The Grace of Failure (Or, How to Avoid a Midlife Crisis)

midlife crisis

Photo Credit: Bigstock (Anna Nahabed)

Forty years ago today—on December 14, 1976—I was born.

Since then, nothing has worked out as planned.

And that, is a saving grace.

You see, if I had become what I planned to be on my fifth birthday, I’d be a firefighter right now. As a boy, I was enthralled by the heroism of it. But now, I have a bad back and I hate thrill-seeking and I go out of my way to avoid third degree burns.

Courage comes in many forms. Sometimes, we plan for one kind of courage, but we end up having to find forms of bravery more consistent with who we are.

By my tenth birthday, the Chicago Bears were reigning Super Bowl champions, and I planned to be a running back at Soldier Field, like Walter Payton. But I’m slow, relatively small, not very strong, and I don’t like people bumping into me. For me, bruises rank right up there with third degree burns.

Sometimes, it’s important to accept that our idealistic plans will be altered by our very realistic limitations.

If I’d become what I planned to be when I was fifteen, I’d be a trial lawyer right now, just like Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, hammering away at Jack Nicholson. The problem is, I don’t like conflict or courtrooms, and I’m not sure what I think about Tom Cruise anymore.

It’s easy to plan a Hollywood life, but it takes some growing up and a lot of self-acceptance to gladly choose a life that is a little more ordinary.

A decade ago, I planned to build a life in the bustling Chicago suburbs. The problem was, by the time I was thirty, I’d forgotten the little one inside of me who loves quiet and slowness and forested paths and towns where everyone waves to each other.

Often, when we’re young, we plan to grow up into something big and flashy, but sometimes growing up is really about growing young again, reclaiming who we’ve always been, and living the way we’re wired.

By the time I was thirty-five, I planned to write a little blog for a handful of therapy clients interested in working directly with me. It seemed arrogant to hope for anything more.

Sometimes our plans are too big. But just as often our shame makes our plans too small, admonishing us for dreaming big, calling it conceit. Yet, our plans get to be exactly as big as our love for our self, our people, and our world.

Now, here I am. The big 4-0.

Now, I’ve got new plans. Bigger plans. I’ve got a new book coming out in March, a second new book I’m going to give away for free to those who pre-order the first book, and I’ve got all sorts of hopes and plans for all of it.

Yes, I still make plans. We have to. Plans propel us forward.

Yet today, on my fortieth birthday, I find myself hoping none of my plans work out.

It would have been a disaster—particularly for people in burning buildings and the Chicago Bears—if I had become who I wanted to be when I was five and ten years old. Likewise, when I’m fifty, I don’t want to be who I planned to be at forty. A true self is a constantly emerging self.

A good life is an always evolving life.

Growing up isn’t about getting what we want; it’s about giving in to the best parts of who we are. Slowly. Over time. As we begin to glimpse them, cease to reject them, welcome them, embrace them, live them. Growing up is about learning how to listen to the voice of grace, which is whispering within each of us, all the time, nudging us in a particular direction for today.

That, I think, is the challenge of turning forty. This birthday makes you want to look backward or forward. However, the question it begs of you is, can you stay focused and look deeper into the now? Can you live today as authentically as possible, so your days will eventually take you somewhere you ultimately want to be?

A couple of weeks ago, my oldest son looked into the now, as we crossed a bridge in our hometown, far outside the bustling Chicago suburbs. Someone we didn’t know had just waved to us in passing, the sun had just set, and, with more than a little awe in his thirteen-year-old voice, he observed, “Twilight over the river here is beautiful.”

I’m not sure how many years I have left. But I have only one plan I’m planning on keeping: I’m going to keep looking at now, I’m going to keep listening for the voice of grace, and I’m going to keep trusting that, if we do this, the twilight over our lives can be beautiful, too.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Pre-Order LOVEABLE Now! You are enough. You are not alone. And you matter. These are the three fundamental truths of your existence. The problem is there is a voice inside each of us relentlessly calling them into question. And yet the answer to that voice can be found within each of us, as well. Click here to find out more about my new book—Loveable: Embracing What Is Truest About You, So You Can Truly Embrace Your Life.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Bridget Kaumeheiwa Velasco

    Happpy Sunshiney Birthday Kelly! What a way to draw in every human being with this post! You give every adult a way to relate to the child they once were and to honor that piece of themselves: “Growing up isnt about getting what we want; its about giving in to the best parts of who we are”. WOW. Thank you for helping me continue to work to recognize, accept and enjoy my true self and to anticipate all I will become!

