If you don’t sit down to ask yourself what you actually want out of life, strange things can start to happen.
You might start hanging around with people you don’t like.
Applying for jobs you don’t want.
Going to places you don’t care for.
Dreaming about money you don’t need.
It’s what I’ve observed in myself. In my final year of college, the concept of coming up with a specific ‘end goal’ was terrifying — so I started working towards random things that sounded cool or impressive instead.
I developed default goals
The absence of a genuine personal goal made me subconsciously revert to ‘default goals’. You know, goals dictated by societal expectations. Things that everyone else seemed to be aiming for. I suppose it makes sense — if you lack the mental strength to be a leader, you wind up being a follower.
My decision-making process wound up looking a little like this:
Aiming for a respectable yet average grade? Lame. Aiming for a top grade? That sounds more like it.
Applying for a job as an accountant? Boring. Applying for a job as a strategy consultant? That sounds cooler.
Low salary? Ew, no. High salary? Hell, yes.
Traveling to 100 countries? Sounds amazing. Staying in the same country for the rest of your life? I’d rather not.
When everything is presented as an individual binary choice, it seems obvious to choose the ‘better’ option. Given the choice between a higher or lower grade, why would you choose a lower grade?
Yet I know people who have made that conscious choice; they were prioritizing other projects or commitments that were more important to them. There’s also nothing wrong with going for the best grades; maybe you need them to pursue your dream career in academia.
Just don’t ‘revert to default’.
I was living for others
I knew all about opportunity costs — I’m an economist. Seeing all the tradeoffs lining up before my eyes drove me crazy. I wasn’t willing to decide what was really important to me, so I tried to do everything.
I had a careers mentor, and every time we had a meeting I told him I wanted to do something different. Work abroad, start a business, look for a job in a startup.
I think I was hoping that he’d tell me what to do. Instead, he humored me.
When you don’t know what you want, it’s easy to rationalize focusing on a ‘default goal’. It feels nice and comfortable, plus nobody will question you.
But default goals aren’t about you; they’re usually focused on seeming ‘interesting’ or ‘successful’ to others.
It’s easy to see that living in this way isn’t rational at all. The only sensible thing you can do is work towards what you actually want. It’s a terrifying process, of course, because it leaves you vulnerable.
What did I really want?
When I was honest with myself, I had some surprising revelations. I managed to identify four things that I had been dreaming of on-off for most of my life:
- To make a living as a writer
- To build my own house
- To confess my secrets to the world
- To be a free-runner
Considering how I’ve spent the last four years of my life, it’s a pretty hilarious list. I’ve not done much to work towards these goals; subconsciously I’ve repressed them due to the belief they were childish and silly.
There are still a lot of specifics to figure out. What kind of writer? In which country would the house be? Just how strong do I want to be? Depending on the details, it may be harder or easier to work towards my dream.
But admitting these aims to myself and writing them down made me realize that they’re actually very achievable.
Where did these goals come from?
They sound pretty random. I thought they were at first, but after thinking it through more, they make sense.
The first goal — to be a writer — has been something I’ve been telling my family I wanted to do since I was a child. Writing and reading were the activities I spent the majority of my childhood doing. Yet, somewhere along the line, I was led to believe this was impossible unless I was prepared to be a ‘starving writer’.
I think the last three goals come from an inner longing to make myself more whole and balanced overall.
I tend to live in my head and I’m incredibly impractical; building a house would force me to learn the skills I’ve always neglected.
I’ve also spent most of my life being ridiculously reserved. It would be incredibly liberating for me to know that everything is just out there in the world and I no longer need to worry about keeping secrets.
Finally, I’ve never been athletic. I’ve always been relatively weak and athletic. I’m also a scaredy-cat;
Achieving these four goals would allow me to reach some level of self-actualization, by remedying my greatest weaknesses whilst giving me the freedom to focus on my creative outlet of choice.
Travel? I’ve traveled enough to realize that I prefer to stay in one place.
Money? I have three criteria: I want to be able to buy whatever I want from the supermarket without worrying about the prices; cover my bills without blinking, and set 10–20% aside each month.
Relationships? At the moment, it’s stimulating and difficult enough for me to maintain the high-quality relationships I already have.
It was a funny realization to discover that my dreams might not be that far away or impossible after all. Yet if I’d continued to hustle mindlessly, I would never have known.
I don’t think it would necessarily be the wisest decision for me to spend my lifetime savings to buy a one-way ticket to Laos, build a house from scratch and take advantage of my low living costs to focus on writing and free-running. There are other things I need to consider, like being able to buy plane tickets to visit my mother sometimes.
There’s also more to life than achieving your dreams and pleasing yourself.
The point is that, once you admit to yourself what you’re really chasing after, it can turn out to be more achievable than the hustle to get a hundred arbitrary things you never actually wanted in the first place.
If you want to hear more about my attempts to find tranquility and purpose, subscribe to my newsletter and I’ll be sure to keep you updated.