In my coaching and mentoring work, I get a chance to speak into the lives of young people who have finished college, and are starting families and careers. Almost universally, they aspire to more in life, but are at a bit of a loss as to how to get there. They are beginning to realize that as you spend more time working in a particular field, a rut begins to form.

As you invest more of yourself in knowledge and technical expertise in a given field, the rut gets deeper. You become more and more valuable in your field, so you get paid more to continue on that track. The opportunity cost of investing that time is that it leaves you less valuable outside your current field. Jumping to another career can be costly. And, if you do jump, how do you know you will find the new career more satisfying? Given these risks, no wonder people stay in a rut.

Sorting all this out is a daunting task, and I am honored when they come to me to talk it over. In the midst of the conversation, I always ask the question my mentor Charlotte Roberts asks of me, “What do you want here?”

I ask that question because if you want more out of life, it takes a plan. A vision is a picture of a preferred future. Until you can begin to articulate a compelling vision, you are unlikely to climb out of your rut. You can never accomplish what you cannot first imagine. If it’s beyond your wildest dreams, it is beyond your grasp. Ideas are like seeds. Only the ones that are nurtured by our conscious intention will find fertile soil and get enough sun, water and nutrients to germinate and grow. Olympic high jumper Dwight Stones says, “A vision is a dream with a deadline.” I’ve repeated that line a thousand times since I heard him say it.

Clarifying your vision for the future is the first step of the creative process outlined in the structural tension chart illustrated below.

The essence of personal mastery is learning how to generate and sustain structural tension in our lives.                    Peter Senge

Step two is clarifying where you are today regarding your vision. This requires a brutally honest look at current reality. Believe me, this discipline is an acquired taste. We all have blind sides, a part of reality to which we are unconscious and unaware.The Johari Window illustrates it well (See more about the Johari Window). When things from the blind side are revealed to us, it generally comes with some pain.

If we aren’t willing to sort through these issues, our probability for success is greatly limited. If I tell you I’m taking you to Nashville, but I think we are in Birmingham, and you know we are in Atlanta, are you likely to go with me? So, when others point out things from our blind side, we can react defensively, or we can try to learn from the pain. Sometimes we discover hidden in our blind side identity issues, fear of failure, and fear of not being good enough. These issues also distort our view of current reality, and are explored more here.

As followers of Christ, we are promised an abundant life. In John 10:10, Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.”  I'm coaching Scott Seeke, a young pastor planting a church called The River. Recently he's been preaching about this verse. One of his people asked him, "Could you tell me what that looks like?" Scott responded, "What would your life look like if you had more of what matters more, and less of what matters less?" What a great response, calling the question: What matters more? Again, we are back to what do you want? (See a few more thoughts on the Abundant Life here.)

So, if we are on a discipleship journey, we try to discern what God wants of our life. As we determine that, we make that a primary focus of our vision for the future. The pathway to the abundant life lies in discovering who we are, and who God has made us to be.

I knew there was something God wanted of me, but for years I never could get clarity of what it really was. Only when I really worked to understand the intersection of my gifts, experiences, values and passions could I really begin to discern a specific calling in my life. I think God’s plan for our lives is nested within the way God has gifted us and wired us to be. Our calling grows out of our values and passions. And often our passions come out of the deepest pain we have experienced. So, understanding ourselves deeply is part of the hard work of discovering our calling and purpose. I teach a Life Keys: Discover your Design course to help facilitate this discovery process.

You may discover your gifts and discern your calling, but are you equipped to live it out? The seed contains everything to produce great fruit, when it is planted, watered and fertilized. But, it is the planting, watering, and fertilizing that precedes the harvest. So, we are all called to seasons of planting, watering and nurturing, before we will produce great fruit.

Part of your current reality is recognizing what season of life you are living now. Many of my young friends are just starting families, some not even married yet. They are moving from learning about the world to making a way in the world. Getting traction on career and family are each all consuming ventures in their own right. Doing that during the Great Recession is a difficult journey. These are the times when you are tilling the soil and planting the seeds of  family, career, marriage, and life together with another.

This stage of life traverses territory that brings a lot of ambiguity, and too little clarity. Our faith grows through struggles, tests and trials, as we try to find the faint path forward. Growing our faith requires that we first acknowledge that we cannot do it alone. Until we trust God, and truly find our identity in Jesus, we will never experience the peace and abundance Jesus promises. As long as I stake my identity on my career, my professional standing, my family or anything else, I am not truly putting my faith in God.

So, a plan for an abundant life begins with clarifying our gifts, purpose and calling, in order to articulate a vision of a life with God. Then, we are called to an honest evaluation of our life today. Once we are clear about our current reality, we can begin to see the steps forward. At the most, God’s plan unfolds like shapes in the mist. Until we step out in faith, we will never see more than the next two steps down a faint path. It is a faint path, this road less traveled, that leads to the abundant life.

Creating time for visioning requires that we find a way to focus on the important even when more urgent things are screaming for our attention. Every lumberjack knows that you have to stop to sharpen the saw if you want to keep being productive. Do you want to stop long enough to sharpen your vision for the rest of your life? Or will you just follow the path of least resistance and grind away into a deeper and deeper rut?

More readings on these topics:

Going through a season when God seems distant and silent? Learn about the Dark Night of the Soul.

Here are the values and goals I articulated in 1995.

I wrote another post on applying structural tension and personal mastery to the life of a Christ-follower: Get control of your life so you can give it away.