In one sense, every day is created equal. In another sense, this is wholly untrue. Every day contributes to the trajectory of your life. But certain days change it. It’s not that your life is defined by these moments. Take them away, however, and things look different. Much different.
How you respond in these moments largely determines the shape and substance of your life.
Picture a connect the dots worksheet. These were my fave as a youngster. Some of these worksheets have 20 dots. Others have 50 or 100. There are always, however, just enough dots to reveal the picture accurately. With each dot, the picture becomes more clear. And if you miss one, you’re guaranteed to change or distort the shape.
So it goes with your life.
Certain events have profoundly shaped your life’s worksheet. These are your dots, they connect your life’s narrative, giving it shape, substance and meaning. You could call these inflection points. An inflection point, technically speaking, is a point at which something fundamentally and forever changes direction. Practically speaking, an inflection point, is some event that signals a change in your life.
As a general rule, there are two types of dots or inflection points: those that are self-imposed and those that are imposed on you.
Both are drenched in fear and unknown, but the self-imposed inflection points are more desirable, accompanied by positive feelings, exciting, anticipation, and general optimism to name a few.
Your wedding day is a self-imposed inflection point (it should be, at least). The day you changed careers is another. The moment you give all of your life to Jesus is most certainly one. All dots you choose. All moments that change your life forever and ever, amen.
Remove any of these, your life looks profoundly different.
Then you have those dots that are imposed on you. Losing someone you love or being diagnosed with cancer are examples. Devastating moments wrought with grief and despair. You can’t avoid these inflection points, I’m afraid. Suffering is part of the deal. All of us will have at least one painful dot on our life’s worksheet, one we didn’t ask for and would give anything to remove.
Why Inflection Points Matter
So, what’s with the childish connect the dots parallel and geeky inflection points jargon?
I assure you we’re doing more than rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
You see, everyone now and then, you run across someone who’s painted a beautiful portrait with their days. You wouldn’t at all put words in Jesus’ mouth, but you figure if this person doesn’t hear “Well done, good and faithful servant,” your efforts are an exercise in futility.
It’s not that “Well done, good and faithful servant” implies moral excellence. It’s certainly not that success or status or accomplishments play some role. Or any role at all. No, the ones whose lives are worthy of imitation have walked with integrity and acted with compassion. They realized their impact on others and lived accordingly. They believed, against the darkest of odds, in love. They never grew cynical of humanity, growing in hope for people as they grew in age.
And although you know the portrait you see is beautiful, you’re not sure how such a life came to be. To understand the “Well done” life, I think you need to understand some things about connect the dots and inflection points.
Why Most People Settle For Mediocrity
Most people settle for mediocrity because they aren’t prepared to give what is required for significant change.
An inflection point asks something of you. It requires some sacrifice, almost always a relinquishing of your desires for the good of others. Inflection points also ask you to embrace uncertainty and unknown, something we naturally wish to avoid.
Living a “Well done” life requires a willing heart. You must be willing to say yes, even when it sounds crazy or evokes fear. You must be willing to abandon personal comfort. You must be willing to push your mind to see different perspectives and your heart to love different people. And you must be willing to learn from suffering.
I’ll briefly touch on these points.
First, you must be willing to say yes. The day I graduated college, I also vowed to take my faith seriously. I promised myself that day I would say yes to anyone who asked me to serve in some area outside my comfort zone. Lo and behold, a few days after, I walked into my church, and my pastor greets me with, “Are you a praying man?”
Apparently his question was rhetorical.
Before I could answer he asked me to lead the church in corporate prayer that night. I was 23 and never once led anything in front of people. Ever. The whole deal made me pee my pants. Well not really. Okay, maybe just a little.
My yes that night was an inflection point. It marked a significant change in my life. The trajectory of my life would look radically different, I’m convinced, had I said no that night. Little did I know, God would use my yes to fuel future yeses, clearing the way to transition from civil engineer to full-time ministry.
You must be willing to abandon personal comfort and security. You simply cannot experience true life inside your comfort zone. At the edge of your comfort and security, you begin to experience God. Until then, God is largely a set of doctrines and personal beliefs. Christians who step out of their comfort zone in faith don’t spend much time debating doctrines or arguing who’s right or wrong about this or that. Once you experience God, these discussions are seem futile.
You must be willing to push your heart and mind to see different perspectives and love different types of people. When I read about the heroes of faith, those who make something of their lives, they all seem to push their heart and minds to include more people. They aren’t defined by what they’re against or by who’s in and out. They’re defined by love and they have a great capacity for compassion. They don’t wish revenge on those who wrong them. They don’t hate their enemies. Instead, they appear to weep over and pray for them. This strikes me as awkward because it’s so different from my approach. This shift requires a huge spiritual jump. But a necessary one, it seems, if you want to experience a “Well done” life.
Finally you have suffering. No one escapes this life without suffering.
Experiencing the “Well done” requires a willingness to learn from it. Above I said some dots are your own choosing, others are not. The other dots, the painful ones, are unavoidable. You can’t choose when or where they show up.
But you can choose your response.
You can deny painful experiences. You can suppress or numb them. You can blame others for them.
If you choose any of the above options, however, your life will appear skewed and oddly shaped in places, much like a connect the dots worksheet where you skip one or more dots. You can choose, for example, to move from dot 5 to dot 7, skipping over dot 6 because it’s too painful. But doing so will negatively impact who you become and how you interact with others. The more of these difficult dots you pass over (via numbing, victimizing, etc.), the more discombobulated and unrecognizable your portrait becomes.
What’s the other option? Learn from your pain.
A “Well done” life chooses that final option. This learning isn’t educational. You certainly won’t find it in some textbook. It’s learning that must be experienced. Pain and suffering bring you to the end of yourself and into deeper reliance on God. On the other side, you’re never the same. But, despite loss, you’re more whole. And despite the world crumbling underneath you, your feet are more firmly planted than before.
Suffering is always an inflection point, a point of no return. Learning and growing from these points always adds depth and beauty and meaning to your life’s portrait.
Look For Inflection Point Opportunities
You’re at some unknown place between your first and last dot. You could be 30 or 40 years from your last breathe. You could be much closer. Your life’s portrait isn’t complete, in other words. There are dots left to fill, inflection points yet to come.
The real beauty of inflection points, one of the primary reasons they exist, is to identify and predict future points. The idea being if I know (mathematically speaking) the point where a curve changes direction, I can use that knowledge to predict future point where such changes occur.
If you survey your life to this point, can you identify a missed inflection point? I certainly can. Was there a moment here or an encounter there you either didn’t recognize or failed to engage? Maybe it was a job offer your heart told you to accept, but your mind, reminding you of all the risks, told you to turn down. Maybe you had an opportunity to share your faith with a co-worker, a neighbor, a family member. But fear or uncertainty kept you from doing so.
These are missed inflection points.
We all have them, I believe. The point is not to look back in shame, wondering how things might be different. The point is to look back and learn. The past is always for learning, never for living. Ask yourself why you missed that life-changing moment. Make necessary changes. And when a similar moment presents itself, don’t won’t miss it.
Here lies the true power of reflection and path to a “Well done” life. The beautiful portraits of lives well done are littered with missed moments. But they’re also filled with continued growth and constant reflection. These lives are the by-product of seeking God, asking him for strength to engage pain and uncertainty, grace enough to forgive ourselves for passed failures and wisdom to identify future opportunities.
May your life’s dots connect to form something beautiful.
Grace and peace, friends.
Frank is lead writer and editor for the blog at Bayside church. He is also a husband, father and Jesus-follower. Occasionally he plays golf. Often he drinks coffee.