    • Thank you, Bridget, I’m glad my words are helping you do that. To hear that is a birthday gift in and of itself!

  • Karen Kirkland-Needler

    Happy birthday, and thank you for your gift to US. I had my first and only baby at 40, and now she’s almost 18. Nothing turned out as planned, and I’m an overworked, challenged, second-career high school teacher with a daughter whose an interesting young woman on the brink of setting flight. Hey, I almost spent my first career as a computer scientist at Bell Labs in Naperville! My love of music is still with me all these years after high school. I get to perform with many talented people, and we play the likes of Beethoven’s 9th symphony and Mozart’s Requiem. (Those provide life perspective!) Thanks for helping me see that I really am giving in to the best of me!

    • Lize Holtz

      Misssing/Musing about my long ago hectic -corporate -well paid -city girl existence. .. breathing in a glass of wine on my veranda, after a disjointed day of that crazy independence called “small business consultant” in this little village that I call home. Where you know the names of the dogs and their waving tails strolling by.

      Just when I thought that none of my plans worked out, you make me realise that everything is exactly as it should be.
      Gotto go…the little Cape Robin just alighted on my sun-bleached rocking chair, barely 6ft away and is chirping for his evening treat of grated cheese. His name is Toto.

      Just… Thank you.
      Happy birthday.

      • Thank you to both of you, Karen and Lize. Even when your birthday finds you in a place of peacefulness, acceptance, and gratitude, it is nice to know you’re not there alone.

      • Karen Kirkland-Needler

        Oh me too, Lize! Corporate America was me in Dallas, lovely little Vermont is where I’ve ended up as a teacher!

  • Marie

    Happy birthday, Kelly! You almost make it sound easy…leaning into your best self…

    • Marie, anything you read on the internet in 700 words is probably going to make something very complicated sound easier than it is. 🙂 I hope my book will be a valuable, 64000 word unpacking of these ideas!

  • Elizabeth Aviles Clemens

    Happy Birthday!!!!! I love your blog 😄

  • Beautiful post Dr. Flannagan. At 60 I can truly appreciate all you share. Looking back through my life I see God’s perspective has always been greater than mine and now is always my most precious time. Happy Birthday!

    • “Now is always my most precious time.” I love it when someone sums up in a phrase what I spend hundreds of words trying to say. Thank you, Patti!

      • Thank YOU! Placed an order for your book and so looking forward to it!

  • Glynis Wood

    Happy happy birthday ! Hope you have a great day, and the years keep getting better and better. Love your blog. Love the authenticity. You are definitely a great example of living your life honestly. It’s both inspiring and refreshing. I just turned fifty this year and truly feel it just gets better and better! Can’t wait to read your book.

    Glynis

    • Glad to hear testimony from ten years ahead that it can keep getting better and better, Glynis. Thank you. And thanks for your interest in the book!

  • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

    Thank goodness for the second chances in failure! My own unplanned life is nudging me, letting me know that the stretch of path I’ve been walking was good and now it isn’t and I need to set my feet to a different trail. What a long strange trip this life is. And so much better in the company of the band of oddballs who love me best. I guess like calls to like just fine.
    Many happy returns of the day, Kelly. And thank you for the gift of this perspective.

    • I told a friend recently, I don’t mind crisis if someone is going through the crisis with me. I’m glad you have that band of oddballs, Shel, who will search through the underbrush with you for a new path.

  • Jeanette Roberts

    Kelly, Happy Birthday! This is a beautiful post, as are all of your prose-poem gifts to us. I love waking in the morning, sipping coffee, and when I open my email, there is the jewel of your blog waiting for me. Have a beautiful now, today and all year!

    • Thank you, Jeannette. I find myself very grateful for your description of my posts as prose-poems. I hope you have a beautiful now all year too!

  • Eleanor Rabnett

    Happy Birthday. What a beautiful day to become 40 years old on! May God continue to bless you so richly Kelly and may you continue to share your journey with all of us. Thank you.

    • Thank you, Eleanor, it is bitterly cold here, but sunny and beautiful indeed. Like all of life, a bit of a mixed blessing!

  • Shayne Wheeler

    Happy birthday! I will never dislike my birthday no matter how old I get. I LOVE my birthday and hope you do too!
    Slightly off topic, yet addressing our younger self, I always loved to see my children write “I love mom. I love dad. I love (sister). I love (myself).” Whenever I saw this, I would point it out to them and say, “never forget that you love yourself.” It’s very sad to think that often, we simply stop loving ourselves.
    -I just noticed that my teenager still has a picture of herself on her nightstand. I love it!
    Hope your day is full of happiness. And cake.

