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Escape from the Turtle Cage

Zoo visitors are supposed to be fixated on the animals. Yet, during our recent family trip, it wasn’t the Galapagos turtles–the world’s largest tortoises—that captured my attention. In fact, it was the cage the zoo was building for them that I found so fascinating.

A sleek sign highlighted features of the coming tortoise exhibit: a state-of-the-art barn with heated floors, specially selected cactus, and an interactive area for visitors. The project would take months to complete at a price tag of $1.2 million.

Clearly, this was an impressive project. Yet, one thing struck me.


Don’t get me wrong. It’s going to be a nice exhibit. Guests will probably love it. The turtles may feel like they’ve scored a penthouse suite. But the fact remains, if the tortoises trek through enough exotic plants, they will run into a wall and a reality check. Despite appearances, they haven’t been freed. They’re just being confined behind fancier bars.

The turtles’ scenario prompted me to reflect on my own situation.

Over the course of my life, I too have sunk energy and resources into upgrading my cage. I’ve slightly improved my social or financial condition. I’ve worked to ensure things that represent me—my appearance, job title, the way I carried myself—pleased others, outdid those around me, or at least kept me even with the next guy.

Along the way, I imagined I was moving closer to being free. But a few steps in, I’d slam into reality; I hadn’t found freedom at all. I’d just increased the personal pressure to perform at a higher level, to achieve greater numbers, and to be accepted by the right people. I’d dressed up my weaknesses and imprisoned myself behind fancier bars called “success.”

If anything, my “improvements” often made my journey harder. I ended up with more to prove, more image to manage, and more anxiety about the future.

Unfortunately, all of this soured the warm feelings I was actually chasing. And in the end, what we will find is the same truth the turtles did: you can’t experience real freedom while imprisoned.

So how did I escape my turtle cage? How did I free myself from this paralyzing system that I was trapped in?

The key that unlocked my cage was grace. When I clearly understood who I was in God’s eyes, I was freed. When I found my identity in how he saw me, the prison doors miraculously opened.

My value wasn’t based on my performance, success, or how many followers I had on Twitter. I found no pleasure in the typical benchmarks of leadership success and was truly at peace with being loved and wanted by him.

So how does this play out practically in my life?

Well, over the past few years, I have worked very hard at becoming a “person of no reputation.” I’ve discovered when you give up your reputation, you don’t have to spend so much time and energy defending and proving it.

For most of my adult life as a leader, I used my skills to create cover-ups to hide my failures and dysfunctions. The problem with this plan, of course, was that maintaining a publicly acceptable version of Mike Foster became my full time job on top of my actual full time job. Over time, this became one too many full time jobs.

In hiding my weaknesses, I eventually realized I had been denying something really important: the real me. And as much as I hate to admit it, the less desirable parts of myself are still me.

In fact, those traits are just as much me as any of my strengths or accomplishments. Trying to cut free of my flaws, then, was no more logical than trying to saw off a broken arm. Sure, a broken limb isn’t necessarily pretty or fully functional but, with some healing, it still holds potential to contribute. Good or bad, it’s still connected to the whole; it’s still a part of the story.

Becoming a person of no reputation has allowed me to risk more, take greater pleasure in my work, and to discover true community with friends and team members.

So what about you?

You know it is never too late for any of us to escape from our turtle cages. Maybe your first step is to become a person of no reputation. Or perhaps it means getting on the phone, swallowing your pride, and healing a messy relationship. Your escape might involve you overcoming your fear of failure and pursuing a new venture or job.

Maybe it means saying words we’ve never said before, refusing to dwell on our checkered past, or simply beginning to tell the truth of who we really are. Each of us knows what issues we’ve been dressing up, the fancy bars we’ve installed to imprison ourselves.

I’ve decided I’m through upgrading my cage. I’m taking a jackhammer to its walls and setting out after real freedom.