The world buzzes about goals and visions. Focus. Create a vivid picture of exactly where you want to go. Dream big, then don’t let anything or anyone stop you. The problem, as Daniel Gilbert wrote in Stumbling Upon Happiness, is that we’re horrible at forecasting how we’ll really feel 10 or 20 years from now – once we’ve gotten what we dreamed of. Often, we get there only to say, “That’s not what I thought it would be,” and ask, “What now?” Ambition is good. Blind ambition is not. It blocks out not only distraction, but the many opportunities that might take you off course but that may also lead you in a new direction. Consistent daily action is only a virtue when bundled with a willingness to remain open to the unknown. In this exercise, look at your current quest and ask, “What alternative opportunities, interpretations and paths am I not seeing?” They’re always there, but you’ve got to choose to see them.
Today’s prompt is like one of those word problems in math class that adds extraneous detail just to throw you off.
The real prompt is to look into my current quests and identify alternative paths. I’m ace at adjusting my goals based on current reality. I ask “What now?” on a daily basis, and I know as well as anyone that authenticity in the moment – keeping in mind long term goals and priorities – is the best way to be happy with who I am and what I’m doing.
To me, five years still feels like a long time from the present moment. But I know it’s safe to say that five years from now I’ll be grateful if I’ve worked hard to pay down debts, to get into shape, and to work toward big goals and dreams. Yes, I acknowledge that goals and dreams can change. But I also know that as I get closer to accomplishing them, they are also easier to fulfill.
The trick, you see, is to stagger them. Don’t let big-goal end dates happen all at once. I remember graduating from college, and having a huge identity crisis. I’d worked toward getting to college, then getting through college, and then suddenly, I’d graduated. The summer of 1997 was terrifying. I had lost my one big giant goal, and I didn’t have one to replace it. That sense of “Now what?” is best taken in small doses.
Staggering goals – I want to be able to do one thing by June, and something entirely different by September – means that I’m always succeeding in some area of my life, always looking and moving forward in another.
The real trick at identifying alternative paths and having the flexibility and willingness to take them is to create lots of little goals that lead up to the larger overall goal.
My big-big-big goal is to be physically fit and svelte. So I set a goal last year to be able to run a 5K without stopping. Yeah, I do that at least once a week now. And the new “now what?” goal has become to improve my 5K time – to get it under 30 minutes. This reaches toward the over-arching goal, and once I meet it, I have a mini-success and a miniature “now what” reevaluation period.
Because it’s a tiny sub-bullet on the bigger goal, if get a wild hair and decide that I want to work on my swimming time instead of my running time, it doesn’t derail anything except that one tiny milestone. I’m still working on a goal that I’m certain I’m going to care about in 5-10 years, but the steps to get there – the actual path – is in bite-sized and interchangeable pieces.
The bullet points – the check lists – are malleable. Especially if the big goals are things you’re certain you want and you know for a fact you’re going to continue to want in five, ten or twenty years.
My big goals list:
• To be physically fit and at a healthy weight
• To be fulfilled creatively
• To be financially secure
• To have a career I enjoy
• To have a rich and diverse network of family and friends
• To experience new things
These are things that when I’m eighty-three years old, I’m still going to want. Absolutely, the sub-bullets, the line items are going to change.
Right now, the physical sub-bullets include duathlons, centuries and dieting. When I’m eighty? My guess is they will include a regular yoga practice, walking and what the hell, why not triathlons? Who knows. Maybe it will include something totally off the wall, and I’ll be an eight-three year old professional skydiver or something?
Right now, the creative fulfillment sub-bullets are all about the novel I’m writing. I’m absorbed by it, consumed by it. It’s entirely possible that career and creativity might – in 10 or 20 years – be combined in that same activity. Or I might change tracks entirely and take up mural painting or ballet. Who knows?
Financial security is an easy one to see the flow. Pay down debts, invest and save for retirement, live within our means, have and keep a good job. Blah. But let’s jump back up a paragraph. What if I sell my novel? What if that actually becomes a second stream of income? Then what? It stops becoming debt management and starts becoming investment management. Bullets change. But it’s really safe to say that no matter what, I will always want enough money in the bank that I don’t have to worry about having enough money in the bank.
You get the picture.
Are there paths unseen and not yet taken toward all of those goals? Heck yeah. Will I evaluate each little deer track when I stumble across it? Sometimes.
I’m incredibly happy with my current goals. I really enjoy running, racing and cycling. I’m loving every minute of being a fledgling novelist, even when it’s terrifying. I’m even enjoying the hostile takeover of my brain by Wedding Planning. (Thanks, Sherean, for that very apt phrase). So, in the now, I’ll stay the course. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?