new heartbeat I want, not more of the failing one I’ve ended up with. Getting to a better place will require a restart.
Jesus’ friends were distracted arguing about who got the big chairs next to Him in heaven. Jesus interrupted their silly argument by dropping some eternal clarity on them. He said that unless they changed and became like children, they would never enter the kingdom of God. I had been raised to think you just prayed a prayer and somehow the right combination of secret words opened up heaven’s gates, but evidently there’s more to it. It’s a childlike faith—not a childish one—Jesus said would do the trick.
I showed up at the hospital to reset my heart. They gave me the dreaded blue hospital gown and escorted me to a room to prep me for the procedure. (By the way, can anyone explain to me why they need your entire backside exposed for this sort of thing when everything is happening on the frontside?) It was a little drafty, and I was trying to strategize how to avoid mooning everyone who walked by. Just then, a guy with a white coat came in and said he was the person who would be stopping and restarting my heart. That’s all the information I had. Think about it for a second. For all I knew, the guy could have been a painter from Sherwin-Williams who found a stethoscope on the floor and threw it around his neck. Yet I trusted him to stop my heart and restart it. This all begs the question: What amount of additional information do you need before you will trust God to fix your heart?
The doctor and his team had me climb onto the gurney and lie down on my back. They hooked me to all kinds of monitors to make sure they didn’t kill me too much—only just a little—when they stopped then restarted my heart. When Dr. Sherwin-Williams (I know his name and he’s an amazing guy) started checking out the shock paddles, I gotta tell you, I was a mix of absolutely terrified and giddily excited. First, I had never done something like this, and I’m a junkie for new experiences. Second, I figured it would become a pretty boss story if I lived to tell about it. Third, if it actually worked, it would be like getting a new heart but without all the blood and scalpels and surgery for a transplant. Sure, like much of our lives, there was some amount of risk involved—but the benefits of a restart felt like a pretty good deal to me.
The doctor’s assistants knocked me out with some kind of intravenous medicine, and I drifted off into a blur and then to nothingness. Before I went under, I imagined the man in the white coat rubbing a couple of paddles together, flipping on the defibrillator, and looking like Doc Brown from Back to the Future with a crazed look in his eyes as the machine emitted a steady, high-pitched hum. By the way, here’s a fun little fact if you ever have to do this. Before they shock you, they make you take off any rings or metal jewelry because the voltage is enough to burn your skin under the metal. Also, pro tip: A weird number of my chest hairs got burned off. It’s like a really violent waxing in this way.
And then I was awake! I felt like Scrooge on Christmas morning—a man with a new lease on life. I was hoping to see some Muppets singing carols to me when I opened my eyes, but instead the medical team hovered above me, checking all the monitors for my stability. When it was apparent I was in the clear, the doctor looked at me with a grin and said, “This isn’t the afterlife; it worked.” I was glad to hear this because I would’ve been disappointed to find heaven looking like a hospital room with bills and a copay. I also had banked heavily on my eternal heavenly garments having a backside. I suddenly had the heartbeat of a thirteen-year-old junior high school boy. And I still do.
In an average lifetime, we each get about 2.5 billion heartbeats. It takes a pretty strong muscle to beat this many times to send blood and oxygen from your toes to your ears. If you have ever squeezed a tennis ball, that’s about how much effort one pump takes to give us life. What I’m saying is: It’s not easy to be your heart, so take care of it, okay? Do this with your faith and also your relationships. Take care of them. Keep track of the stress you have subjected yourself to, and for Pete’s sake, take care of your one amazing and irreplaceable body. We want to keep you around for a while.
My heart has a new rhythm now. It beats slow and strong. What about yours? Is your heart racing as you strive for things that won’t last? Are you constantly distracted by the unimportant? Are you living in fear? After this procedure, the doctor said the best thing I could do for my heart is to not stress it out. Maybe that’s good advice for you too. Our hearts are all different, but they can beat together even if they beat differently. Do whatever it takes to get there, even if it’s a bit of a shock.
For the last several years, I’ve been telling myself that I want to be the guy who’s available. That’s why I put my cell phone number in the back of more than a million of my books. From the outside looking in, that probably looks like a move that would wreck any kind of productivity in my life. That’s true, I suppose, if you’re only trying to live an efficient, productive life. But I’m not, and here’s why. We will be known for our opinions but remembered for the love we gave to everyone around us. If I have my head down over a project and can’t be bothered to shift focus, I’ll miss a good chance to show love and grace to the person next to me—and that’s not the life I want to live. Receiving a truly ridiculous number of telephone calls each day is a great reminder of who I want to be. These don’t feel like interruptions; they are reminders. What are you doing to remind yourself of who you want to be?
This availability has taken a fun new turn in the last couple of years. I started coaching some amazing people to help them navigate big things they want to accomplish for themselves, their families, their careers, and their faith. I have calls all week long with these new friends. Sure, it blows up my schedule pretty much every day to have these meetups on the calendar, but it also helps me fulfill my dream of being unreasonably available. That’s my jam; it’s my one solo hit; it’s the etching on my life and will probably be on my headstone too. “Here lies Bob Goff; he was always available (but not now).” What do you want to be on yours? “Here lies [insert your name] who lived a distracted life”? If this has a ring of truth to it for you, the good news is that you have the power to change the epitaph.
One of the most important things I do after these coaching calls is to take notes on the conversation. At the end of each call I spend a solid five minutes reflecting on what we said and filling in the missing pieces I hadn’t jotted down. Why? Because if I don’t, a distraction is almost certain to wipe out any gains I’ve made. The ways we all process the conversations we have can become windows into our own important purposes. Writing notes is a great way to avoid distractions, not just because they help us remember things that resonated with us but also because they help us curate our points of view.
Take notes while you read this or any other book. Write down how you are going to apply the parts that make sense to you. If you don’t net those butterflies immediately, I promise they will fly away. Do this, then study and refine those notes, and you will find connections between the ideas you have scribbled down in the middle of the conversation and ones you had in other conversations. You will capture meaningful, partially developed, and applicable ideas you can incorporate into your life. As you use what you have written down, they will create a feedback loop as they evolve into fuller, more complete ideas. If you don’t take the time to capture and process your interior world, you will miss the opportunity to discover something bigger and more beautiful in your heart.
Many of the people who have brought a great deal of understanding and beauty to the world were notetakers. Marcus Aurelius, Beethoven, Lewis and Clark, Mark Twain . . . You name a person who was a standout in history, art, literature, or culture, and I bet you’ve just identified a notetaker. Benjamin Franklin wasn’t a particularly virtuous guy, but he tracked a list of thirteen virtues, including notes on how he lived them out every day. You may not want to keep score of your character, but I am certain you will benefit from keeping track of it.
George Lucas, the famous moviemaker, wrote the script for Star Wars while also scoring American Graffiti. In those days of the industry, the way to locate a scene was to reference the roll of film it was on and the dialogue number within that roll of film. Someone asked George Lucas about a scene in American Graffiti that was on roll two, dialogue two. George wrote down in his notes “R2D2.” I kid you not. He was spinning the puzzle piece in his mind for a lovable droid, took what would have been a completely unrelated written note, and . . . the rest is history. His note-taking became a way of harnessing and curating his creativity. It can do the same for you too.