    • Shayne, this is so well said. The foundation for our love of others is our love for ourself. That’s where we practice!

  • Rick Yanchuleff

    Happy Birthday, you’re never too old to be young. Enjoy your day.

  • Ilija Prentovski

    I don’t know how good a therapist you are, but if you’re half as good as with your blogger’s hat on, you must be pretty good! 🙂

    You said, “Growing up isn’t about getting what we want.” — Well, someone else said that it’s about getting what we need. And we do. Grace takes care of us.

    Happy b-day, dear doctor!

    • Ilija, that is really very kind of you. And I’m grateful for that sentiment: we get what we need, Grace takes care of us. Thank you.

  • Michael Galbraith

    Happy Birthday, Kelly. This is a beautiful post…you seem way older than 40 in terms of wisdom. I love the way you balance planfulness with openness to the beauty of here and now. Looking forward to your book!

    • That is very kind of you to say, Mike. As Richard Rohr says, “All wisdom is borrowed.” Perhaps I’m particularly gifted at borrowing. Ha!

  • Liz Mason

    Happy Birthday Kelly:)
    Thank you for your efforts on behalf of so many. I enjoy reading your blog and it has helped guide me through some hard times. Life sure is a wild ride.

    • Liz, I’m so glad my words could be a bit of a companion through tough times. We’ll keep wading through the mess together here on the blog!

  • Melanie Nisbet- Riley

    Happy big four-oh, Kelly! The best is yet to come!

  • Ashley

    A perfect post for me to read on my birthday (which we share!)

    • Happy birthday, Ashley! Grace and peace as you contemplate this most recent trip around the sun. Also, lots of chocolate.

  • Mike Gates

    I dunno…I think the Bears could use the help – at least this year. Yuk Yuk Yuk. I’ll be here all week.

    Happy birthday. I hope you enjoy your 40’s as much as I did.

    • Ha! They aren’t quite at the tipping point where I might help them, though it may not be far off. 🙂 I remember you saying how generative your 40s were; I hope to experience that, too. Keep sharing your secrets to doing so, Mike!

  • When I was 10 I wanted to be in the Ice Capades…or write cards for Hallmark….never could decide which one. (: At 62 I’m pretty grateful that neither of those things happened to replace where my life has taken me. (although I still wish I could skate) You’re smart to prayerfully let life take you where it may. Do we choose our path or does our path choose us? I think some of both, and I wish you an absolutely wonderful birthday, 40’s, and beyond path! Enjoy it…there’s nowhere else to go. (;

    • Yes, both, Donna. Which means, you probably need to put ice skates on your Christmas list. 🙂

  • Grace

    Happy Birthday Kelly!
    May God bless you in this new adventure of being 40!
    My 40th decade just ended, and oh how rich that season was. I’m learning how big God is, big enough for me to rest in his promises even amidst painful trials, because his goodness shines ever brighter as I seek and trust him.
    The beauty of failure and inability, lends weight to our humility, which gives gravity to our earthbound lives and keeps us seeking the God we need.
    🙂

    • Wow, Grace, that last line reminds me of Paul’s line regarding the building of character. Beautifully said, and yes, I’ll take all of it please!

  • Amanda Missy

    The things you write are so beautiful to me. Thanks for your insight! I also turned 40 this year and what a time of reflection! If I was today what I wanted to be when I was 5…I would be Anne of Green Gables or Laura Ingalls Wilder. I wanted to be a teacher, and I sort of am, even if it’s not my career. I teach children and youth in my church. If I was today what I wanted to be when I was 10…I would be Maria VonTrapp! I suppose you could say I am a nun still in search of my Captain VonTrapp! And maybe that’s the lesson. Somethings work out like you hoped, and some things (thankfully) do not, but in spite of all the twists and turns down the road of life…the journey sure is beautiful.

    • I appreciate this addition, Amanda. Some things do work out the way we want, though not the way we expected. I was just watching Mr. Rogers and one of the artists in the show “Stomp” said he’d been passionate about making noises since childhood. His dreams were realized, but in a way he couldn’t possibly have planned.

  • Doreen Myrfield

    Happy Birthday Blessings today and each day in this year around the sun. We are blessed that you hoped for more and share your life inspiring messages with us. Listening for that voice of grace is challenging as I sometimes live in a mess of tangles. Thanks for the reminder to live in the here and now. Peace

    • Thank you for this, Doreen. I can’t emphasize how important I think it is that we are careful and intentional about listening for that voice. It’s the foundation of everything else.

