The Glorious Unfolding: Taking a lesson from our younger selves

glorious unfolding

By Mark Schaefer

I recently had an experience that shook me up a bit. Maybe it will shake you too.

A Wall Street Journal column by Sue Shellenbarger got me thinking about how I have grown as a person and why. It was not all good.

The article looked at how young adults handled a confrontation with their teenage hopes and dreams when they gathered for their 10-year high-school reunion.

After viewing a video “message to my future self” recorded more than a decade ago, the class members discovered that their teenage selves had underestimated the confidence and patience needed to pursue their goals.

Many of the adults longed for a chance to re-capture their youthful enthusiasm and provide guidance to their younger selves. 

I wondered, if I could go back in time and give my younger self some advice, what would it be? 

The impact on me

I recently had a similar “blast from the past” experience. I came across a cache of videos of myself at work and at home from the mid-1980s when I was a young buck just beginning my career. The person I am now compared to then is markedly different, and not all for the better.

The bright, young 20-something me was so “full of piss and vinegar” as they say, ready to take on anything.

What I have realized is that between then and now, my personality has been more radically impacted by the negatives in my life than the positives.

It dawned on me that every setback, every tragedy, and each disappointment in my life pounded, pounded, pounded away at that glorious optimistic life unfolding before me …

  • The corrupt boss who made me realize I had to be less trusting.
  • The unfaithful, addict ex-wife who taught me that devotion and love can be a lie.
  • The unethical employee who inserted a permanent sense of paranoia in my business world.
  • The spinal cord injury that made me approach adventurous sporting activities more cautiously.

Until I saw these videos, I had no idea this had happened to me. All of this built up so slowly over many years and then in one hour of watching videos I had this epiphany that my life view has been permanently altered by the cumulative evil in my life. That doesn’t seem fair. Evil should not be winning.

Straight jackets

It’s kind of like when you walk into a company and they have so many HR policy constraints because every time an employee did something wrong, they create a new rule to make sure it never happens again. So now all future employees have to live in a corporate straight jacket built on every mistake of the past.

I realized I had created this straight jacket too.

I guess if I could go back and give my younger self advice it would be, “To be human is to suffer. This will happen to you too. Fight through it Mark and don’t let the suffering make you forget who you are.”

I want to emphasize that I have no regets at all about how I have lived my life. I love my life and am proud of who I am. I have made mistakes but everybody does and my mistakes have always made me a better person because I do grow and learn.

So, it is time to grow and learn once again because I have learned something new. I long for that feeling of boundless optimism I saw in my 24-year-old blue eyes. Can I possibly re-capture a piece of that again?

The Glorious Unfolding

That was supposed to be the end of the blog post until I overheard a song that my wife (the good one) was playing in the next room just as I was finishing this up. It is a song from Steven Curtis Chapman and here are the words that were coming from the next room:

Take a rest from the fight
Don’t try to figure it out
Just listen to what I’m whispering to your heart
‘Cause I know this is not
Anything like you thought
The story of your life was gonna be
And it feels like the end has started closing in on you
But it’s just not true
There’s so much of the story that’s still yet to unfold

And this is going to be a glorious unfolding
Just you wait and see and you will be amazed
You’ve just got to believe the story is so far from over
So hold on to every promise God has made to us
And watch this glorious unfolding.

You know, I think this experience is the start of my own Glorious Unfolding. I cannot let the bad stuff win. My path might be unclear but I am determined that the unfolding will begin.

My story is far from over. Maybe it is just beginning.

How about you?

Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world.  Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

Illustration: This photo of me was taken this summer by my friend Matt Ridings

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  • Billy

    Mark, to have these moments is to own them in a way that a twenty something never can. To choose to bring out the better in ourselves is to have wonder reborn in these moments. Maybe its the time of life but I too am looking back so that I can look ahead. What a very intimate peek over your virtual shoulder. Thank You. You have helped me through and along the dangling and dangerous path of doubts. I will always look for you and your footsteps in the corridors of these spaces. Oh yeah your last podcast made me smile… and laugh. Why? because of you and Tom just laughing and cutting up. That was refreshing. All the best sir. Billy

  • Thanks so much for those kind words Billy. I look forward to hearing about your journey … and perhaps the impact of your trip to Ireland on that process? Seems to have made quite an impression on you!