Paul wrote a letter to his friends at a place called Corinth. He said that to him, their lives were just like letters from God to the world. He said they weren’t a bunch of words carved into stone, but they were written on his and other people’s hearts.1 If you’ll do the work, taking note of ideas and truths and thoughts that matter to you, you will put yourself in places to impact people in deep and inexplicable ways you couldn’t have imagined. If you think of your life as a book that’s being written, start taking better notes. It will become a masterpiece one sentence at a time.
Socrates said an unexamined life isn’t worth living. I don’t agree that such a life is not worth living, but I would concede we are prone to forgetting about self-reflection. If you have young kids or a stressful job, you especially know how hard life can be. Some days you crash into bed exhausted, just to get up and do it again . . . and again . . . and again. String together enough days like that, and you’ll look up someday wondering where the years have gone. Don’t get sucked into that trap. Write down all of the lessons you learned from each day. A life without reflection is like a vapor.
James, the brother of Jesus, said in one of his letters that none of us knows what will happen tomorrow. He said our lives are like a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.2 I have seen this happen, and you have too. My favorite time to write and reflect is in the early morning. The dew is on the grass, and often there’s a hint of fog in the air that collected overnight. Then each morning the dew melts away, the fog lifts, and the day begins. Taking good notes is a life hack for keeping your experiences and potential revelations from evaporating before your very eyes. The trick is to write down what you learn on the adventure so it doesn’t go missing later.
There are twenty-five hundred creatures on earth known as “one-day insects.” By contrast, one of the longest-living animals on earth is a type of deep-sea sponge that could be more than eleven thousand years old. If we lived that long, we would probably look like a bunch of sponges too. Most people are living like one-day insects, but we need to be a little more spongy by doing things that will last. I will say, though, don’t throw shade at the one-day insects either. It’d be good to borrow some of their worldview because, like James said, we don’t know what tomorrow will bring.
There is even one species of jellyfish that doesn’t technically die at all. Get this: As soon as this kind of jellyfish gets really old, it reverts back to being a young jellyfish so it can grow up all over again. I want to be that kind of person, but holding on to the wisdom I’ve collected while returning to a childlike faith. Kind of like Benjamin Button, except I don’t want to start out really old and get young; I want to start really young and grow wise. I want to pair the wisdom I gather over time with a greater accumulation of a childlike faith. How about you? If you’re on board with this kind of life approach, what could you do to find your way back to a more innocent, engaged, and less distracted version of yourself?
Here’s a truth you can take to the bank no matter how long you live: The clarity of purpose, undistracted energy, selfless love, and unselfish pursuits you bring to the world will be your legacy. Everything else will look like a distraction by comparison.
CHAPTER 3 BREAKING FREE BY COMING HOME
The cure for insecurity is being completely present in the expression of your purpose.
I’ve been trying to go to prisons more often—not as an inmate but as a friend. It wasn’t my idea; it’s something Jesus said we should do. From the outside, no jail is an inviting place. Anytime I pass by a prison, I get intimidated by the high barbed wire, razor wire, and windowless buildings. Some prisons even have guard towers and men carrying serious firepower as they monitor the perimeter. Going to places that are designed to keep people in doesn’t feel natural, but that’s exactly why I was compelled to start going. I think God asks us to give our presence, grace, and compassion to prisoners because He wants us to remember exactly how He saw us from the outside without the freedom Jesus promised.
The prison I visit most often is called San Quentin. It’s actually an infamous place, though I’m not sure why a place of punishment should be famous. It was opened more than 160 years ago and has housed notorious prisoners, including Charles Manson. The prisoners have called it “The Arena” for almost a hundred years. It houses all the California inmates on death row, and in 1938 a gas chamber was installed that remained in use until 1996. There are no two ways about it: The place is rough but I have also developed friendships with the prisoners and courageous staff who have taught me a lot and have made me a better person.
I have taught a class there for some time with about 150 guys in it. They come from every walk of life. Some were brilliant businessmen who made big mistakes. Others killed someone, and a few didn’t pay their taxes. They have one thing in common. They are all behind a large, guarded wall and will be for quite a long time. One day I got a call on my phone from one of the guys in my class named Kevin.
“Bob, I’m on the other side of the wall,” he said.
Buddy, tell me there aren’t a bunch of bedsheets tied together, hanging from a window, I was thinking.
“I’m out. They just released me!” he said excitedly through the phone he had borrowed.
Thinking this would be one of those Leonardo DiCaprio moments and anticipating an answer that would change my life, I asked, “Buddy, what was your first thought when you stepped outside?”
Kevin paused and then said, “I realized . . . I ?ve got pockets!”
Wait, what? It was hardly the big, deep, theological thing I was expecting him to say. But the more I thought about it, I realized it was a big, deep, theological thing he had said.
“Be really careful what you put in them, Kevin,” I said in a moment of clarity.
We all have pockets. It’s what we put in them or keep in them that can become distractions. Regrets, resentment, hurts, and misunderstandings are all things that can become huge distractions.
I was walking in the prison yard with a few of the guys from class. Men were lifting weights the size of a Prius with the effort it takes me to move a stapler. I joked to the guy standing next to me that if I had a barbell with weights on it, I could imagine the bar alone crushing my chest until a couple of guys lifted it off.
Later that day in class we were sitting in a circle. I told the guys about my conversation in the yard and asked if there was anything they needed to get off their chests. We went around the circle and the guy sitting to my left talked about the difficult time he was having with his cellmate, which wasn’t surprising given the size of their cell—four-and-a-half-feet wide and ten feet, eight inches long, housing two guys each weighing 250 pounds or more. The guy next to him told us he was feeling estranged from the family he had been separated from for more than a decade. His wife was planning on moving on, and he was really sad. I could only imagine how difficult and hopeless it would feel for both of them.
We went around the circle, and eventually the guy sitting next to me on my right was up. He looked at the floor for a long time, then lifted his head and looked each of the guys in the eyes. “I’ve been here for eighteen years and I’ve been telling everybody I didn’t do it.” He paused, took a deep breath, and said, “I did it.” Around the circle he didn’t see judgment; he saw acceptance. In that moment he was the freest guy I had ever met. This is what honesty and vulnerability will do every day if we’ll let it.
Shame keeps us behind the walls we have constructed to keep everybody out. So do envy and bitterness and judgmental people. Most of pride’s prisoners think they are the guards. What we need is the kind of jailbreak an accepting community can offer. Find one and experience the kind of freedom and focus you didn’t think was possible for you.
A little closer to home in San Diego I was visiting a young man in his early twenties in our local jail. He had made some stupid mistakes that had cost him his freedom. He was scared, lonely, and needed some company. I was a family friend and thought he would enjoy some time together. I had done visits like this before and knew we would meet in a room that felt a lot like a jail cell, designed for lawyers and clients to meet and discuss their cases. For me, it was just a place I could meet with a scared kid. This room is encased in a thicker-than-normal layer of concrete, with bulletproof glass, a heavy door, and several electronic locks.
The guards locked us in. Ironically, those who visit prisoners become prisoners themselves. There’s always a sense of heaviness and depression in these rooms, as if they are designed to eliminate any sense of warmth or hope or humanity. The whole space screams, “Don’t even think about it!”
