The Messy Middle


Many things are easy in the beginning.  For instance, if you have ever tried to lose weight, most likely you know that you tend to lose a significant amount in the first week or two, and then things slow down.   The start of college is really exciting but after a few weeks, the thrill wears down as the work piles on.

It’s interesting that even activities that seem daunting are still met with enthusiasm.  Beginnings are exciting.  Whether it’s starting a business, giving birth or the first steps of a marathon, there is an adrenaline rush that comes with embarking on a big goal or adventure or making a dramatic decision.

Likewise, most things are fulfilling in the end.  Getting to the goal weight, creating a successful business, watching your child graduate or crossing the finish line of a big race are all moments and memories we cherish forever.

But it’s the middle that is riddled with bumps and barriers.  It’s the middle that can be tedious and taxing.  The enthusiasm is gone.  The task is more difficult.  It’s where the work needs to be done.  There is neither novelty nor closure.  It’s just the middle.  There are no send-offs or showers in the middle.  There are no parties or parades either.  In fact, quite literally in running a race there are large groups of people at the beginning and at the end to cheer you on.  The middle?  It’s really lonely.

It’s also where you want to give up.

Brilliant business guru Seth Godin refers to this as “the dip.”  During that period of time between the beginning of learning to the point of mastery, dips are temporary set back that can be overcome with persistence.  And it is in persevering though the dips that come up on the road to worthy goals that differentiates successful people from those who are less so.

I like to think of it as “cocoon time.”

As we all know from Eric Carle’s brilliant picture book about a gluttonous insect, the period between the cute caterpillar and the beautiful butterfly is spent in a cocoon. The cocoon is the middle for the eager caterpillar to transform into a butterfly.  However, If that ugly looking nest were to be cut open, what you would find is a gooey glob of digested caterpillar body.  It would be neither cute and furry nor bold and beautiful.  In fact, it wouldn’t even look like a caterpillar or a butterfly.

In other words, it would reveal a messy middle.

It’s important to remember the messy middle when working with or raising kids.  There are messy middles in their development in all areas of their life.  So, if we judge the value of their efforts or who they are at any given moment of their messy middle, we risk missing the butterfly in the pile of goo.

Furthermore, we need to teach our kids to expect the messy middle, so that when it inevitably arrives they can evaluate it for what it is: a normal part of transformation and learning.  It’s in the messy middle that we need to help our kids to preserve and to encourage them to buckle down and do the hard work that ultimately leads to creating a butterfly.

It reminds me of a story a friend told me recently.  He and his daughter were running a marathon.  Somewhere around mile 16, when the cramps were setting in and their feet were pounding, the daughter turned to her dad and said, “Remind me dad: why we are doing this?”   His reply, “We are practicing not quitting.”

We are practicing not quitting.  What a great concept.  From school to sports and child rearing to career, we all can use practice in not quitting.

How are you practicing not quitting?   How does your child practice not quitting?