In Defense of Not Having Goals

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Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.

—Soren Kierkegaard

I always admired my goal-oriented friends. They had 10-year plans outlining their career trajectory; graphs predicting their millionaire status by age 30; real estate purchases and investments charted; and one individual even delivered a “quarterly report” on his vaunted progress toward his inexorable success. It was charismatic, visionary, and I was drawn to it, aspired to it.

But applying their approach to my own life never worked. I could rarely see more than one step ahead of where I was. Trying to determine my destination in advance that way felt inauthentic, ingenuous, a bit self-absorbed, in a way that I couldn’t articulate. I was satisfied with my work and play and life. Yet in the back of my mind, my seeming inability to set and commit to a big goal left me feeling inadequate in relation to my hyper goal-driven friends. I assumed that, despite my contentment, my efforts weren’t as good–because they didn’t obviously add up to an audacious outcome.

In time, I learned to resolve this internal conflict. Now, I can see that I just have my own approach, it just happens to be quite different from the one followed by my goal-oriented friends. I call it a process-oriented approach.

In my approach, I don’t try to define in advance the outcomes of my efforts, and then reflexively prescribe myself the process and practices that will get me to that outcome. I have come to believe that this goal-oriented approach has some major flaws. What if I don’t enjoy the work, the lifestyle, the process of reaching the goal? What if I don’t want to make the world conform to my singular vision of myself? What if I want to serve others rather than make the world serve me? What if I had to ignore other opportunities, neglect curiosities, and delay many a great many gratifications in order to stay on track toward my goal? And worst–the question that always plagued me when setting goals–what if, after everything I’ve invested or sacrificed, the destination isn’t what I thought it would be?

Instead, I order my life the other way around: I start with the process and leave the outcome open-ended. What activities, tasks, and projects do I like doing and being part of? Does the work I’m doing enable me to support myself? Am I interested and challenged and enriched by the work I’m doing and the play I’m engaged in? How often am I bored? How often am I challenged? Does my work and leisure time align with my values and principles? Do I have freedom and autonomy, but also the embrace of a community? Does my work generally support efforts that aim to expand beauty and fairness in the world?

These questions–not “where will I be in 10 years”–are my guiding ones, and they have worked for me so far. In fact, a recent article vindicates my approach. According to one professor, the process-oriented approach not only has the potential to provide more overall happiness in life. It can also get you to outcomes in the end:

…I recommend … an alternative approach, which is to become a little more aware of what it is that you’re really good at, and what you enjoy doing. When you don’t need to compare yourself to other people, you gravitate towards things that you instinctively enjoy doing, and you’re good at, and if you just focus on that for a long enough time, then chances are very, very high that you’re going to progress towards mastery anyway, and the fame and the power and the money and everything will come as a byproduct, rather than something that you chase directly in trying to be superior to other people.

I’ve become content with my lack of discrete goals and comfortable with the possibility that my existentialism-infused, process-oriented days either may, or may not, add up to the “big goal” that my goal-oriented friends’ will. But I will have lived each and every day in a way that suits my interests, challenges me, captivates my imagination, and aligns with my values. To me, that in itself would be a worthy goal.

Cruel Optimism

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Cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. People have remained attached to unachievable fantasies of the good life–with its promises of upward mobility, job security, political and social equality–despite evidence that liberal-capitalist societies can no longer be counted on to provide opportunities for individuals to make their lives ‘add up to something.'”

–Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism

Painting: Paul Klee

New Year miscellany

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birthday card

“i am running into a new year
and the old years blow back
like a wind
that i catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises”

–Lucille Clifton, from “I Am Running Into a New Year”

The above text (above the lovely poem) an excerpt from a birthday card given to me on my birthday (which happens to be on the first day of the year). Good friends always somehow have a clearer image of who we are, and our flaws, than we do ourselves, don’t they? Or at least, an intriguing image–I never would have suspected that my knowledge of halloumi cheese (which has a higher boiling point than other cheeses and can therefore be fried) was a notable and possibly essential part of my personality and character, but there it is.

Anyway, as the card suggests–don’t all of our self-improvement goals come down to doing less of the bad, hurtful, counterproductive things and more of the good, creative flourishing things?

Whatever good you want to do more of this year, and whatever bad things you are trying to do less of, best of luck achieving that as we run into the new year.

Photo source: unknown

Endless things and growing pains

Designing lesson plans. Learning a language. Researching post-grad jobs. Applying for jobs. These are some of the things consuming my thoughts and energy lately, and they are often satisfying and fulfilling. Working together with friends and mentors to make drastic improvements in my résumé; discovering the best way to motivate my students; improving my comprehension skills and broadening my vocabulary in a foreign language; bringing up my GPA; planning on how to pay off loans; these are worthy things.

But these things are also endless. How can I be sure that the poems I picked for my lesson on descriptive words are the best, most developmentally appropriate poems for the lesson? How can I be sure that I have used the right participial form in the third paragraph of my Turkish composition? How do I know if I have done enough to be impressive to an employer? How do I know when I have succeeded–and therefore when I can stop trying–especially when there are so many ways to be wrong or mediocre?

It’s not just languages and teaching and job applications that seem endless–everything in life is endless. The degree of success in what we choose to do in life is only limited by the bounds of a lifetime. Sometimes I just feel paralyzed with deciding the right thing to do and exhausted with what seems like a race to success that has no end-goal. Why bother? Why try?

But most of the time I do not feel this way. Most of the time, I know that I set my own goals, that I should seek to embrace failure, and that my own success is in my own hands. And this is the truth. Everything else is just growing pains.

How do you set goals and measure success? Perhaps more importantly, how do you inspire yourself to stay motivated through doubts, boredom, pointless self-pity, and other growing pains?

Photo by: Me