My young friend was escorted into the room. His handcuffs were removed, and we exchanged a few words as we settled into our chairs. I tried my best to exude signals of grace and empathy and acceptance as he told his story. Then something happened—like the moment in a movie where everything goes horribly wrong. The entire jail lost electricity. The whole thing. The overhead lights in our room clicked off, and emergency floodlights clicked on. The room went into complete lockdown triggered by the loss of power, and not even the guards could get in. Had the walls not been so thick, I probably would have heard the generator powering up to make sure the entire complex didn’t devolve into complete pandemonium. What if there were guys in the yard sniffing out their opportunity to escape? What if a group was in the mess hall and a huge fight broke out? Did I mention this was a jail housing lots of inmates? When something like this happens, things can go sideways fast.
For the next four hours, I was stuck in this room with the young man. I tried making a call, but there was no cell service. I couldn’t receive any calls for the same reason. I wanted out, big-time. If I had a rock hammer, I would have dug a hole and crawled through a sewer pipe to get out.
Nothing much happened despite the Hollywood setup. My new friend was still just as scared and in need of a friend after four hours. I needed a new pair of underwear, but I got over the experience eventually. It dawned on me that a room designed for maximum security had become a place of total insecurity. And that got me thinking about the role insecurity has played in my life and in my friends’ lives. We expend so much energy trying to feel secure and hide any sense we are afraid. We construct walls and put up our bulletproof glass so nothing can hurt us. Sadly, we can spend our entire lives constructing a façade of security and safety, when inside we are just scared people in need of a friend.
Do you need the courage to admit, even now, that you have been pretending to be something you are not? Are you a prisoner needing space to get real? Have you been distracted by your need to never seem weak or afraid or vulnerable? Are you spending weird amounts of time trying to control the people around you because your life on the inside is out of control? How much energy is that taking out of you—energy you could pour into something bigger and more beautiful than your insecurities?
We’re all inwardly insecure to some degree. What shrouds this from view is that each of us deals with our insecurities differently and, as a result, only some of us look outwardly insecure. Some people can speak in public while others can’t. Some people are afraid of spiders, and others collect tarantulas. Some people get quiet as a church mouse when they are insecure, and others get mean as a rattlesnake. If you want to dazzle God, don’t ignore, dismiss, or deny your insecurities, and don’t overlook other people’s odd behaviors as the groans of insecurities make their way to the surface. Understand and embrace these things instead. Don’t let them take you prisoner. Figure out where they came from and send them back there. Master these feelings when they’re blocking your way forward, and choose to live undistracted by them. We are not the average of the five most insecure people who have opinions about us; we’re the product of the several most focused and undistracted people we successfully imitate.
None of this is easy because we all live incredibly conflicted lives. It just comes with the package of being human. Paul, a writer of many of the letters in the Bible, said he was frustrated that he kept doing the things he didn’t want to do and didn’t do the things he longed to do.1 I can relate to that, and I bet you can too. The reason is simple. Life is full of push; life is full of pull. What I mean is, we are pushed by our insecurities and pulled by anything we think will help us avoid looking as insecure as we actually are. We’re fickle creatures, and sometimes it’s hard to know if we’re coming or going.
So how do we connect who we are with who we want to be when each force is tugging us in a different direction? We’re not unlike Peter Pan, who got separated from his shadow. You remember the scene. Peter is bouncing around the room chasing his shadow, which is no longer attached to him. This is where most of us live—detached, distracted, and frantic but trying to look like we’re not. After Peter chases his shadow around the room as it bounces off of the walls and ceiling, he eventually catches up to it. Peter doesn’t need a bunch of information in this moment; he needs a friend to help him get reconnected with his shadowself. Peter wants to use soap to reattach his shadow, but thankfully Wendy breaks out a needle and thread for a more permanent fix. People who live with purpose are willing to be sewn back together; they’re willing to admit they’re separated in the first place, and they’re willing to have some safe friends get involved to help put them back together.
Come home to yourself. Get reacquainted with your true self, which is the you everyone sees plus the shadow they don’t. Give yourself a pep talk about how it’s okay to be exactly who you are. The people I enjoy the most aren’t looking to me for validation; they have already arrived there for themselves knowing they are not perfect but that God loves them anyway. They recognize that life is trying to put them in a prison cell of head fakes and faulty expectations. It’s refreshing to be around them, and if this is the kind of person you are becoming, lay out the red carpet and invite these people into your life. Decide to ditch insecurity and replace it with God’s brand of acceptance. Try it. Nothing feels quite so good as tossing off toxic expectations and the distractions of unhealthy peers, workmates, family, and the world around you as you settle into the joy of simply being you.
When I became a grandfather, I decided to stay a whole lot closer to home. If you have read any of my other books, you probably know I quit things on Thursdays. On a Thursday in early January a few years back, I canceled seventy-two speaking events in one day. It was a costly decision, but I didn’t want to miss a moment with my grandkids. My whole life had been building for this new era.
Most people were gracious and accepting of my decision, but one event in Arizona said they would be in a tight spot if I didn’t come. They asked me to reconsider, and they were really gracious about it. I didn’t want to leave them in a crack, so I decided I would go. A crowded commercial flight felt a little dicey at the time because of what was unfolding in the world, and since I have a pilot’s license, I decided to rent a cheap private airplane and fly it myself. It seemed like a great work-around at the time.
The daytime flight from San Diego to Arizona was uneventful, and after the gathering wrapped up, it was time to fly home. It was late at night, and I needed to cross back over the desert and mountain range that separates San Diego from Phoenix. I took off into the night sky, with a dark desert below and ebony skies above. My view was completely black except for the flight instruments in my cockpit. There is a quiet beauty in those moments, and I welcomed the trip back.
Flying over uninhabited places like this is a little trickier than flying over a city because there are no lights below and no lights on the horizon. It’s kind of like being inside a canvas sack or a subterranean cave where you can’t see your hand waving in front of your face. As a result, it’s easy to get disoriented, and you need to rely on the instruments so you don’t end up flying in circles or accidentally find yourself descending and hitting something. That’s why I was more than a little anxious when two of the instruments on the rented plane went offline over the desert. One moment they were working, and the next they simply weren’t. I snapped to attention as if I had just chugged a case of Red Bull.
Things got really tense really fast. Here’s what I did: I leveled the wings and climbed a little higher to make sure I flew over the tops of the mountains ahead. I did this for the next couple of hours, and eventually the glow of the San Diego city lights came into view. I was reminded how good it feels when we return home. Here’s my point: Don’t let the darkness of your circumstances or the surprises you encounter distract you from your destination. Level the wings, climb a little higher, look for the glow of home, then aim for it.
I’m an optimist by nature. If I heard the sky was falling, I’d get a net to catch some. You never know when a little blue sky will come in handy, right? The cynics from biblical times weren’t anything like modern-day ones. Far from it. The old-school cynics lived simple and unassuming lives. One of their pioneers, Diogenes, lived in a large ceramic water jar. Not unlike your first apartment, I bet. He spent the days walking through Athens carrying a lit lantern. When asked why he did this in the daylight hours, he said he was looking for men and women who were living virtuous lives. Find these people today and surround yourself with them. Look for virtues, not flaws, in the people around you, and you will find a beautiful path forward in your life.
Modern-day cynics don’t roll this way. It seems like they always wake up on the wrong side of the bed. They are like snipers, but they are far from courageous. They elevate themselves, then camouflage their positions. They hide in the lofty places they construct, then take potshots at the people they want to exert control over. If you don’t agree with them or don’t yield to their opinions, you become a target yourself. I wouldn’t have wanted to have a cynic as a copilot during my nighttime flight, and you shouldn’t have one in your life either. If you play the cynic, please stop, for your sake and ours. I know you think you are being helpful, but the hard truth is, you are not. You may not realize it, but you are a distraction.
