When a Lot of Things Seem Frustrating There’s a Different Place to Start


What if the things I am most sure about, I am actually most wrong about? And what if in this, you are like me?

I’d say for the vast majority of my 5-plus decades – or at least starting during my adolescence – I have been overwhelmingly certain about many many judgments. Usually, these were countless small judgments; like, “that guy drives me crazy,” or “this weather is horrible,” or “I really don’t get why _________ [fill in name of sibling, co-worker, politician, priest, wife, child, or freeway driver] is doing this.” (I have lots of positive judgments, too; people, situations, art, expressions, etc., that I love; but I’ll save those for another lesson I can perhaps learn and share with you.)

The countless “negative judgments” are, of course, varied. They differ in intensity, proximity, frequency, etc. The judgment-feelings I’ve harbored (and sometimes expressed out loud) about a challenging adolescent daughter, for instance, were way different than those I might have had about a driver who cut me off, or a work situation that seemed ridiculous. But, give me a chance here with a couple  ideas about such judgments. Your old ideas will be there for you to return to. They are the overwhelming “truths” we humans tell.

I offer two utterly counter-intuitive points. First, there is a sameness to the annoyances and the judgments that things are just wrong. And the sameness is greater than the differences among those judgments. My little frustration with the way “those idiots park,” is more alike than different than my deep frustration that my “son or daughter just can’t seem to make a good decision.” And that frustration is more alike than different than my frustration with the “wrongheaded strategy of the management at the company,” which is more alike than different than the anger I feel towards “the Republicans’ myopic behavior.” That I get irritated, uncomfortable, angry, etc., is more important – in a very important sense – than why, how much, how long, whether others think like I do, etc. And this sameness is related to a second idea – that I suspect you’ll find equally odd or wrong – but which I suggest is potentially transformational.

I believe I need these frustrations. To put this differently, these “problems” are here to give me a chance to learn and to be shaped into a different kind of leader-person. In other words, my irritations and protestations about all the things that aren’t going the way I want reflect a huge childish (or childlike if you prefer) wish that everything be as I would have it be. But isn’t that a kind of crazy self-aggrandizement? A bit like if a bee expressed irritation at every flower that failed to meet the standard of the verb best nectar producing flower he’d encountered in his whole bee career. In the view I am allowing to sink in deeply: the traffic jam, adolescent rebellion, “crazy” boss, challenging spouse, competitive co-worker are gifts disguised.

As leader, teacher, or dad, each setback or frustration gives me a chance to lead the one person I can best lead: me. And in each such instance, there’s a chance that I can see clearly — not through the wishful  lens where I hope to see just what I want to see; but to see who is really there, what is really there, and how I might meet the other(s) where they are.  Let me know your thoughts: Is this simple? Crazy? Obvious, or potentially very useful? As you strive both with others and with yourself to

Lead with your best self


  • Very, very wise insight, Dan. Yes, the frustrations we feel tell more about us than anything about the frustrating incident or person. I find I’m most impatient with people who haven’t learned some lesson that I have learned, forgetting how hard it was for me to learn at one time (for example) how to divide fractions or (in life) how to take things one day at a time instead of tragedizing about some horrendous possibility that may never happen!

    In Krista Tippett’s onbeing website, she’s been conducting civil conversations with people on both sides of very divisive issues like abortion / reproductive rights or gay marriage, where typically, the sides become polarized and no one is listening. In each case, to help the participants recognize that the other perspective may have some validity, she asks “What is it on your ‘side’ makes you a little bit uncomfortable?” and “What is it in the other ‘side’s’ perspective that you admire?”

    My late husband was a social worker and when a client said something he found quite outrageous, any time he was inclined to respond with frustration or self-righteousness judgmentalism, he’d catch himself and instead of expressing something that could easily be interpreted as rejection, instead he’d ask “There must be a reason why you feel that way. Can you tell me what it is?”

