May 31, 2012

Your Own Private Incubation Period

If you took away the ten best days of the stock market’s history over the past 100 years, two-thirds of the cumulative gains produced by the Dow Jones Industrials would completely disappear. Conversely, if you avoided the ten worst days of the market’s performance over the span of its history, you would have tripled the actual return of the Dow.

Surprisingly, those market-changing events represent just .03% of the market’s entire history.

Most of the time, the market kind of bumbles along rather quietly, and then, when no one expects it, there is a giant gain or loss. Afterwards, the market settles back once again into its less dramatic track.

This pattern reminds me of the trajectory of my career path over the past twenty years, which goes something like this: nothing, nothing, boring, hard work, minor breakthrough, work, tedium, setback, nothing, and then, suddenly—BAM! Out of the blue, a major defining moment propels me into a new direction.

It doesn’t occur to us that our lives, for the most part, will be very ordinary.

Our work days are filled with everyday routines that at times may feel like we’re simply circling the same corner over and over without much progress to speak of. Even if we’re certain that our work is supposedly leading to something better, it can often seem like the lag time between cause and effect is excruciatingly, meanderingly slow, if nonexistent.

Waiting around is no fun. Most of us like to see results, and soon. We like the illusion that there will be an immediate outcome from the work we are doing, or else why do it? But there are clear benefits from slow periods of waiting, even if we can’t possibly fathom them while in the midst of the wait.

All that in-between time can seem boring and insignificant, when in reality it serves a good purpose—that of preparation. The Bible is chock-full of examples of long periods of bone-dry waiting: Moses spent forty years sweating it out in the drudgery of the desert before seeing the extraordinary burning bush and being called by God to confront Pharoah. Joseph spent years in prison prior to his ascent to Vice President of Egypt.

Perhaps waiting is a spiritual practice in and of itself. What if we viewed it as an active (rather than a passive) exercise? Author Stephen Martin, in his book, The Messy Quest for Meaning, says of his own waiting period during his search for his life’s vocation: “Waiting didn’t mean standing still. It meant moving ahead, making choices, seeing where they led, and making additional ones, while waiting for a fuller version of the vision of the future to emerge.”

People like to think God is working through them . . . and they usually, mistakenly, mean it happens through fireworks and avalanches. But God is much more subtle than that, tending towards everyday-ness, and in leaving a long trail of kindness, character and consistency that actually adds up to something substantial over time.

Waiting is an integral part of living your life, discovering who you are, and creating meaning to the ordinary as you find out where you are supposed to go. It’s the main part of that strange spiritual process of “being led.”

There is the story of the stone cutter who pounds at the stone 100 times, with not a crack. Then on the 101st time the stone breaks. It wasn’t that 101st blow that fell the stone; it was the 100 before.

Preparation, experience, endurance. Think of these periods of waiting as your own personal incubator—God’s nurturing and shaping you for what’s ahead. Sink into it and grow. Soon enough, good things will hatch.

Image by Tim Miller.

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