I don’t think this is an overstatement: Modern-day cynicism has likely cost the world hearts, lives, cures for diseases, and trillions of dollars. It has also ruined plenty of holiday dinners. Don’t be the cynic in your circles. You will only be dragging people down and distracting them with your doom and gloom. Recognize that cynics simply wear their insecurities on their sleeves and subconsciously try to create a low common denominator. Modern-day cynics would probably just say they’re realists, but I’m not buying it.
You are not without a remedy if you are on the receiving end of a boatload of negative vibe. Every time a cynic hands you a dark invitation to join them on their journey, just hand it right back to them. They’re offering you a ride in a car with no tires that has been riding on the rims for years. That’s why they make so much noise and are surrounded by sparks. Take the bus. Walk if you must. Just don’t hitch a ride with cynics anymore. It’s a one-way trip to a life filled with distractions.
Besides, I’ve never met a courageous cynic. Have you? I have encountered a lot of distracted ones who are trying to convince other people to join them. Don’t take the bait. Even in our faith communities, where you would expect to find a place of abundant love and acceptance, you will find people who gather to gossip and try to control the behaviors of people they disagree with by pointing bony fingers and lobbing sharp words in their direction. Don’t get distracted by this mutation of faith. You’ll know you have found the right community when all the talk is about Jesus and what He did with His life—not someone’s opinions about what you ought to be doing with yours.
This is a safe space we’re in together, so let me ask you a few questions. What are you doing with your life? Have you drifted from a place that feels like home? Have you demoted yourself from an optimist looking for virtue to a modern cynic? Are you quick to anger and dismay, or do you find silver linings and possibilities everywhere you look? What would it take to begin looking for the virtues in people and the circumstances you find yourself in?
These are deep and serious questions, and I hope you answer them in your own heart with honesty, acceptance, and grace . . . even if you don’t like the answers. If you’re going to live an undistracted life of immense purpose, it must begin with brutal honesty. If you haven’t tried that yet, let me tell you a surprising secret. It is refreshing and freeing to tell yourself the truth. Don’t be afraid to call it what it is. Have you gotten sidetracked by these distractions of the soul? I know I have from time to time. Most of us have. God did not design your life to be a prison. He broke the shackles and knocked down the doors already. Don’t let a lie hold you back any longer. You are as free as you are willing to allow yourself to be. God invites all of us to step out into the sunlight. He’s waving us toward the plane.
I know it is sometimes dark, but level the wings, get some altitude, keep your eye on the compass, and point your life toward Jesus.
CHAPTER 4 THE HAPPINESS OF PURSUIT
Distraction can capture your calendar and hijack your happiness.
When I was learning to fly, I realized early on there is an acronym for almost everything in aviation. For instance, before you take off or land, you do a GUMPS check. That means you make sure the gas is set to the tank with the most fuel in it so you don’t run out near the ground. You next check the undercarriage of the airplane to make sure the wheels are down and locked—always a good call. In order to have the power to take off or go around and try again if the landing doesn’t go as planned, you need to have the fuel mixture as rich as possible. The controls for the propeller on an airplane can change the pitch at which it cuts through the air and need to be set for maximum power as well. Finally, seat belts need to be fastened and checked.
You will hear a few stories each year about someone who ran out of gas and crashed, came in on the belly of the plane because they forgot to lower the wheels, or didn’t have the power they needed to lift off. You would think these things would be obvious to anyone with a license to fly, but with all the decisions a pilot must make in a short period of time, even the most experienced commercial pilots risk missing important steps. So they do a GUMPS check before every takeoff or landing to organize the flow of the decisions.
The trick in aviation is to have a quiet cockpit. By that, I mean you need to avoid getting distracted by what is going on outside the cockpit and losing track of what is going on inside. Tragically, this is what happened to basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven others on board. The pilot became disoriented by what was happening outside of the cockpit, resulting in a devastating crash. Quiet down your life if it has become loud. Find a couple of safe friends and bring all the activity in your life down a notch or two.
How many decisions would you guess you make in a typical day? A dozen? One hundred? Does one thousand sound a little closer? Get this. Each of us makes about thirty-five thousand decisions every day. More if you spend an hour in a candy store. Some decisions are mundane, and some are major. We decide where we will live, if we will marry and who we will marry, the job we will accept and the one we will quit. The car we will buy or the bus we will take. The cake or veggies we will eat. (Go with the cake for the win.) Who we will believe and who we won’t, where we will go and how long we will stay, the faith we will embrace or ignore, and countless other decisions.
Here’s a surprising thing though: Most of us never decide to be happy. I bet most of us think “happy” is a result of other choices, but that’s not all of it. Sure, circumstances can be truly awful, but feeling happy is a choice just like any other. It’s not that we don’t want to be happy; we just get distracted by so many unhappy things that we never get back around to happiness. Perhaps we think we need an invitation or permission to be happy. And what if we want happy feelings to transition into a deep and abiding joy with a longer shelf life?
Consider this. In stark contrast to our complicated decision tree, a child makes less than 10 percent of the decisions adults make each day. Maybe one of the benefits of the childlike faith Jesus said we need is that there are fewer decisions to make, and hence, fewer distractions to manage. Have you seen a kid with a pile of Legos? It’s like the rest of the world doesn’t even exist. They are lost in the beautiful singularity of creative joy and purpose they find in their play. They don’t care if they are early or late for the next thing. They are fully present and completely undistracted. All the while, heaven dances and celebrates the simple beauty of a child at play and invites us to do the same. Perhaps we should take a lesson or two from the children around us: get fully engrossed in something lasting we care about, eliminate some of the decisions we make, and find our joy again.
Most people hope they’ll find happiness at home, but the hard truth is, they aren’t around long enough to experience what’s already waiting for them there. Simple and complicated distractions take us away from the people we love. When this occurs, the result is both subtle and toxic. We start to settle for proximity rather than presence with each other. Know what I mean? You will know this is happening to you if you only listen for the highlights in your loved one’s conversations without taking note of the emotions and body language that are also present in the room. These distractions are masked in familiar disguises like career, appointments, and promotions. They invade our homes and come dressed as extracurricular activities, sports, and electronic screens. They look like business calls and video games and Zoom conferences and television shows and committees and meetings and sometimes even churches.
If we want to live more undistracted lives, we need to get real and admit that busyness is actually hijacking our joy. Here’s the good news: We can fix all this just as easily as we messed it up. Get a couple of baseball gloves and talk to your loved ones about your day as you throw the ball around. If you answer your cell phone while playing catch, you’ll lose teeth. This is what it looks like to really get some skin in the game. Get some wood and light a fire. Find some chairs and fill them with people you haven’t connected with in a while, then watch the flames dance. Go ahead and get some smoke on you, and the next day your clothes will smell like a dozen great conversations.
Do this with some urgency too. You don’t have as much time as you think you have. Take it from a guy who’s been around for a while. There’s a saying that I have found to be generally true: The days are long, but the years are short. If you fill your days with trivial stuff, you will look up one day and a year or a decade or a half-century will have passed. Don’t wait until you are old to ask yourself: What have I done with all that time? Why not ask yourself right now? What am I going to do with all the time ahead of me? What do you want your answer to be? Once you decide what you want the future to look like, make a couple of moves like your life is actually yours to live—because it is. Quit the job, call the friend, make the apology, launch the dream, take the shot . . . heaven is just hoping we will.
