The “I Did It My Way” Myth

Published May 18, 2016 by

The Main Event

When I was growing up, my family had a bunch of records.[1] My sister specialized in the single recordings with one song on either side.  My older brother had the big album collection. It was pretty eclectic ranging from Frank Zappa to Eddie Arnold, from ELO to the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. One of the albums was, “Frank Sinatra at Madison Square Garden,” a topnotch Greatest Hits Live Album with the song, I Did It My Way. It became Sinatra’s song and my brother played it constantly. It extolls the virtue of independence and carving out and living your own way not caring about what others may think.  It touches a nerve in all of us.

As I have lived almost six decades I have come to realize that I Did It My Way is not the best way to live your life. It is a myth at best and a total pile of hooey at worst.

The short book of Judges in the Old Testament is a lesson in what happens when we don’t depend on the knowledge and understanding of people who have gone before us and we do it our way.

For those who aren’t familiar with the book, it takes place right after the death of Joshua, Moses’ protégé.  Moses had given the people of Israel the first five books of what we now call the Old Testament and Joshua had shown the people how to live by them.  The last thing Joshua did was tell the people, ‘You choose how you are going to live your life.’

They did. Judges tells us they did it Their Way.  And what a mess they made of it.  Over a 350 year period, they went through seven cycles. A cycle would start with the Israelites doing it their way.  As a result, Israel would find herself in slavery. God would send a leader-a judge-who would bring them out of captivity. Israel would follow for a while. But then another cycle would begin with (you guess it) doing it their way.

Each cycle was worse than the one before.  God would step in and for a while peace came over the land. But, overall, the spiraling down of the society continued.  The last chapters of Judges is one of the darkest points in the history of Israel where rape, homosexuality, disrespect, deception and conflict were rampant in Israel.

The Israelites main problem was they always thought they knew better.  So they did it (Orchestra please) Myyyy Wayyy (Thank you Frank)!

Throughout my life I have run into people who decided they would do it, My Way.

I remember as a fresh Captain stationed at Langley AFB, there was this Sergeant who worked for me. He was a smart kid and a pretty good worker. But he could never make it to work on time and he, often, didn’t follow directions. His supervisor was going bald tearing his hair out with this guy. I don’t know how many counselling sessions I had with this young man. But he always thought he was the smartest guy in the room and that allowed him to do it, his way.

The inevitable date came when he was being put out of the Air Force.  I remember him coming to me just before leaving the base. “Can’t you do anything Cap.” It was too late.  He did it his way.

I had a neighbor I liked a lot. He was a good guy. He and his wife moved in next door and we got to know them pretty well.  His daughter from his previous marriage would occasionally come to visit. One day, I hadn’t seen his wife in a while so I asked if she was alright. “We are getting a divorce.” He had asked her to leave.  He told me he needed to start over.  About a year later he got married again. This wife lasted only 18 months. He asked her to move out. He needed to start over again. Then he moved. He needed to start fresh.  He certainly did it his way.

Judges ends with this phrase, “everyone did as they saw fit.” The implication being that was the cause of their problems.

God uses these true stories in the book of Judges to remind us an abundant life is often lost when we decide we are the smartest person in the room and don’t need to listen to anybody.  There is a real danger in the “I did it my way” philosophy. The consequences of bad uninformed decisions multiply. Each one is laid one on top of the other and soon we are so far down we don’t even know how far we have fallen.

The good news is we don’t need to go there and if we are there, we don’t need to stay there.

When I am asked, “how do I become a leader?” my first response is always, find someone good to follow.   Followership always precedes leadership. We learn from following good leaders (by the way, we also learn from observing bad leaders but that is another story.)

Look at many of the great leaders in history. People forget Dwight D. Eisenhower was Douglas MacArthur’s Executive Officer for many years.  A few years ago, I saw Jeffrey Immelt at the Willowcreek Leadership Summit. Jeffrey Immelt, the homegrown current CEO of General Electric, watched Jack Welch lead the same company for decades.  Neither Eisenhower nor Immelt are clones of their benefactors. In fact, in style and philosophy both are very different. Both took initiative when given the reins of leadership but both spent precious time following a trusted leader. They did it his way before they did it their way.

The greatest inventors and thinkers in history began with the work of other people. The Wright Brothers learned from Lithenthal. Einstein’s foundation was Newton. Werner Von Braun, the architect of the American Space Program, relied heavily on the early work of Robert Goddard and others. Before they did it their way, they followed.

We need guidance to live life successfully.  God yearns to provide it.  God gives us a detailed instruction booklet on how to build a successful life. It releases us to fully be what He calls us to be. However, We need to do it His Way.

…in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. – Proverbs 3:6

Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways. – Proverbs 4:26

Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths. – Psalm 25:4

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. – John 14:6

Guidance and boundaries actually provides freedom and builds creativity. Studies have shown that children who are given boundaries at an early age develop a greater ability for creativity over free range kids. It’s the same with true Christianity.  The guardrails that God gives us allows us to live life happily together while providing an opportunity for personal innovation and experimentation.

Sorry Frank, I Did It My Way is a myth.

The sooner we realize that, the sooner we are on the road to abundant life.


[1] For the younger crowd, a record is a circular piece of plastic engraved with music.  It was replaced by the eight track tape, which was replaced by the cassette tape, which in turn was replaced by the CD, which was in turn replaced by the MP3 player which has been replaced by your smartphone-just in case you were wondering.


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