    All of us come to our conclusions based on our personal experience. Obviously, everyone has different experiences so if we listen, really listen to the reasons why the other person feels the way they do, there’s a chance that we’ll learn something we didn’t know before. …and that’s a good thing: to learn why others think differently!

    In my opinion, it’s an essential skill for someone who wants to lead with their best self.

  • Good nuggets, Dan.

    I usually learn the lessons from frustrating situations the hard way. Those are the times when I crash into the experience with enough force to stop me cold. When they cause me to draw myself up short, or to face the ‘fight or flight’ war within, I am forced to examine them.

    Your words remind me of the opportunity these frustrations present, if I address them more objectively and more often. I will try to remember to ask, ‘What can I learn from this situation to benefit me?’

    This reminds me of a related lesson that applies, although I do not ‘practice’ it as often as I would like. Often the learning is simply that I must be more ‘present’ – to myself or to someone else. The less unconscious I am in my actions and reactions, the more I am willing and able to sidestep the frustration. In that state of mind, I am able to empathize with myself. Occasionally I can even empathize with others and their behaviors that I allowed to trigger my frustration. Remaining ‘present’ in the situation gives me a conscious, grounded method to address the immediate challenge AND the larger context.

  • Most (All?) conflict is collusion. Your wrongness or ability to irritate justifies my attitude and behavior. Your article does a great job of unpacking the ego and revealing it’s true goal: “Seek but do not find.” It’s only when we look within honestly that we “find” learning and insight. Thank you.

  • Very wise. Ties back to the whole notion that the only thing we can truly control is how we respond to things. So these annoyances point out to us opportunities to figure why we are irritated, and how to manage ourselves to meet the source of irritation (family, boss, political idealogy) where they are. More productive than wishing them into our worldview. And much eaiser said than done.

  • Great insights, Dan. I think you can find your ideas mirrored in some of Richard Rohr’s True Self-False Self concept. In some of his latest work Rohr sees life as a three steps forward and two steps back journey. The kind of insight you present this week is like the whole dying and rising again plan. You can grind your teeth in a traffic jam, or you can step back and learn from the experience. Either way, you are in it for the duration. You might as well profit and grow from the situation.

  • Dan,

    I appreciate your insight and growing wisdom on what amounts to human “suffering”. As I get older and read pieces such as yours I am slowly (agonizingly so) seeing that there is a grand purpose to life’s challenges – and it is about growth and learning.

    At a recent church service, our minister discussed “suffering” at length from a Christian context. He noted that you can’t get to Easter without going through Good Friday!

    Thanks for raising my awareness on this subject.

  • I so appreciate your vulnerable authenticity. As an ordained minister, I come up against this all the time and I heard an lovely little reminder on Rick Deeds travel show the other day talking about weather in Scotland. they say “There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing choices”
    the truth is, there is no thing that is against me….everything that seems to happen ‘to’ me also happens ‘for’ me if I am willing to use it to notice what is going on in me and move forward in greater ease and grace.

    Thanks for helping keep me awake!

  • Great article today Dan. I actually was just thinking about this idea last night. Gave me a little more to think about.


  • Simple, crazy, and obvious, and very, very wise.

    Sometimes the simplest, craziest, and most obvious truths are both the ones that make us whole and the ones that are the most difficult to access.

    Thank you for being a man of integrity who helps us get to those wonderful kernals of wisdom.

    Warm greetings from rainy, windy D.C.

  • Very useful. This is the kind of thinking that has the potential to transform the world. Talk about leadership! What you wrote about this week is, to me, is a spiritual practice that can lead one to being a much more enriched and enriching member of humanity. Thanks Dan for continuing to remind me that other people are on track – with great thinking and deep concerns about real change with huge impact..

  • Dan,

    Good words coming from CA to MI. I was reminded by your article of one of my favorite sayings…”Life’s struggles and challenges do not change who we are, they reveal who we are.”


    Fr. Mark Inglot

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