I’ve spent some time exploring the branches on my family tree, and it turns out that most Goff men come from the factory like a windup toy with only a certain number of turns. We’re Energizer bunnies who just stop pounding our drums and tip over at about the same age. Because we all seem to keel over at about the same time, I’ve bracketed those dates for myself and have a clock that counts down from then to remind me how many days I have left. Does this sound crazy or morbid? I don’t think it’s either; I think it’s brilliant. Try it. Figure out how much longer you think you’ll live, set a timer to countdown from there, and see how it changes your days. I bet you’ll have fewer arguments and scroll social media less. You will look for more rainbows, find more waterfalls, and watch more sunsets. You’ll surf the waves instead of surfing the web, and you’ll trade reality shows for . . . actual reality. Simply put, your real life will be so good that none of the artificial stuff will distract you anymore.
It’s easy to fall into the “I’ll be happy when . . .” trap. We tend to think that happiness is something out there that we need to attain. This kind of deferral feels safe, but listen closely: It isn’t. Instead, what if you begin declaring for yourself with God’s help “I will look for joy” without any qualifiers or add-ons? Paul talked about something on a deeper level. He talked about being content.1 Why not go all-pro with this? Substitute the word content or the words fully present for the word happy, and you’ll really have a ball game: “I will be content.” “I will be fully present.” These declarations can create tremendous untapped power in your life. Here is the astounding part. You hold all the levers to make this happen if you want to. Does this mean you can control all your circumstances, setbacks, outcomes, and disappointments? Of course not. You can, however, influence them. We can eliminate the distractions that have been obscuring our view of what God is doing in the world. We will be changed from the inside out.
We don’t need to hedge our bets against disappointment by keeping our expectations low. This wide, deceptive, and potholed off-ramp isn’t worth taking, and it won’t get you anywhere worthwhile. Assume instead that God is going to do inexplicably, wildly, unfathomably more than you could have ever seen or imagined. If that doesn’t make you feel a little happy and joyful, you need a sundae.
And again, before you’re too quick to dismiss “being happy” or finding joy as a wasteful extravagance or cotton candy for the brain, let’s think about it for a second. People who are happy and filled with joy get a ton more accomplished than people who aren’t. It’s true, and the only ones who can’t see this are usually the unhappy ones.
If you choose happiness and joy, then kindness and empathy and engagement are the outcomes. If joy is going on inside of us, everyone will know because it will be expressed outwardly as kindness and caring and action in your life. You’ll be nicer, and trust me when I say this is what the earth needs more of. Why am I telling you to be nice in a book about distraction? The primary reason is because people who aren’t nice distract everyone around them. You know it’s true, and if you are one of the not-nice people, you are in fact banking on this cause and effect. We are not going to get to the important, courageous, purposeful work of being the most priceless versions of ourselves if we aren’t being nice to ourselves or the people around us. Don’t confuse “nice” with fake or artificial. Find your joy, and you will find a reservoir of honor and respect and empathy and caring for others. In a word, you’ll be nicer to be around.
But here is something you already know: It’s hard to be nice all the time. Take me, for example. I think I’m a pretty nice guy. (I have asked around to confirm this.) Still, I’m not even close to being nice most of the time. I bet there are people who think I’m subtle about not being nice to the people around me. They see a tone, a gesture, a snarky word, subtle body language, or a roll of my eyes as signs of my disapproval. Often the people who have built a case about how not-nice you are lack quite a bit of niceness too. The truth is, we use up a crazy amount of energy sorting out other people’s mean streaks or controlling ours—wasting energy that would be better spent living the big lives Jesus said are available to us.
I have a family member who is really difficult, or at least used to be. The last time I spoke to this person was at my wedding—almost thirty-five years ago. Let that sink in for a second. The guy who wrote books titled Love Does and Everybody, Always has this problem? Perhaps I should have named these books Love Does (but Only Sometimes) or Everybody, Always (Except This Difficult Family Member). How about you? If you were punishingly honest, what would be the name of the book your life is writing?
Remember this: Most disagreeable people out there don’t think they are mean. They think they are right. If you are a person of faith, at some point you’ll need to decide whether you want to be right or if you want to be Jesus. Choose wisely, because you are picking more than just an argument; you are picking your legacy. If you’re having a hard time being kind rather than grinding the gears, perhaps it would do you well to push in the clutch and figure out what’s driving this behavior. We’re not here to judge and evaluate other people’s lives; we should be the ones who are cheering from the stands and waving our arms in the air in anticipation of what comes next in someone’s life. When being right gets in the way of being kind, we need to catch our breath and decide who we want to be all over again.
Jerks are quickly forgotten, but one act of kindness laced with joy can be remembered forever. Besides, the world seems to be full of jerks these days—and if you’re mean, it makes mean people look normal, and this shouldn’t be the standard.
Distraction robs us of the ability to both live in the moment and discern what lasts. It can feel delicious to throw a jab at someone you disagree with or don’t like, particularly if they are taking a ridiculous or untenable position. It can be reassuring for a short time to experience “us versus them” because it gives us a sense of belonging to a posse of equally enraged people. But our ultimate residence doesn’t have a return address on earth, so looking for things that last is always a good long-term play.
When I was a Boy Scout, we spent an exorbitant amount of time learning how to build, tend, and properly extinguish campfires. The scoutmaster would walk us through the forest surrounding our campsite pointing out which wood was long-lasting and good to burn as well as other wood that would produce a big flame but only for a short time. In case it helps you next time you’re camping, here’s a tip: Hardwoods like oak are great to burn; softwoods like pine aren’t. Oak burns nicely and with little smoke; pine flames up bright like a roman candle but soon is gone. He taught us that if you want a fire to burn long and hot, you have to choose the right wood. That’ll preach. If you want to make a big impact in the world, stop throwing pine on the fire in your life and burn the oak instead. Play the long game. Paul told his friends no less. He reminded them to fan the flames of the fire God had lit in their lives.2 In short, if you want the right kind of flame, get the right kind of wood.
If you want to start burning a little hotter in your life, don’t keep giving in to the selfishness that creates distractions for you. It’s like putting green wood on the fire. Here’s why. We can’t bring the heat if we’re distracted trying to burn the green wood that is readily available. Shame is green wood. So are envy and comparison. Worries are green wood in your life. Unnecessary arguments are green wood too. All you’ll get is smoke from these.
Lose the handheld distractions. Think of phone use as cheating on your family. If you have a habit of constantly checking your screens, don’t be hard on yourself. Just find a better habit. Make pasta, raise hummingbirds, buy a drum set or a tuba. Get a gun safe and put your phone in it when you get home. Give your wife or your kids the key or the combination. Give yourself reminders about the importance of being fully present for your family and not missing anything. Change the ringtone on your cell phone to “Cat’s in the Cradle” sung by Harry Chapin. You’ll pick up the phone less and your kids more.
If you want to see change in your life, take a realistic look at where you are right now. How are you spending your time? Write down on a paper plate how much time you spend with your family. Think of the whole plate as a pie chart of the twenty-four hours you get each day. If you spend eight hours sleeping, terrific. Get nine if you need it. But shade in that part of the paper plate. How much time do you spend working, whether physically at the job site or not? Be honest. Don’t shade in how little time you wish you spent working. Mark off the amount of time you actually spend in the different areas of your life. If the lines have become blurred to you, ask someone you love or live with for an estimate. You might be bummed by their answer, but let’s get the truth out there. At least you will know what you are dealing with.