  • Steve Woodruff

    You, my friend, have made my day with this post. Thank you!

  • Nice of you to say. Thanks for letting me know Steve.

  • Awesome post, Mark! I second Steve- it made my day.

  • Amy D. Howell

    What a great post especially when there is so much crap going on in the world! Thank you Mark!

  • Bill Reighard

    Eye opening post – after a life of risk taking and resulting blessings, why do I fear each new risk more than the last. Time for a refresh for me also. Thank you Mark.

  • LOVE love love Stephen Curtis Chapman and love the message Mark

  • Mark,

    You keep adding new dimensions to the definition of {grow}. Thanks for sharing these very personal life lessons. On occassion, I will think back to a younger me in my years fueled by piss and vinegar. I certainly don’t have the same fearless fire either. But we do live our lives through passages from one phase to another and each are filled with risk and exposure to heartache, dissapointment, tragedy and disillusionment. But that’s living and there’s as much to enjoy as there is to endure if you look for it. Sometimes these days, I really do think to myself “thank you young Billy, for taking risks, trying new things and learning from your mistakes. Now, get back to work old man.”

  • So nice to hear from you Don. It has been too long. Thanks for dropping by!

  • Glad you liked it Amy. Means a lot coming from you!

  • Mary Jane Kinkade

    Thank you for such an honest post. I can relate in so many ways. You have inspired me! Thanks again.

  • Wow Bill. Just a big wow. You are one of my heroes. Humbled I made an impact sir.

  • Thank you my friend. Honored to have you comment today!

  • Ha! You are the master story teller Billy. Nobody has a better way with words. It is difficult to discern between “maturity” and “excuses” some times. I am also grateful for the young Billy who led you to where you are today!

  • Thanks very much for letting me know MJ!

  • Jim Thornton

    Thanks for this post. It reminded me of this developmental class on Adulthood in school and the professor was set on the idea that being happy was all about adjusting expectations and sort of ‘refining a lifestyle’. Which I thought (hoped?) was just kind of bunk, but backed by a lottt of sound data. And as I’m finishing up my 20s it seems like only the few really get to realize their dreams and it doesn’t always seem like its just a matter of effort or heart, but talent.

    Any thoughts on that?

    Oh and I think a featured photo of you in your youth for the post would be neat.

  • Patricia Haag

    Mark – What a heartfelt post. You have dealt with a lot of issues, but you have come through it all with a good sense of self and a compassion for others. I’ve experienced several bullying bosses and deceptive co-workers. Your post reminds me that we can overcome these things if we choose.

  • Thank you Mark for this honest and open post. I believe we all experience this from bright eyed optimism of youth to the harsh realities of the crazy businesses we enter. Through it all we must maintain faith. When you have faith even the bad is used for good. Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. Small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, but it is there and we don’t need to buy the lie that you have to let the evil in to succeed …

  • Interesting…based on my own experiences and past, I have to remind myself that I am not a product of my past but a process of my past…learning, growing, changing and evolving. I won’t go into the details of a challenging youth. Suffice to say I’ve been on my own, supporting myself, since the age of 16. When some who know of my past ask me what I’d change, I say “nothing”…I am who I am today because of those experiences AND because I know that I won’t let those experiences define me. I define myself, my days and my life anew each and every day.

    And since there are no “coincidences” in the world, I too experienced a song on the radio yesterday that gave me a similar ah-ha moment. Not all the lyrics apply, but these resonated deeply with me.

    “When I think of all the worries people seem to find
    And how they’re in a hurry to complicate their mind
    By chasing after money and dreams that can’t come true
    I’m glad that we are different, we’ve better things to do…We were never meant to worry the way that people do”

  • John Lally

    Great Post Mark. I rarely come across articles that are so open and genuinely focused on helping others. The passing of Robin Williams has had put me, like so many others, into a state of reflection. A quote, that Williams so aptly deployed in Dead Poets Society was one I found particularly relevant to the topic you raise here.

    “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” – Henry David Thoreau

  • MaureenMonte

    Love it. The journey is within, and the fire strengthens the sword. I agree with Billy – and this can’t be taught, it must be experienced. Buddha said “All life is suffering.” But he also so said, don’t take my word for it. Go out and experience life – learn what is true for you. Nicely done, sir.

  • Yeah I thought about a picture like that but I prefer to look forward.

