When Life Doesn’t Turn Out the Way You Expect

Jeff Goins

A few weeks ago, I caught up with an old friend. For an hour, we talked on the phone about what was happening in our lives. We do this every few months , but it had been awhile and a lot had changed. As we chatted, my friend and I both realized life after college hadn’t turned out the way we expected. And for a moment, this really depressed us — but only for a moment.


The Worst-Laid Plans

“I just turned thirty,” my friend said. “That was weird.”

“Yeah… why?” I asked.

“Well, there was just a lot of things I thought I would have done by now.”

He proceeded to list a handful of things he always thought he’d do, like finish grad school and go teach at a college. But those things were gone now, at least for this season.

“And that’s okay, I guess.” He said it wistfully with a twinge of doubt in his voice, so it was hard to believe.

Then he began to tell me everything he’d done since college — things he never would have imagined doing. Like training hundreds of musicians each year to travel around the world. Things like meeting his wife and moving to Minnesota and helping lead a nonprofit.

I admitted the same, that it was hard to come to grips with the fact that all my “dreams” hadn’t come true. As we talked, though, we both concluded that maybe this wasn’t such a bad thing. Maybe we were idiots in college and didn’t know what was good for us.


Three Reasons Why We Need Disappointment

Although it’s hard, disappointment is an important part of living a great story. Here’s why:

1. Every character in a story wants something. But she doesn’t always get it. At least, not how she anticipated or planned. That’s the difference between Friends and Lord of the Rings. One is all about each character’s petty melodrama. Another is an epic. No offense to Joey, Ross, Phoebe, and the rest of the gang (because I love them dearly), but which would you rather live? Having your plans wrecked is an essential element to living a significant story and being an interesting character.

2. Conflict causes characters to grow. This means that sometimes the things you thought you’d do — the things that would make your life easy and comfortable — are not at all what you need. This is the lesson of every superhero movie: all Batman or Spiderman wants to do is be normal and have a steady girlfriend, but they’re called to something greater.

3. Great stories don’t end the way you think. Sure, the good guy may often win and eradicate evil (which you could’ve predicted), but it doesn’t happen how you thought. In a good story, everything can’t go according to plan. That’s what causes suspense and holds our interest. At some point, there’s a complication — the car breaks down, someone gets cancer, the other boxer decides to fight dirty — the hero’s cause is thwarted (at least temporarily), causing him to do something drastic.

*Photo by Louise Docker, Creative Commons

In our own lives, this may mean working a job we hate for longer than we’d like or moving cross-country when we’d rather stay put. It means doing the hard thing and expecting the unexpected, understanding that this is where we grow. Surprises test our character; they make us better people.


You Aren’t the Main Character

In order for any of this to make sense, you have to learn a hard, but important lesson about life: you aren’t the center of the universe. This is so counterintuitive to a capitalistic culture it may be a hard pill to swallow for some.

In other words, you’re not the main character. You are living in a deeper narrative than The Book of Me. And you have a role to play, an important one, but it has to do with more than just you.

This is why we invented the word “vocation” (which in Latin means “calling”). It represents this idea that your life is part of something bigger than what you want, that there is work that you don’t simply choose, but are called to. Yes, we have choices, but the story we’ve been given to live isn’t completely up to us.

What this means is that life doesn’t always look like we expected or even wanted. And our response to that? “Thank God.”

-Jeff Goins

Jeff Goins

Jeff Goins

This is a guest post by Jeff Goins. His latest book, The In-Between, is available on his website. Make sure to follow along on Twitter (@jeffgoins) for regular updates.

  • Great post Jeff – absoultely spot on. We can get so self-involved and pursuing of happiness we end up being unfulfilled and unhappy – that’s the great irony.

    So many of the major changes in my life – probably all of them – have come through conflict. Without conflict our lives probably won’t find purpose.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    • Thanks, James. Glad it spoke to you. Conflict is what makes us grow, and yet we still avoid it at all costs. Crazy.

  • I’ve said it a few time that it’s crazy that we ask seventeen year old kids to decide what they want to do for the rest of their lives as they enter college. I just hit thirty and am finally getting clarity on the matter. If things had worked out for me the way I had “planned” when I was entering college I would most certainly be unemployed as the industry I was studying has completely died. God knows the thoughts and plans He has for us, but we still need to move, to try, to taste. To co-labor with Him and enjoy His creation.

    • Anna


      I’ve thought the same thing so many times! I was never a kid who wanted to be x when I grew up. It took me going to college and working my first job in my degree field to realize that wasn’t what I wanted to do. But those experiences led me to the path I’m on now (back in school, turning 30). It’s sometimes hard for me to enjoy it and not wish things could have been different. But God leads me to posts like this that give me hope and make me realize I’m not alone.

      “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” -CS Lewis

      • You won me with the C.S. Lewis quote. It’s always nice to know you aren’t alone, isn’t it? That, even if you are crazy, at least you’re not the only one.

  • Mac

    I like the idea that big external change causes big action, and that “negative” or hard external forces are actually some of the absolute best motivators.

    I think Paul was clued into that when he talks about “counting it all as joy.”

    I’m coming to the conclusion that something hard is usually a good thing…and that good things usually come from something hard.

    Great stuff Jeff. (Also…it’s crazy to see the world of AIM all up on the Storyline blog.)

    • Crazy, indeed, Mac. I still don’t believe it. Thanks for the comment!

  • Colin

    On the cusp of fifty, I rather despise that starry-eyed youth who wasted so much of my time on minutia. From this perspective I can see that my calling has been virtually the same since I was fifteen, but that I have vacillated from abusing to ignoring it in pursuit of “something bigger” for myself. I have a pretty good idea where I’d be if all the doors had been open for me along the way. That possible me would be a very selfish and very broken fellow.