Ask yourself how much undistracted time you are spending with the ones you love. If you’re married, how often are you going deeper and practicing authenticity? Shade it in. Don’t forget the time you spend pursuing things that give you joy and purpose and encouragement—whether it’s reading a book, riding a unicycle, or taking a peaceful walk in the park. People living with heaps of purpose and direction have an inversely proportional amount of distraction they allow into their lives. Take a good look at your plate when you have figured out what is happening in your life. You’ll know you’re distracted if the sizes of your pie pieces don’t match the shape of the life you want.
Don’t be discouraged if you don’t like what you see. Here’s the fix. Surround yourself with reminders of who you are and what you want. Set alarms marking the end of one activity and the beginning of full engagement in the next one. Make a family flag. Put images and symbols on it that will remind you of what matters most to your family. Raise that flag over your house and your life each day. A flag also helps you tell people what you need. If it’s a chocolate cake, put that on a flag and run it up the flagpole. Our friends won’t know what we need if we don’t signal it to them.
Take steps back toward the friends and loved ones you have grown distant from. Chase after them like they’ve got something of yours, because they do. When something goes wrong, instead of saying to your friends, “I hope you feel better,” figure out how to help them actually get better. This will require sacrifice and commitment on your part, but people who are no longer living distracted lives do things like this for the people they care about.
Don’t you see? The clock is ticking. Your years can get sidelined by the many daily decisions life demands of you. Maybe you need to break out of some of the routines you have settled into. Remember, for many of us, distraction is the norm—the default position. When you overload your life with decisions that seem important but aren’t, you forgo the chance to choose happiness and joy.
So, where do you start? Well, there are as many starting points as you have excuses. First, have the difficult talk with yourself you’ve been deferring. You might need to break up with your past. I know it will be awkward to make the needed changes, but make them anyway. Declare yourself completely free from those distractions and habits and activities that have become familiar but are no longer serving you. Make room for a couple of new routines that lead to who you are becoming, then replace all the earlier habits you had adopted that obscured the path.
Did you know the Declaration of Independence is only thirty-six sentences long? If a ragtag patchwork of colonies broke up with England in thirty-six sentences, you can break up with your distractions in a dozen. Do you need a sentence about negative self-talk? Write it down. Put that nonsense on notice because you’re quitting it entirely. Declare “it’s not me, it’s you. I’m out.” What about shame or people-pleasing? Kick them to the curb. What about asking for permission to do the things you already have permission to do? You will only be as free as you actually believe you are. Write your “Declaration Against Distraction” and then buckle up. You have just created the space for an abundance of joy and purpose to come flooding into your life.
CHAPTER 5 HOW MANY FINGERS AM I HOLDING UP?
Be captivated with purpose and you’ll care less about everyone’s predictions.
When I was a kid, someone in my class started a rumor that I was a child prodigy. It didn’t last long, but I had the title for at least a week. It wasn’t me who started the rumor, but it would have been a great idea if I had been smart enough to think of it. Before that bubble burst, though, they transferred me to some highfalutin school for gifted kids. In one day I broke enough rules that they booted me right back out. I don’t recall the offenses, but whatever they were, they must have been whoppers. Who knows—maybe I didn’t understand the ninth value of pi or that isosceles was a triangle instead of an ice cream. I couldn’t go back to my previous school, either, because of rules in the school district. So there I was, permanently kicked out of kindergarten. What I did must be under seal or something because I have never found out the offense. When I arrived home, I remember that my mom was up on a ladder painting the stucco behind the house. All she said was, “I’m so disappointed.” She shook her head, and that was that. I don’t know if either of us ever fully bounced back from this letdown. Thus, my illustrious career as an underperformer began.
My second run at kindergarten came a year later. I passed with flying colors. No, literally, they said I could throw crayons farther than anyone in class. It was then, even at a young age, that my parents started to realize my Legos didn’t stack up the same way everyone else’s did.
When I was in elementary school, things weren’t like they are now. Back then, there were two types of classes for each grade: the class for the smart kids and the class for the dumb kids and the troublemakers. The people in charge of placement must have read my file because they put me straight in with the rest of the underperformers. I remember my teacher, Mr. Ramos. He was the only guy teacher at the school, and he was huge—like NFL linebacker huge. He was an intimidating figure to all of us eight-year-olds, with his bulky biceps, vein-popping forearms, and an annoyed stare that would make a puppy whimper. I guess the school thought this island of misfit toys needed a heavy hand to keep us in line because Mr. Ramos let us know early on that he wasn’t going to take any “shenanigans” from us. I put that word in quotation marks because I distinctly remember him saying something much different and more threatening. He got the point across to us that he was the boss.
There was a guy named Mark in class. At age eight, he was almost as big as the teacher. He was the leader of our little group. During recess, we concocted elaborate schemes about how to take Mr. Ramos down, and we met as a group to plan it out using Cheetos, milk cartons, and the sandwich crusts our moms forgot to cut off. We were clearly a pretty tough crowd. I didn’t know Mark’s background, but I figured he must be in the mafia or something. I wondered out loud on the playground if someone can be in the mafia when they’re eight, and Mark confirmed that, indeed, one could.
I’m sad to say I didn’t pull out of this low-grade mediocrity for a very long time. For many, many more years, in fact. All the while, my parents’ disappointment in me compounded with every bad report card. When I finally reached high school, I still wasn’t much of a student. The words college material weren’t used with my name in the same sentence by any of the counselors at school. A diploma is all anyone expected of me, and I checked that box when I miraculously graduated. The trajectory for me seemed to be that I would do some workaday whatever until retirement age. Then I’d draw Social Security until the government wouldn’t let me anymore or the system went broke. To the people I looked up to the most, I was always a few eggs shy of a dozen. I didn’t have the wattage to live up to the expectations they put in place for me, and it didn’t occur to me to find some different storyline to live by. It would take a little while longer for that to fully happen, but something small had already started to shift in my mind.
As a student, my goal was to complete the minimum requirements for a diploma, then aim for doing a little bit less. If I could hit that mark without being expelled or jailed, I figured, my time in high school would be a success. I sat through the odd English or math class, but I filled my schedule mostly with shop classes. Shop class was the only place high school made sense to me, so I signed up for every version of it: metal shop, auto shop, electrical shop, and wood shop. If “marching band shop” had been a thing, I would have signed up for it and carried an acetylene welder under my arm.
Mr. Hodgkins was the wood shop teacher. He was a terrific guy. He seemed ancient at the time, which meant he was more than thirty years old. He had a deep Southern accent that made him fun to listen to. He had no guile, an easy smile, and a disarming demeanor. He talked to every student like an equal and treated us as if we were smart enough to avoid shooting our feet with nail guns, slurping the wood glue, or sticking wooden dowels up our noses. You know how I know? The first day of class, he gave the same speech he had given every class every term: “Don’t shoot yusselves with thuh nail gun or eat the wood glue or put dowels up your noses, okay?” We all nodded blankly. Everyone liked him a lot.
I remember a lot more about Mr. Hodgkins. He wore plaid shirts and lumberjack boots all the time, probably even to bed. He was gruff and kind. His face was a little wrinkled from the years, and he often walked down the hallways covered in wood shavings. The most distinctive thing about Mr. Hodgkins’s appearance, though, was that he only had three fingers on his right hand. The others went missing somewhere along the way.