  • Alex Watawa

    WOW! This is so unfair! It is your birthday and you give us this gift?!?!!
    What do you say to something like that?
    Thank you! For EVERYTHING. For who you are, for what you share, for what you help us think,realize and choose. For your beloved family who nourishes you and teaches you. For their kindness of letting themselves be in our lives too (and be indirectly loved and cherished by total strangers around the globe!).
    And happy birthday! May the next 40 years be fulfilled with even more Love, Grace, Light and gratitude. May the coming years be even better than everything you lived until now. And may the happiness be in such vastness that you won’t be able to find words to express it…
    Thank you for existing! Thank you for your parents for having created you! Thank you and all the best!

  • Karen Eisele

    Happy birthday from one December baby to another. I love aging. i see it as a gift.(I will be 63 on the 16th). With ages comes perspective and hones in us what is really important and how to have gratitude for the ordinary aspects of our lives. We may never find a sense of complete contentment, which is not necessarily a bad thing since it keeps us from getting stagnant. So celebrate the now, enjoy lifes ride with all its bumps, we don’t get to rewind so keep looking forward….I still am wondering what i will be when I grow up.
    Can’t wait for your new book. I pre-ordered through Amazion. Your birth gave us all a gift. Thank you

    • Karen Kirkland-Needler

      Happy birthday, Karen! Nice post.

  • Hanneke Stil

    Happy 40th birthday!
    I love reading your blogs. They often seem to apply to the things going on in my life at that very moment. I hope to be able to learn a lot more from your visions.

    Blessings from The Netherlands

  • Jackie B

    Oh! you have no idea how much I needed to read this today…Once again, you speak into my life with humble encouragement and insight. Wishing you a life filled with Grace and Happiest Birthday Wishes.

  • Brian Shimer

    This was super timely as I am seeking to learn that as well — at a far more “seasoned” age then you! I was a junior in high school in 1976! But I appreciate the wisdom of looking deeper instead of looking backward or foreword. It’s tough to not do so! Tempting to compare and fall into the traps attached to that comparing. Tempting. Love the keeping phrases. Yes what is — there’s life there. Indeed the Presence of that voice of grace is so much more connected to the present place where my feet are. I want to keep standing there! I love where God has you! Brian

  • Brian Shimer

    Oh yes!!! I meant to say that too– HAPPY BIRTHDAY!! And there are many of us who are so grateful that we won and the fire department and the team lost!!

  • Clare

    Happy birthday! I was also born on December 14th 1976, but in a little town in England…. so I turned 40 yesterday too! My dad sent me a link to your blog to read. Interesting and challenging!!

  • Bill Flannagan

    Well said as always my friend. It it a pleasure reading your thoughts and following the path your words lead us down. Yes, life can present us with challenges and failures, and sometimes those failures can lead to better things too. If we’re lucky and diligent, we can even learn a few things about ourselves and the world as we travel along the way. Best wishes to you and yours!

  • Jenny

    Happy Birthday! This is a good opportunity for me to say thank you for the blogs. They bring me much insight and joy and I often share them with my husband and they give us food for thought. Thank you for feeding us! Blessings on you and your family and enjoy your 40’s 🙂 Jenny

  • Sue Ryder Scott

    Happy Birthday! Another great blog; I share them all the time…. and I’ll share this one too. Isn’t it also something of which to be in awe that you have no idea how many lives you touch this way? Keep up the great work. We’re glad you’re not a fireman too.

  • Cris M

    Very happy (belated) birthday Kelly! I wish I read it on Wednesday to be on time, but anyway, I am still sending my best wishes, and specially all the grace each of us needs for our journey! I am doing 42 next week, and I think I said it before, but arriving to this part of my adulthood has been a blessing, as much as it has been a challenge to face what I am not in order to love what I am… and as part of accepting who I am, I got to your blog, and today, I am happy you decided not to be all the things you planned, because we wouldn´t be enjoying your posts should it had been the case! Big hugs! Cris

  • Debbie Grace

    Happiest of Happy Birthdays, dear Kelly! Throwing in a few happy dances as well. 😉 Enjoyed reading this so much… but then I, too, always enjoy reading your posts. Warm wishes for a wonder and grace-filled year ahead and looking forward to watching with you how your life unfolds. <3

  • A big thank you to everyone who has taken the time to express such kind birthday wishes since I last replied to comments. In the midst of Christmas party madness this weekend, I’m going to run out of time to reply to you each individually, but I want to let you know my birthday was so enriched by your comments. Thank you for being you and for letting me be me.

  • Joyce Slaughter

    Happy Belated birthday!! Welcome to the 40’s. 🙂