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Life Is Messy!

Life is Messy!


Many of us grow up with the illusion that if we work hard, are smart enough, are kind enough, everything will eventually be perfect—we can’t wait for that perfect time in our lives to arrive.  In our book, “Getting Real about Getting Older,” Dr. Karen Brees and I interviewed/surveyed and held focus groups with1,000 people over the age of 65.  We found that whether it’s having a successful career, being a great parent to your adult children, being the best grandparent ever, having great friendships, or being a great pickleball player, those of us who best learn how to live in “messy” get to live the most peaceful, fun, and fruitful lives.

So, how do we learn how to live more successfully in “messy?” 

When we fully accept that all lives are a bit “messy,” we change our expectations from one of perfection to one that recognizes that bad things and disappointments are for sure going to happen. Sometimes we have disagreements with our adult children, sometimes our grandchildren don’t call us enough, sometimes our spouse/partner just can’t seem to see our point of view, and sometimes we don’t play well enough to win that pickleball game. Those who live more successfully in “messy” understand these curveballs are not an aberration of life, but instead, a very natural part of it…yep, life is imperfect.

“If we’ve now accepted that life is messy and to be more successful we have to learn to live in “messy” better…just how do we do that?”

Many of the elderly participants in our study determined that when they accepted the concept that life is messy, not perfect, their expectations became more reasonable and their disappointments less “disappointing.” Most of us only wish we could have mastered, sooner and better, how to live in an imperfect world that sometimes has disappointments and conflicts.

Here is some of what we found about living in “messy” better:

  1. Those of us who live in “messy” better are those who have discovered ways to walk through life’s conflicts and disappointments without making a situation worse–by making all of that messiness very gently turn in a more positive direction—by being able to manage conflict without inflaming a contentious situation. 
  2. Recognize that having valuable relationships has to take precedence over being right, forcing your will, and getting your way. Most of all, keep at the forefront the knowledge of the importance of valuable relationships to your happy, successful life.
  3. It’s not an oversimplification to say that when dealing with relationships in general there is never a good substitute for kindness. When you make decisions grounded in kindness you most often make the right decisions.
  4. Don’t be afraid to do or try something you like that you aren’t perfect at; whether it’s art, music, sports, or horseback riding. If you enjoy it, even if you aren’t good at it, allow yourself the pleasure of doing something that you do imperfectly.
  5. Remember, you don’t have to be defined by any of your missteps or failures or faults; you are who you are today—the person who has learned from a vast life with both messiness and successes.
  6. When in the midst of a disappointment or conflict, stop, breathe a bit, relax your body and think of things you are grateful for or notice things you love or find beauty around you.
  7. Take a walk…it helps clear the mind and often brings you back to a sense of equilibrium.

For those of us who have reached that elderly stage of life, we may not be able to change how we reacted to disappointments or conflicts of the past, but we can surely make a brand-new future. Most of us are pretty good at dealing with life and relationships when everything is going smoothly, but extraordinary people are often defined by how they walk through the difficult and “messy” times of their lives.  Those of us who can learn how to continue to be kind, thoughtful, creative, and trustworthy during “messy” get to live the most tranquil, successful, and joy-filled lives.

So, the next time you find yourself in one of life’s disappointments, remember the way you handle the disappointment of imperfection is the difference between success and failure, it separates the average from the extraordinary, it separates the happy from the unhappy.

And…know that it is possible to learn to manage conflict and disappointments better; give it a try.

Yep, let’s be one of those…one of those who live in “messy” better!


Linda Stroh, Ph.D., Northwestern University has published more than one hundred articles and nine books related to domestic and international organizations and human behavior. She has consulted with senior executives in more than forty Fortune 500 corporations.

Dr. Stroh’s research has been cited in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, Fortune, Newsweek, U.S. News &World Report, and Business Week, as well as being on CNN, Oprah and Friends Network, and NBC’s Nightly News.

Linda and her husband of 53 years, Greg, have two awesome grandchildren, Brayden (16) and Brooke Stroh(14).

Linda’s current book, Getting Real About Getting Older is available here

Christine Crosby

About the author

Christine is the co-founder and editorial director for GRAND Magazine. She is the grandmother of five and great-grandmom (aka Grandmere) to one. She makes her home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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