Starting from the end, and building backwards: what do you want to feel about your life at the end of it?
If my life was all about ambition, competition, and goal setting, and I was successful, at the end I’d be full of pride about my achievements, my wins, and my treasure trove of acquisitions.
However, my experience is that when I’ve won in life, it’s mostly been by accident.
I got my college degree because I was attending college only for the purpose of being able to get past the automaton resume screening that was looking for my resume to read “Bachelor’s degree” somewhere on it. So, while in college, working fulltime, raising two kids, my resume read: “B.S. in Organizational Management: in progress.” I did not care if I ever achieved it.
Then one summer my counsellor asked if I was going to apply to walk next May. “What…I could? I’m that close?” “Well,” she said, “if you take some CLEP tests and don’t take the second summer session off, and…” I looked into it. Heck, yeah, I could test out of a couple of sciences! I remember one test you had to get a 50 — I got a 54. So what — it counted. I CLEPPED out of two science classes. I got my degree and walked that May. And yes, it felt good. And it would not have felt bad if I’d kept on getting my resume into the candidate pile with my “degree in progress” notation, either. It might have prevented me from consideration; we’ll never know.
I’m not against ambition, per se. It just works better for me if I look at it more like a curiosity. For example, I’ve gotten pretty physically fit in the last several years. I didn’t start out with a goal to weigh a certain number or achieve a certain percentage of body fat. I started with a question to myself: I wonder if I can change my body? Turned out, I could. If I’d have set a number, though, it would have brought with it the highs and lows of hits and misses. I am the tortoise, not the hare. I like even keeled.
Goal setting can be a dangerous thing. It can be really helpful — keeping one’s eye on a vision. It can also serve as blinders. I see people working for something because they set a goal, unwilling to recalibrate or reexamine the initial vision, not integrating the feedback from the journey towards the goal. Sometimes, a few steps in any direction can signal that you took a wrong turn. It’s hard to admit that, even to yourself, if you’ve blasted your intended goal to the world: you may feel stuck in seeing it through.
Competition: it pretty much means one person will be very happy, and a bunch of people will be disappointed. I’d rather volley and not keep score. I’d rather play a hand, reshuffle, and play again. I’d rather learn from someone better than me, without worrying about holding my team back. I like competing against myself, my prior personal best. It doesn’t feel as good to me to beat someone else. Initially it does, though soon (Nanoseconds) I wish I was sharing the limelight with whomever also worked towards the prize. Podiums sometimes look like lonely places.
If, though, ambition, competition, and goal setting are focused on service to others, I like them a lot. Can we serve 100 more people for Thanksgiving this year? Can we adopt 5 more families at Christmas? Can we provide shelter for more people than we did last year? Or, taken to an individual level: can I reach out to someone I know doesn’t like to be alone? Can I include someone who isn’t often included? Can I sponsor someone who can’t afford something they need or want? Can I use less water this year than I did last year?
It just boils down to having noticed, after many years of striving, that I’m not as happy focused on myself as I am when I’m focused on others. The sales hype that is flung at me (and you) is distracting — calling to my ego to care about my possessions, my body (from top to bottom), my social media likes (or in this case, claps), my status, my travel posts, my dating activity, etc. If I have success in those ego distractions, will that look-back at the end be satisfying?
For me, not so much.
I would like to shape my life so that at the end, my friends, family and acquaintances will have a warm story to tell about how I made a difference — with a note, a call, an invitation, a helping hand, a surprise, or some other expression of love that came just when it was needed. I used to think, and was often told, that this was thinking small. Culture is rarely shifted in droves — it shifts one person at a time. That seems doable.
A life well lived: in progress.