How dead ends show you the way

by | August 25, 2014

A father and his seven-year-old son spent the day exploring the Arizona desert, driving in an old truck down dusty back roads to overlook the Grand Canyon.

At dusk, they turned around and used their crude, homemade map to navigate the back roads home.

After a couple miles, they reached an unfamiliar fork in the road. The father was not certain which way they had come. He felt nervous as the darkness began to fall, knowing he would need light to make it home.

The father suggested that they pray for guidance. The boy concurred and they offered a simple, heartfelt prayer.

After the prayer, the father asked the son what he thought they should do.

“All during the prayer,” the boy said, “I just kept feeling, ‘Go to the left.'”

“I had the exact same impression,” the father agreed.

They started down the dirt road to the left. After about ten minutes, the road came to a sudden dead-end.

Thoroughly confused, given the answer to their prayer, they turned around, drove back to the fork, and took the road on the right. There was just enough light to navigate the maze of dirt roads to get home.

As they neared their small town, the boy, who had been pondering the whole ride home and felt troubled, asked, “Dad, why did we both feel like God told us to go down the wrong road?”

His father responded,

“I’ve been thinking and silently praying about that same thing all the way home, because I really did feel a very distinct impression to take the road to the left.

“The Lord has taught us an important lesson today. Because we were prompted to take the road to the left, we quickly discovered which one was the right one. When we turned around and got on the right road, I was able to travel along its many unfamiliar twists and turnoffs perfectly confident I was headed in the right direction.

“If we had started on the right road, we might have driven for thirty minutes or so, become uneasy with the unfamiliar surroundings, and been tempted to turn back. If we had done that, we would have discovered the dead-end so late that it would have been too dark to find our way back in totally unfamiliar territory.”

And just like that, all my past dead-end failures, which have burdened me with confusion, depression, insecurity, and self-doubt, become profoundly valuable and inspire me with hope, joy, and confidence.

None of us can see the path before us beyond our headlights. But when we’ve seen the dead ends behind us, we know we can continue forward in faith.

You’ll recall how George Washington won the Revolutionary War: He spent pretty much the bulk of it running away from the British, stumbling from one dead-end to another, doing his best to hold his ragtag army together until he could strike a strategic blow against Cornwallis in Yorktown.

Retreating from dead-ends is vastly different than surrendering to failure — it is accelerating the path to success. The faster you are willing to fail, the faster you discover the path to success.

As Winston Churchill said:

“Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”

Indeed, with the right attitude it is precisely your dead-end failures that provide the source of your enthusiasm, as that young boy and his father discovered.

There are two critical keys for leveraging disappointing failure into unflagging enthusiasm:

  1. An unhesitating willingness to follow those subtle but unmistakable impressions that lead you to dead-ends — no matter how crazy they seem in the moment. Without experiencing the dead-ends, you can never find your way home to your ultimate purpose.
  2. A disposition to learn the right lessons as you retreat from your dead-ends so that you’re prepared to pounce on the right opportunity and persist on the right path as they are revealed.

Dead-end failures can make you bitter — or they can make you better. They can make you weary — or they can make you wiser.

You can be angry at Father for “leading you astray” with strange impressions. Or you can thank Him profusely for showing you the way…

(For more tools to learn from your failures, click here to download my free toolkit now.)


The true story of the boy and his father was told by Matthew Holland.


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