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5 Things About Life and Leadership My 25 Year Old Self Never Would Have Believed

life and Leadership

Oh to know then what you know now.

It never works that way, though, does it?

This past weekend, I celebrated a birthday. It was a good one. I spent much of the day being grateful, but it also made me realize how much I’ve learned over the years both about leadership and about life.

So much of what I now understand and see as true, I didn’t when I was 25. And had I known then what I know now, I could have saved myself quite a bit of frustration and heartache.

As Sherlock Holmes once said, it is easy to be wise after the event.

So, in the hopes of helping other leaders be wise beforehand, here are five truths I didn’t know then that I most definitely know now.


Although I was still in law at age 25, within a few years I would head into seminary and then ministry…and I just assumed that our church would be able to impact everybody.

You may have had a similar thought if you’re in business. Who’s your customer? Everybody. After all, your idea is going to change the world.

Guess what? That’s not true for an organization as ubiquitous as Facebook. Even in America, only 68 percent of the population is on Facebook. Instagram? Just 35 percent.

So if platforms as big as Instagram only have 35 percent adoption, why would you think you would be any different?

As a young leader, I was miffed when people said no or walked away, and I thought if I changed my approach, they’d see the light and change their mind.

Nope. But it’s worse than that.

Not only is the exercise futile, leaders that try to be all things to all people often end up being nothing to no one and lose their effectiveness in the process.

Here’s what I now know: Some people are going to love what you offer. Others never will.

And that’s OK. As Seth Godin argues, counterintuitively but persuasively, you can be highly successful with a minimal viable audience.

For example…this blog isn’t for everybody. Nor is my leadership podcast.

I’ve narrowed down the target audience for my content to, even at its broadest, include motivated and teachable people with leadership potential.

That rules out a relatively big chunk of the population. Not everyone is motivated. Some motivated people aren’t teachable. And while you could argue most people have leadership potential, it’s a small number that ever decides to activate it.

But both the blog and the podcast reach millions each year.

I now see that narrow has more potential than broad. Once you see that, you can stop doing backflips trying to keep people a lot earlier.


In the same way I thought I could reach everybody, I also thought if I led better the critics would go away.

I’ve learned that the critics never go away. They change, and you can reduce the criticism that comes your way by leading from a thoughtful, more emotionally intelligent place, but criticism is inevitable.

Want to avoid criticism? Simple. Stop leading. If you continue to lead, you’ll always have critics.

The critics may not be going away, but I’ve realized that they do get left behind.

Critics don’t move. They stay in the same place. You’ll attract some new ones on the journey as you move into new space, but the old ones will eventually give up on you and turn to an easier target.

What’s fascinating after a few decades of leadership is to see what critics accomplish with their own lives. I don’t want to be critical of the critics, but you will soon realize that often the answer is very little. Which makes me glad we kept moving.

Naturally, if you look back and see that most of your critics have accomplished amazing things with their lives, you may have missed something along the way.

But for the most part, critics rarely accomplish much. You move on. They don’t.

You can’t build the future on people who only know what they’re against.


As a young leader, I always wondered when I’d arrive…when I’d finally ‘make it.’

And, of course, you never arrive. I knew that intellectually, but there was a part of me that never believed it.

Now, never arriving isn’t a defeat…it’s kind of fun.

In my 50s, it means there’s so much more to learn, to discover, to figure out, to understand and to explore. Which I hope will be the way I am in when I’m 80.

Never arriving means there’s so much you’ve learned that’s behind you, so much you’re experiencing around you, and so much to explore ahead of you. How is that a bad thing?


I’ve been through a few really tough seasons in leadership.

Times when our church stopped growing for a season, where the voices of critics became so loud I felt like they were the only voices I heard.

I went through a period of intense burnout that just about took me out (I write about it here).

And there have been other really hard times in the journey.

When I was in those troughs, all I could feel was the awful. What I didn’t realize, is that awesome often follows awful.

It’s not a promise in the temporal sense, but often on the other side of a really intense season of discouragement, we’d hit a breakthrough.

That’s been in true in my marriage, in my leadership and in so many areas of my life.

So now, when I hit a season that feels awful, I remind myself that awesome often follows awful. Even if I can’t feel that in the moment, it helps me not quit.

If you’re in the middle of awful, quitting guarantees you won’t keep going long enough to get to awesome. At least that’s been my experience.


Guess what? You’re a mess.

So am I. I’m a strange combination of some really good tendencies and some big flaws. As I shared in this post, I’m an Enneagram 8. A healthy 8 can save the world. An unhealthy 8 might obliterate it. (I wrote more about healthy v. unhealthy leadership and the Enneagram here.)

Looking back on my younger years, I think I believed that in my worst moment, I wasn’t loved. Acting in an unlovable way and being unloved are two different things.

I’ve realized over time that I’m always loved, even when I’m a mess.

Which helps me get out of my mess more quickly and want to avoid it more desperately. It also got me out of thinking that I had to perform to earn love.

You don’t do good things in your life and leadership in order to win love, you do good things because you are loved.

The more you understand that, the bigger the difference it makes.

I’m a mess, and I’m loved. So are you.

Which is exactly the reason I don’t want to stay that way.

Many of us feel overwhelmed all the time, so finding time to reinvent yourself can seem impossible.

Well, maybe not. It’s very possible…and I’d love to help you get on top of your everything so you can get your life and leadership back.

If you’re trying to find the time for what matters most in life, my High Impact Leader course, is my online, on-demand course designed to help you get time, energy and priorities working in your favor.

Many leaders who have taken it are recovering three productive hours a day.  That’s about 1,000 hours of found time each year. That’s a lot of time for what matters most.

Here are what some alumni are saying about The High Impact Leader Course:

“Thank you, thank you, thank you for providing the course again. It has absolutely made an impact in my life and family already that I can’t even describe.” First Priority, Clayton County, North Carolina

“Carey’s course was the perfect way for our team to prepare for the new year. Our team, both collectively and individually, took a fresh look at maximizing our time and leadership gifts for the year ahead. I highly recommend this leadership development resource for you and your team.” Jeff Henderson, Gwinnett Church, Atlanta Georgia

“A lot of books and programs make big promises and cannot deliver but this is not one of them. I have read so many books and watched videos on productivity but the way you approach it and teach is helpful and has changed my work week in ministry in amazing ways.” Chris Sloan, Tanglewood Church, Kingston, North Carolina

“Just wow. Thank you, thank you.” Dave Campbell, Invitation Church, Sioux Falls South Dakota

A game changer.” Pam Perkins, Red Rock Church, Colorado Springs, Colorado

Curious? Want to beat overwhelm and have the time to reinvent yourself?

Click here to learn more or get instant access.


What are you learning as you get a few laps in on leadership?

This article originally appeared here.