Whenever we had a new project, Mr. Hodgkins showed us how to use the tools in the shop that we would need. He gave a demonstration with some scrap pieces of wood and then invited us up to try. We learned how to use the sander and the drill press and the lathe. That semester I got so excited thinking about the big project I was going to build—a da Vinci–designed set of wings I could wear to fly a short distance. Just kidding, I ended up making a lamp, proving I could turn twenty dollars’ worth of wood into a five-dollar item with an uncanny predictability.
Close to the end of class one day, it was time to use the biggest of all the shop tools: the table saw. Mr. Hodgkins ambled up to us and got real serious as we huddled around this large piece of equipment. I’m not sure why, but there was a nervous energy in the room, as if we were all about to cliff dive or something. We were scared and exhilarated at the same time. Mr. Hodgkins stood next to the saw and patted the table surface. Then his hand hovered over the slit where the blade would emerge, the empty spaces of his missing fingers making a ghostly caress where the sharp tines would soon rise up. “Now this one . . . y’all need to be reeeal careful with this one.” We all stared at his missing fingers and tried not to stare at the same time.
Mr. Hodgkins moved his hand back, then flipped a switch, and the blade sprang to life out of sight under the table. The shop was filled with the high-pitched fury of metal teeth spinning hundreds of times per second. Mr. Hodgkins reached below the table and began spinning another wheel. As he did, the blade slowly rose into view and into a cutting position. For effect, Mr. Hodgkins turned around and looked at us with a mischievous smirk and raised eyebrows in between each step. He put a piece of wood on the table and slid it slowly toward the blade, which sliced it thin like toast. He pushed the wood slowly through the blade and yelled back at us, “You gotta let the blade do the work. Don’t push too hard. You’ll know how it feels after you do it a few times.”
He continued to cut the wood, pushing with his hands until there wasn’t enough wood to keep his fingers at a safe distance from the circular blade. Mr. Hodgkins stopped, turned off the table saw, and got everybody’s attention. He had us step closer. “Now, make sure y’all don’t get your fingers close to the blade, okay?” He was very intent when he said this as he locked into eye contact with every single one of us. “When the end of the wood gets to about right here, get a poosh stick and poosh it through.” We all knew he meant “push,” but it came out “poosh” with his accent. We all grinned.
Clearly Mr. Hodgkins had not used a poosh stick at some point. Do you think it made him less trustworthy because he made an epic mistake that cost him some digits? Of course not. We didn’t trust him less because he had failed; we trusted him more. His failure had been an obvious one. The problem is that many of our failures are not, and we miss the opportunity to earn people’s trust when we aren’t courageous enough to get real and transparent about them.
I tried to imagine Mr. Hodgkins’s fateful day and what it must have felt like for him. Maybe he was already a wood shop teacher, or maybe he was an aspiring one. I don’t think you just stumble into teaching wood shop. So Mr. Hodgkins probably had a good bit of experience with things like table saws. Maybe he grew up around his dad or mom building things with wood and learned how to use the tools. It’s a guess, but I wonder if he got distracted one day and lost some fingers. Still, he stuck with it. Here’s what I wonder about—when you fail or have a setback, will you?
Just because Mr. Hodgkins failed to follow the poosh stick rule in the past didn’t mean he was disqualified from giving us some pointers. In a way it made him more qualified because he was living proof of what the oversight could cost. I didn’t see him as deficient; I saw him as a kind and capable guy with some real-life experience to back up his instruction.
Do you suppose Mr. Hodgkins had to wrestle with a sense of disappointment and shame from having made a mistake? Perhaps, but despite this, his love of teaching and working with wood propelled him forward, not backward. He learned some hard and no doubt painful lessons, but he turned these setbacks into something beautiful in our lives. That’s what people living with purpose and joy decide to do.
Finding your life’s purpose will entail some failure and more than a few pushbacks along the way. You know the expression: “Resistance is key.” An athlete needs it to build muscle, cars need it to travel, the space shuttle needs it to slow down, and you need it to grow. Don’t be too quick to self-identify as the victim when you are the student. Resist compiling a list of grievances and see how God has used these moments of desperation in your life to clear a path for some much needed grace.
The lesson I learned that day in wood shop has turned up in other ways since high school. What I mean is: People are going to fail; I am going to fail; you are going to fail; we are going to fail. Show me someone who does not appear to fail, and I will show you someone distracted by maintaining an ego driven by appearance over vulnerable authenticity. Sometimes failures are big, ugly, and public, leaving behind visible and permanent scars. Other times they are private but equally painful. On a few occasions, it will look like someone even failed on purpose because the idea was so bad or conduct so outrageous it is hard to conceive of it being merely a mistake. The fact is, most people don’t aim to fail. Sometimes we just forget who we are for a little while. We forget the rules and boundaries we set for ourselves. We listen to lesser voices and find ourselves agreeing for a moment. We forget the poosh stick, and we pay the price. Sometimes the people we love the most pay the price too.
We do the same with God. I don’t know many people who set out to disappoint God, yet we all do at some point. But here’s the thing: When we make a mistake, we have a chance to take His grace out for a drive. Even the origins of the word grace in Hebrew point us in a beautiful direction. Imagine pitching a tent in the middle of an area surrounded and protected by a wall of other tents closely bunched together. Grace isn’t about a “do-over”; it’s about protection. Our failures remind us of our desperate need for more grace and heavenly help, not less of it. Our failures reinforce the important and worthwhile purposes we are trying to live out because, if we didn’t care so much, we wouldn’t see our blunders as failures to begin with.
The challenge is this: What will you believe about yourself after a failure? Will you assume you have crashed and burned in someone else’s prescription for your life? Will you bail on doing the one thing God uniquely put in front of you to master, even though you muffed it the first time? Will you let approval and applause be your barometer for success, purpose, and meaning? Or will you see and aim for something different, something more beautiful that God has prepared you for?
Ever since she was a little longer than a trout, I’ve been telling my daughter, Lindsey, that a guy would want to marry her someday. I told her if I liked the guy, I would invite him along with my other sons to build a chapel at our place in Canada for their wedding. I also told her if I didn’t like the guy, we wouldn’t get around to it.
An amazing young man named Jon came onto the scene in my daughter’s life. Within a short while, their relationship blossomed, and we could all see where it was headed. Jon is a humble, brilliant soul. He is kind and thoughtful, loves God, and is incredibly deliberate and focused in everything he does.
Jon asked Sweet Maria and me to meet one Saturday. Sitting around on the back patio, he described what Lindsey meant to him and how he wanted to spend his life learning more about the depths of her beautiful heart. As a parent, you dream about this day and the one who will be on the other side of this conversation. You hope for someone as magnificent as Jon. Temper your expectations because you can’t control such things. Between you and me, I was thrilled about Jon, but as a dad I felt like I needed to fake a good poker face. After all, Lindsey is my only daughter, so this conversation would be both the practice and the performance for the only son-in-law slot I have available.
We listened intently as he said he loved Lindsey and asked us for our blessing on the decision they had already made to get married. “Well, I don’t know,” I said as I looked him up and down a little, just to make him squirm. (He didn’t. He could stare down a panther.) “Can you swing a hammer?”
“Huh?” he said.
Lindsey didn’t need a building to know her dad and family loved her. Honestly, she didn’t even want one. Do you know why we built it? Because I wanted a son-in-law who was a friend, not someone I needed to just be polite to. I wanted Lindsey to partner with someone who delighted in being part of what we were building as a family. I wanted to learn from Jon about the power of purpose in his own life and how he swept aside all other distractions to chase it.