    You ask some big questions here. I think there is no question that our definition of success changes over time. During this period in the 1980s the doctors thought my baby son had a debilitating disease. At that moment I only had one definition of success for my life – – having that healthy baby back in my arms.

    This is something that wouldn’t never occur to a very young person and yet this also changed my world view in a very positive way. Embrace the changes and be flexible. Sometimes life changes our goals for us!

  • Thanks Patricia!

  • Well said Keith.

  • Oh my! I had to read this a few times so it really sank in. Great post! So, here’s my question to you (and me and everyone else here). As Billy Mitchel said in his comment, “You keep adding new dimensions to the definition of {grow}”. The dimension this as added for me is to think about how we can impact the lives and futures of all of the young people (all full of P & V like we all were) through this kind of reflection of our collective pasts. In 30 years, they’ll all be having the same thoughts as you’ve highlighted here. What can we do to help make their “story” better? If we’d been told this “back in the day”, would we have ever believed it? Not likely (and neither do they).

    Maybe, just maybe, we can ” recapture a piece of that again” with and through them.

  • After the trail of your faith, then comes the miracles. We become stronger in life as long as we keep hope and a good attitude toward the bad things that happen to us.

    Thanks for your thoughts today Mark.

  • To be human is to live and that means experiencing slices from the sweet and the sour. My life is very different from what the 25 year-old I was expected it to be. Break it into thirds and some is good, some is not and some of it is yet to be.

    Unfolding is a good description. I have the sense that I am just reaching the place where I really begin to see what my life can and will be. Maybe I would have been happier if I got to this place further but the guy I was couldn’t do what I can now.

    I might be harder, more skeptical and much more of a cynic but I think it also made me more compassionate and cognizant of how quickly life can change. I am certainly more appreciative of things now.

    There is a very nice slow cover of Fortunate Son that feels appropriate. Ignore the pictures and enjoy the music.

  • Scott Sidman

    Long time reader and love the post Mark. – It’s personal, but our personal and business lives are intertwined and this is great to talk about. I try to live in the present and look forward as well, but we are always drawn to the past and it’s human nature to occasionally wonder “what if?” I think for me it all falls under Socrates’ reminder to not “live the unexamined life” and to grow and become better people by acknowledging and learning from our mistakes, including perhaps, the roads not taken. Well done.

  • Thanks for the beautiful addition to the conversation Kaarina.

  • Thanks. My favorite book. I read it once a year! Thank John.

  • Thanks for adding your wisdom today Maureen.

  • Frederic Gonzalo

    What a great read, Mark. Thank you for this post, which should be mandatory reading for anybody aged 30 and beyond! (I’m in my 40s but let’s not say it too loud)

    Reading this reminded me of the 10 commandments of intra-preneurship, which I loved and lived by when I used to work for a big corporation. As you alluded to, there were all sorts of HR policies in place, but being in my late 20s, with plenty of piss and vinegar still, I questioned many of them. One of the commandments was: “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission”.

    Even today, as an independent speaker and consultant, I believe in this saying. In other words, we need to step out of our comfort zone, try things and see what happens. If we fail and screw things up, we can always say “sorry”, learn from it and move on as a better person, learning from mistakes. I’d rather do that than wait for permission, from people afraid to change anything.

    Hear, hear for the Glorious Unfolding!

  • Wow. Really loved this blog post. Getting older is very different than I thought it would be. The biggest shock for me is realizing what my grandmother went when she said it surprised her to look in the mirror and see an old face looking back at her. I’m mostly happy with my “unfolding,” but I am wondering how I’m going to handle this aging thing.

  • Ha! I have enough on my hands with my own kids! I am kind of building in trauma training but I’m not sure I’m ready to take on the youth of the world. They wouldn’t listen any way … and they shouldn’t. That’s what makes them new and great. : )

  • Thanks being a reader here Barry. Glad to see you back in the comment section!

  • Some great wisdom here Scott and it reflects my experience too. When you look around that business meeting, you are only seeing the tip of the iceberg but there is a whole person there who may or may not be fully present. Having this awareness can certainly make you a more effective leader. It has helped me.

  • Unfolding with you, friend. : )

  • Oh don’t get me started : )

    Every damn little thing is breaking down. Unfortunately my belly is unfolding too it appears.