  • Disappointment is integral to our stories. We like to think good stories are all ironed-out and it’s just kittens and rainbows all the time.

    But this isn’t what we were promised. We were promised there will be suffering. But there is hope in that suffering because through those times we can be molded into the image of the Sufferer himself.

    Thank you for spreading the word the our stories are bigger than ourselves.

    • Thanks, Grayson. I agree… just don’t tell my kitten.

  • Thanks Jeff. I am in the season of life-not-going-according-to-plan. I moved across the country to start law school and four days before starting, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. I love when you said, “…there is work that you don’t simply choose, but are called to.” I truly believe that fighting cancer during this time of my life has opened opportunity for me to share where my hope and strength is found. It has allowed me to share with people that life is about the journey, not the destination–I can see that I am currently called to these conversations. Thank you!

    • Lydia, thanks for sharing and for being brave. I’m so sorry to hear about your cancer, but am really encourage and inspired by your courage.

  • Anonymous

    “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

    Jeremiah 29:11

    Cling to God’s promises.

  • allie

    “Maybe we were idiots in college and didn’t know what was good for us.”

    so true.

    and this probably applies to each stage in life when we think we know more than we do. so grateful for this jesus who loves us where we are & does not leave us there.

    thanks jeff!

  • Valerie Damron

    Its amazing what “choosing” Joy in whatever path you’re on makes the journey glorious! The world needs all paths to function..whether you are a garbage man or a CEO.. I’ve known miserable CEO’s and amazing janitors.. 🙂

  • Jeff is that your awesome car??

    What a great post. Life certainly has not gone according to my plan in anyway. But I think you’re absolutely right. We aren’t the main character. I started to realize this is God’s plan. I began to think about what I can do to contribute to this plan, not what the plan would do for me. Knowing this, we can live better stories in the Lord and his Kingdom. What an enterprise! Thanks so much Jeff.

    Grace and Peace

  • Nice. I would have put “You aren’t the main character” as #4 because I think that is the main lesson disappointment has taught me and the main reason I needed to be disappointed. There is another story (of which I cannot see all the details) which is being completed — a story far greater, which will thrill me in the end.

    To God be the glory — great things he has done and is doing!

  • good word, Jeff. my life has certainly not turned out as planned, but i’ve found that 49 isn’t the end of dreams. for me it’s the beginning.

  • Jeff,

    This is wild. My roommate and I were talking about this exact topic last night. I will be celebrating a milestone birthday next year and there are so many things that I have wanted to accomplish or have done by this birthday that have not happened as of yet. Thank you for helping me change my perception on this!

  • Finally came to the shocking conclusion a couple days ago that I’m not the center of the universe… never felt so broken in my life. My world has turned upside down. People I hated are suddenly loveable. Things that were important to me suddenly aren’t; things that weren’t important to me suddenly are. I thought I had life figured out. Boy, was I wrong! I’ve been a fool my entire life… which hasn’t really been that long yet, luckily. Haha!

    … Where I am now isn’t at all where I wanted to be. But God knows best! And somehow, he’s turning my mistakes for the better, and helping me to realize that his plans are infinitely bigger and better than anything I could ever come up with.

    Thanks so much for sharing, Jeff! This is such an encouraging post, I’ve passed it on to my friends.

  • For the record, my recent drastic decisions involved quitting the job I hated sooner than anticipated (without a back-up plan!), and bumping up my wedding an entire year. I’ve been feeling God’s call on my life for a while now, but I’ve ignored him… trying to pursue the things I thought were best for me. Turns out what I think is best in comparison to what God knows is best is like a speck of dust in comparison to the wonders of the universe. Haha! You’re so right, thank God things don’t go the way we plan! His plans are way more exciting.

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  • Rachel

    “… It means doing the hard thing and expecting the unexpected, understanding that this is where we grow …”
    Ah, thank you so much for this, Jeff. What an awesome and encouraging reminder.

    Very timely, too, as my small group was just reflecting the other night on how our “failures” and disappointments refine us. We also had ourselves a Friends vs. Friday Night Lights debate (and how the latter is special for the same reasons you state above).

    I really appreciate your writing! Best.

  • Jay

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jeff.

    I love everything you have to say, but I have one problem – everything is going to the plan I made at 17! I’m the first to admit this isn’t a good thing.

    How do I invite some more conflict and disappointment into my life?

    • Give it time… 😉

      Just kidding! I couldn’t resist.

  • Great insights, Jeff. With my 30th birthday around the corner (next Spring) I find myself looking back occasionally at the years since college as well. I haven’t accomplished the dreams I thought I would, but life has brought plenty of adventures I never saw coming.

    Sometimes I feel like life is one of those choose your own adventure novels. 🙂

  • Killer post Jeff. I’m fairly certain I was an idiot in college, and I probably still am:)

    If life always turned out exactly how we expected I imagine it would get pretty boring.

  • I so needed to hear this today. I didn’t feel overwhelmed by anything but life, and needed the reminder of the big picture and the purpose. . . instead of the problems. Thank you for helping to correct my thinking to align with God’s ways over my own. The easy way is rarely the best way, and while I can’t see the purpose in all that is going on right now, God has a purpose in absolutely everything.

  • Katie

    So glad unmet expectations do not mean failure. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts. It made me reflect and realize that my expectations for where I am in life don’t even entirely match up with my dreams so why be too disheartened?! Grateful He has a plan and a purpose.

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  • Elaine

    I actually had the opposite reaction when I turned 30 – I was relieved. All those expectations I had for my 30-year old self that were not realized were wiped clean and I started over. Thank goodness I gained at least a little wisdom in my 20’s and started my 30’s with one goal – to be not be so hard on myself and to love who I am. Having recently turned 40, I’ve been using that as a goal ever since.

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