One day early into the project it was time do a bunch of rip cuts to get our beams ready for the side walls. To do a rip cut you need a table saw. Jon and I walked over, and I flipped on the switch. The air filled with loud whirs and microscopic wood dust from our past work. We hoisted the first piece of lumber onto the table, and Jon began to push. When his fingers got somewhat close to the blade, he stopped and got a scrap piece of wood to push it through. I immediately thought of Mr. Hodgkins, the wisdom I learned from him, and the confidence I had in Jon. He got the poosh stick.
Here’s the crazy thing. We didn’t finish the chapel in time, and Jon and Lindsey got married under an arbor Jon built by himself and covered with branches. They liked it way better than any building I could have dreamed up. Still, working on the chapel as a family will forever remain one of my favorite memories. Before we finished the interior walls, we had friends up to the Lodge and we all wrote prayers and messages of hope and purpose on the framing for our family and future generations. Every time I step into that space, I can hear them whispering the truths about pursuing God’s purposes in our lives without distraction.
The only script God has for us is Jesus. He doesn’t care about your alma mater or who you voted for or what your position is on the big topic of the day. He doesn’t care what’s in your bank account or whether you lead from in front or behind at a church. He doesn’t even care if you work at Disneyland. His only measuring stick for you is His Son, whom He loves. What is unimaginably and inexplicably beautiful is that God loves you and me with that same love He has for His Son, in equal measure, without comparison, until the end of time and beyond. It’s hard to get my arms or my fingers around that kind of math. So why care about the grades your best friend makes or the car your neighbor drives? Why carry around those negative predictions and proclamations from the doubters? Get busy seeing yourself the way God sees you. Sure, you might hit a few snags along the way. Some of them might take a chunk out of you. But when we live on purpose, with joy, and without distraction, we will ditch the invisible scoreboard we have been tempted to live by. If we do this, distractions will lose their power over us, and we will cultivate a caring community who won’t shake their heads in disapproval when we mess up. Instead they will remind us of our purpose and potential.
CHAPTER 6 ALL-ACCESS PASS
God gave you all the permission you need, so don’t get distracted looking for it from everyone else.
It was Texas in the 1980s, and a couple was having a relaxed Saturday morning strolling through a garage sale in a nearby neighborhood. They loved seeing the little knickknacks and discarded treasures. As they ambled around the makeshift tables, the husband glanced at a very used guitar hidden by a heap of polyester clothes. He thought his oldest son would like it, so he haggled a five-dollar price tag and brought home the raggedy instrument. The oldest boy wasn’t really that into it, so he passed the guitar on to his little brother, Ed, who grabbed the guitar with a kind of reverence. A dream was kindled inside of him.
Ever since first gripping the neck of that guitar, Ed dreamed of being a world-famous musician. He practiced and worked for years and years. He played in dive joints and with many different bands just to build his experience. It wasn’t long before Ed got pretty good and started playing shows at larger venues. By the time he was in his twenties, he was dazzling crowds with his electric guitar. At about the same time, he met a young country western singer who was putting a band together. Her name was Carrie Underwood. Ed was invited to join the band, and for the next twenty years he toured the world with Carrie and melted faces with his guitar and his incredibly kind heart.
Ed called me to say they were swinging through San Diego on their worldwide tour and asked if I wanted a ticket. “Heck yeah,” I immediately said. The show was sold out and I looked online to see how much a ticket would cost. Even the cheapest seat in the place was more expensive than dinner for four, so I was glad he offered me a free one. The instructions Ed gave me to get into the show were simple: Go to the will-call booth, claim the ticket, and find your seat. How hard could that be?
As I approached the arena, the atmosphere was electric. People were lined up in a huge queue to get in; they were in a good mood and excited about the fun evening ahead. I was excited to have the chance to see my friend doing what he does best, and I had a big grin on my face as I approached will-call and picked up the envelope with my name on it. With my ticket in hand, I got through the entrance and started making my way to the nosebleed seats. I figured they wouldn’t have any uber-expensive front-row tickets just lying around. I didn’t mind though. I was stoked just to be in the arena. This is going to be awesome, I thought to myself as I climbed the many flights of stairs to my seat up in the rafters.
At the top of the stairs on the upper level, a guy with a flashlight stopped me and inspected my ticket. “This isn’t a ticket for this section,” he said. “You need to head down to the main floor. Once you’re down there, find someone who looks like me and they’ll point you in the right direction.” I was excited about this seat upgrade and thought that was really nice of Ed to get me a little closer to the stage. I skipped down toward the main floor with even more anticipation.
When I got there, another usher stopped me and took a close look at my ticket. “You’re in the wrong section, buddy,” he said, grinning. I wondered if maybe the guy up top had made a mistake and I was about to climb all those stairs again. If that happened, I told myself to look on the bright side and think of it as good exercise. At least I’ll get my steps in for the day. But instead of pointing back up, he pointed farther in toward the stage. “This ticket will get you into the area inside that second stage over there. The kids these days call it a mosh pit.”
“Really?” I said, surprised by the news. He was pointing at an oval stage connected by a walkway to the main stage. People were filling up the space inside the oval where the band would come out at some point and play some songs. Things were really going my way. I had gone from the nosebleed section all the way to the mosh pit. Then again, I had no idea what a mosh pit was. What is mosh anyway? And if you get some on you, how would you know and how would you get it off? Maybe I could put some white vinegar on it and soak myself overnight? I figured I would find out. “Let’s mosh it up!” I said as I pressed my way through the crowd toward the stage.
I can’t lie—as I approached the mosh pit, it looked pretty rowdy. Kind of like people in a blender just after someone turned the dial to liquefy and flipped the switch. There was a person standing at the entrance who asked to see my ticket. I sheepishly held it out, once again wondering if the guy before had made a mistake. If I made it in, I would be one of the few old guys in the mosh pit, and I was starting to look forward to the experience. Jesus, take the wheel, right? The guy looked at the ticket once, then again with his flashlight. Then he got another security guard close by to look at the ticket and verify its authenticity. He looked up at me and laughed. “Buddy, this is an all-access pass. You can go anywhere with this thing.” I wondered if it would be overstepping to head back to Carrie’s tour bus and make myself a sandwich.
Getting me a ticket was so kind of everyone in the band. Not only did they get me in the building; they also made it possible for me to go anywhere I wanted while I was there. The thing is, I didn’t realize I had that kind of permission in my hands. It took three burly security guards to convince me I had far more access than I really believed, imagined, or understood. My gracious hosts wanted me to have whatever vantage point I chose. I could certainly have looked on from afar if I wanted to, but I was also invited right into the mix. The only place I couldn’t go that night was to the center of the stage.
Perhaps this is what God wants you to know as well. He’s given you access to go anywhere with your life and the whole world to do it in. The only spot that’s already taken is center stage, where Jesus already has it covered.
Sometimes people make faith complicated, but the invitation Jesus gave us is not: We have an all-access pass, and all we need to do is show up and claim it. But using an all-access pass takes a good dose of boldness. If you want the freedom to go anywhere, a mindset shift has to take place. No one is the gatekeeper of our lives and our joy anymore. We also need to permanently set aside asking for permission to live into what God has already placed in our hearts and told us to release into the world. In short, we have already been invited into our beautiful lives, so we don’t have to wonder if this is where we really belong or have the right to be.