  • 45 and I’m falling apart … 5 weeks post surgery after a retina decided to go into its own orbit! What should I expect next? 🙂

  • Jeremy Victor

    Mark, I’d caution you … boundless optimism can be a fools errand and harmfully blinding. It may have actually been the root cause of you not seeing the corruption of your boss, the desire to stay in a relationship that did not go as planned, and overlooking the possibility that not everyone shared the same ethics as you.

    I think we are all meant to learn that lesson though. Boundless optimism is not what life is. It’s not all roses. As humans, we’re here to experience and feel it all … from joy to sorrow.

    I live in the pursuit of a life guided by courage, hope, and optimism and to be blessed with the strength to walk tall with each step I take. I’m both positive and optimistic, but as I’ve {grown} I am thankful for the experiences that have given me the wisdom to also walk with a shield up to protect myself when necessary.

    I’m not certain you have forgotten who you are … maybe you’ve become exactly what you needed to be to get where you are now going????

    Best to you my friend.

  • Fantastic piece Mark and thank you for sharing so much of yourself. For me it’s both optimism and confidence. I’ve undervalued things for too long 🙂

  • such an excellent post, Mark. it’s all too easy to forget about the fire in our twenty-something bellies. but it’s the little things (like this post!) that keep us going. it’s the love that keeps us alive. the (unintentional Eagles) lyrics that inspire. and the fire that keeps our passions sparked. after all, the hottest fire makes the hardest steel (blue eyes).

    you’ve still got it…it just requires rekindling. and the fact that you’re even self-aware enough to write a post like this, makes me think that you can bring it back. thank you for shining your genuine light on such a relatable topic.

  • Knees? : )

  • Thanks Jeremy.

  • Honored to have you comment Lee. Thank you.

  • Thanks for the kind words and encouragement Jessica!

  • I second that!

  • I’m thinking this process could make a pretty good infographic!

  • I’m reminded of another song lyric here, from John Hiatt’s “Slow Turning” (itself the story of the great unfolding):

    Time is short and here’s the damn thing about it
    You’re gonna die, gonna die for sure
    And you can learn to life with love or without it
    But there ain’t no cure

    To me, the story of the great unfolding is all about love–figuring out who really loves you, no matter what, and who and what brings you joy. When you know that, really know that, you are ready for anything.

    The time I get to spend with you, on the podcast and beyond, gives me great joy, my friend. I’m happier at 45 than I ever was at 35 or 25. May it always be so for you and yours.

  • What a kind thing to say, Billy.

  • Young Billy would be my second-most favorite Billy to share a beer with.

  • If only we knew then what we know now. When I think about my younger self (besides wondering where that time went), I wonder what my life could have been if I really had gone for my dreams (which would have been radio station and other business ownership), not met the woman who became my ex-wife (note to younger self: run! ), or even if I could have somehow met my wife now back then. I just want the courage, even late in the game as it is, to follow whatever my calling is.

  • What a courageous thing to post – thank you so much for sharing this. Getting to grips with the fact that life does rarely work out the way you thought it would is hard. At a certain point, it begins to dawn on you that you left something behind in the process. Boundless wonder, true faith, deep trust – untainted attention. I really miss that part of life. Fortunately, the realisation in itself is a first step in getting at least part of it back. Looking forward to hearing how that works out! Enjoy the journey 😉

  • Interesting you should bring up the podcast. I think another big deal in life is “purpose.” What am I doing here? I have a couple of important roles on earth that define my purpose and one important one is “teacher.” Basically every professional activity I engage in is for that purpose.

    I think the podcast started as an experiment and a bit of fun but I am truly moved by the impact it is having on people. Some of the comments we get are amazing. This is helping me achieve something important to me.

    Man, I am so grateful for you. I absolutely could not do that podcast with anybody else. One listener commented that we “were made to do this together.” I couldn’t do this without you and your wit, intellect and velvety smooth voice. THANK YOU!

    And I would also say I am at the happiest point in my life too. Love is certainly a big deal!

  • It’s a balance, isn’t it. Sometimes not following your calling is not the wrong decision. The opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is selfishness. Sometimes just to love somebody well we have to put off dreams. There are other things in life besides self-interest.

    Damn this is getting too serious. Somebody tell a joke!

  • Thanks for that amazing comment my friend!

  • Marks’ Failing Body Parts. Oh yeah. That would go viral!

