When it’s frustration that gets the ball rolling.

A few weeks ago I spent some time in conversation with good friends, plus a few people I don’t know as well. It was a wonderful conversation, but it was also an incredibly frustrating one for me.

The conversation turned really deep, really fast. We talked about who we are, and what we care about, and how we are—or are failing to—bring those things to the surface in our own lives, and our kids’ lives.

This conversation gave me the perspective I needed to see a handful of my own habits in a new light. It made me face up to the fact that I wasn’t doing the things I knew I should be doing. I was frustrated with myself, and I was frustrated with some of the others for the same reason. They knew what they were supposed to be doing, and it wasn’t that hard, but they still weren’t doing it. Why couldn’t they just do it already? And why couldn’t I?

It was eye-opening. But I felt like a jerk.

In the following days, I spent a lot of time reflecting on that conversation. I went for a few walks with just the thoughts in my head for company. I stared at my calendar for a solid hour. And I made some changes.

That experience—and my own frustration that emerged from it—compelled me to change. As it turns out, frustration is a terrific motivator. But frustration was undoubtably my motivator, and that made me feel like a grump. Why couldn’t I have changed because I was inspired, and not because I was cranky?

(You know where this is going.)

A few weeks later I was talking with Emily Freeman, who you may know as the author of books like Simply Tuesday and Grace for the Good Girl.

Emily didn’t know anything about my recent inner battle with my own frustration, and yet that’s exactly what was on her mind.

We were talking about big picture stuff, and Emily started talking about big ideas: how to know when you find them, how to recognize them for what they are. She said that every big idea needs frustration, passion, and hope.

Frustration, huh? That grabbed my attention.

Frustration serves as a spark, if we let it. It’s a cue, an arrow: something that points us in the direction we need to go.

Passion enables us to follow-through. Without hope, we become cynical. But it’s frustration that gets the ball rolling. And not just for cranks and curmudgeons.

Emily stunned me by then quoting Dallas Willard, a man I greatly admire (and who wrote one of the books that changed my life. Willard writes about the spiritual life, and he said the most important question in spiritual formation is What’s bothering you?

Your answer is telling: Who are you? What are you doing with your life right now? Where do you need to go from here?

Are you frustrated right now? That’s okay. That’s good, actually. It doesn’t mean you’re a grump or a grouch. It means you have a spark. It’s the beginning of a big idea, the beginning of change.

Can you tap the passion, dig for the hope? Or maybe that electric combination is already in you.

Frustration is the beginning.

The key question is: what happens next?

P.S. Emily’s 3 questions to ask yourself before you change the world unpacks her idea in a little more detail. Recommended.


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  1. I hadn’t thought about it like that, but I can see that it’s true. My own frustration with my job has motivated me to spend my free time trying to make money in other ways in hopes that I can quit my job at some point. Without that frustration, I wouldn’t have tried new, more fulfilling things.

  2. JoLyn says:

    Great thoughts. It makes me look at frustration in a different way. I’ve also heard of it described as “divine discontent”. I think of it as God’s little push to help you feel uncomfortable or discontented or frustrated so you want to change something. If you’re too comfortable, you may never be motivated to change.

  3. Julia says:

    Thank you for this! My own frustrations have recently inspired me to start my own book blog, something I couldn’t be more passionate about! And while I know it’s a long road to success, just knowing I have that creative outlet is very pacifying.

  4. Brittany says:

    This post is so timely for me. I have been feeling increasingly frustrated with my job and am seriously considering resigning because the stress of being a WAHM and caring for my children’s special needs (recent Autism diagnosis) has been really hard for me to balance. Thanks for this post!

  5. Kristy says:

    This is incredibly timely for me. I have been frustrated with my kids’ school all year. We moved cities this summer, so a new school for everyone came with it. We have already decided to homeschool next year but as it gets closer, I get more nervous and doubt myself but remain frustrated with the current school. The fear of failure or not doing it perfectly runs deep in me. Thanks for the encouragement to follow through on my frustration instead of continuing in it.

  6. Jessica says:

    I love the insights in this post. It really resonates with where I am in my life right now/where I want to be.

    It is also an especially great read when paired with the Elizabeth Gilbert link you posted this weekend. She hits on the same topic, different angle. Thanks for all the thoughts!

    • Kimberly says:

      I’m an unabashed stalker of everything Emily writes, so it’s a treat to see my virtual worlds collide here:) I’m currently trying to use my (excessive) frustration as fuel. Fuel to get the work done, even when I’m not sure where it’s going.
      Thanks for the encouragement today!

  7. Holly says:

    Thomas Edison once said, “Show me a thoroughly satisfied man, and I will show you a failure.” I loved this article because I could completely relate to how a typically happy-go-lucky gal feels when frustration is trying to motivate her out of a boring routine.

  8. Nadine says:

    This quickly reminded me of something I learned in a group dynamics psyc course a few years back. It’s this theory (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuckman's_stages_of_group_development) on Stages of Group Development. While the theory applies to groups, it makes sense that it would kind of be similar within ourselves too.
    The theory basically says that when a group forms, it forms, storms, norms, and performs. (Click that wikipedia link above to learn more about it) It’s helpful to realize that it’s kind of a necessary evil of numerous brains coming together that there will be a nearly definitive process that include frustration.

  9. Jamie says:

    …and I wonder how I can apply these questions to my parenting.
    What’s bothering you right now?
    Where do you need to go from here?
    What do you need to do?
    Help my kids learn that frustration is okay…it’s a starting line, not a stop sign. Good stuff to ponder.

  10. Christina says:

    It’s always the times that I am uncomfortable/upset/angry/sad that end up being the best learning experiences. But you do have to turn that reflection inward: What did I do that I could have done differently? I think that as long as you blame that frustration on an outside force that you can’t control, you are going to continue to make the same mistakes again and again. And continue to feel uncomfortable/upset/angry/sad/frustrated.

  11. Mary Beth says:

    Loved this post. I’ve been so frustrated lately. I have chronic health issues and over the last three months they have gotten much worse and as a result I’ve also been struggling with depression. While seeking for help, I’ve realized that there are some things in my life that I should have changed or dealt with years ago (attitudes, family baggage, how I take care of myself, etc.). I’ve started making changes. Now I need to dig for the hope.

  12. Marie says:

    I’m not recommending this, but I know three moms–myself included–who had major panic attacks several months after going back to work full time. In each case, she had been somewhat mindlessly trying to do everything she used to do on top of her new job. I guess you could call that a case of extreme frustration. It was the wake-up call to ask for help and start redefining what “needed” to be done every day. Again, far from an ideal situation, but it *was* a quick and effective way to redefine priorities.

    • Anne says:

      “She had been somewhat mindlessly trying to do everything she used to do on top of her new job.”

      That’s exactly the kind of thing I would do! Once the mistake is realized it seems so obvious, but it’s an easy trap for some of us (ahem) to fall into. 🙂

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