Stan, a college sophomore, extremely bright and capable with a long record of successes had withdrawn from the university because he was flunking.  He was utterly ashamed.  It was baffling to him because none of his work was over his head, none of what was expected of him academically was beyond his capabilities.  Yet he was completely overwhelmed with every aspect of his life.  The young man that sat across from me in my office was immensely capable and totally baffled with his situation.

As we talked about his situation over several weeks, an intriguing theme emerged.  Each time Stan referred to his father, he prefaced it with “My father is a remarkable man.”  And then he would describe what made him remarkable.  He talked about his father’s business successes and the decisiveness he exercised in rescuing companies from disaster.

One of the messages Stan had heard from his father was to never let personal feelings or loyalties get in the way of what needed to be done.  This was the father’s way of cutting through the confusion of difficult and complicated decisions that would undoubtedly affect the lives of others.

Stan was measuring himself by the standard he had observed in his father.  Yet here he was struggling with lots of important, yet ordinary, age-appropriate issues.  He had questions about his future.  He was trying to clarify the values that guided his life.  He was confused about how to balance relationships with his academic work, and other vital life-style decisions.  He was not his father in age or temperament, yet he was using his father as his yardstick.

On one occasion, Stan said of his father, “I’ve never seen him struggle with any decision.  He just seems to know what to do.”

“Oh, that’s too bad,” I responded.

He was stunned.

“What do you mean, ‘that’s too bad’?”

I responded that it seemed sad to me that with all the things his father his father was good at, he was not very good at letting Stan in on the decision-making process.  All Stan had seen were the tidy, successful outcomes that followed what appeared to be clear, unambiguous decisions.

Stan had never been allowed to see his father in an indecisive moment or in the midst of personal struggle or confusion.  Stan had been deprived of the wisdom that would have come from observing the struggle of his father.  He’d had to settle for admiration.

Stan had defined success as the absence of confusion and struggle and as the ability to cut away all the confounding factors such as relationships and feelings.  Since he was now struggling and confused, about relationships and feelings no less, he was, by definition, a failure.

Little by little he redefined his concerns as appropriate, even necessary, rather than as obstacles to his decision-making.  He didn’t at first truly appreciate my commending him on his confusion or my celebrating his struggle, but he began to get the picture.

Stan re-enrolled in college and I lost track of him, but I hope he is enjoying being delightfully unremarkable in at least a few things