  • Expect everything to get worse? LOL Sorry. I’m aging and also watching my parents go through it and my plan is to eat more butter. In hopes that my heart stops before my brain starts misfiring. I can’t decide if gravity loves me or hates. I just know it’s pulling hard on everything. LOL

  • An SEO experts walks into a bar…………….

  • The very fact that you wrote this honest post, Mark, proves that you are more courageous than you think and evil did not win. What a wonderful example of inspiring others through personal vulnerability.

    There is great power in believing that all of our past experiences are the exact preparation we need to face future challenges. We endured them and survived them for a reason. What if we embraced moments of suffering as God’s way of refining us for even more courageous work in the future?

    Maybe instead of recapturing boundless optimism of our youth, we get to display more strategic optimism… a much wiser version of piss and vinegar. 🙂

    And, YES, this is just the beginning, my friend.

  • I’m still trying to figure out what my true calling is Mark at the grand old age of 41. When I look back 20 years ago, I had hopes and dreams of a career in Classical Music after leaving university.

    For whatever reason at the time that didn’t work out though and my next 20 years involved working in the pensions industry. Pretty much all of my desires as a younger self were then gradually knocked out of me.

    I wouldn’t change a thing though because I wouldn’t have met my wife and had 2 fantastic kids. 20 years ago would I have thought I’d be a stay at home dad today? Definitely not! If I don’t have anything else to offer, at least I can be a good dad and make my kid’s lives as fulfilling as I can. When they no longer need me as much, well, then it’s my time!

  • … and says, “Hey little lady, can I buy you a link?”

  • That is exactly how I see things. Even the bad things are a gift. I’m going to talk about this in my HubSpot talk in a few days!

  • Sometimes, life calls! : ) Thanks for sharing your story Tim.

  • Jenny Brennan

    Loved this post Mark. In my twenties I was totally fearless and optimistic. Then a few awful events in my thirties left me wondering if I had anything of value to offer this world. Luckily the past three years in the midst of some of the most difficult times I realise that I have so much to offer the world. I just need to surround myself with the people who see it too!

  • sunshinestyles

    This is the first time a blog post has brought me to tears. I am truly moved by this and it has changed the way I will look at life today, and hopefully for a long time. Thank you for being open and putting it so beautifully into words.

  • Mark, I also had this realisation recently in my latest blog post, “What Genre Is Your Life In?: the idea that negativity can have such dramatic effects on your perception of life.

    I talked about how we all create barriers or personas to shield ourselves once we’ve been hurt, and it takes time and awareness for us to return to our authentic selves. It’s just like you said: “Don’t let the suffering make you forget who you are.” Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  • Like me : ) You are awesome!

  • No words. Thank you Sunshine. Hope everything is OK : ) Hope to see you guys soon!

  • Stephanie, this is the first time I can recall seeing you in the comment section so I wanted to welcome you and thank you for adding to the discussion!

  • Somehow I missed this post!

    Things that happen to us along the way shape who we turn out to be as adults. I would like to think I am still bold like I was as a teen, however I approach with more caution than I did 15 years ago.

    Love SCC! Thank you for quoting his music.

  • Thanks for joining the discussion Mandy.

  • Yes, it is the first time! Just discovered your posts a few days ago, and they’re wonderful. Thanks very much!

  • Fantastic! Can’t wait to see you there and cheer you on during your talk. 🙂

  • Mark – in what could only be a moment of random synergy this post found me today. If you remember the movie Parenthood – the unfolding you describe is a roller coaster that unfolds before us, one section at a time. While sometimes it’s downright terrifying, it beats the merry go round.

  • Welcome to the community Stephanie.

  • That is awesome. What a great find. Thanks Bill!

  • Jennifer Griffin

    On the Eve of a job interview, looking over resume and asking all the “why’s” – this post gives encouragement. Reminds me I can recapture the enthusiasm of a younger me, but move forward with renewed confidence that the unfolding can be fun! Thanks for this post. Perfect timing for me.

  • Best wishes for your unfolding tomorrow!

  • Jennifer Griffin

    Thank you! Accepted position and look forward to new beginnings.

  • Awesome!!

  • Meg McGuire

    Awesome post from someone in her twenty-somethings thinking the same thing about her 18 year old self…wondering if she’d be proud of me. Keep positive and let those positive parts of your life be the ones that impact you most greatly! Thanks for sharing!

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