Many people talk about setting life goals. These are usually long-term goals come in the form of “I want to…” statements, for example, “I want to travel”, “I want to become a doctor/teacher/lawyer”, “I want to have a family”, etc.
In regards to goals, I am more inclined to use them in my own life when I am talking about something that I can do immediately and this is where the idea of SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely) goals, which many people have heard about, can be helpful in the short term. However, I have found that when we are talking about our lives in terms of achieving long-term life goals there are a number of issues that arise.
A big problem with life goals is that we can’t predict the future. What seemed like a good idea at the time might not seem quite so good a few years down the track. This is especially pertinent to those people studying for a profession. You may have a goal to become a doctor, but a few years of medical school may deflate your enthusiasm. Should you carry on anyway simply to achieve your ‘goal’? Or should you drop it if it really isn’t how you want to spend your life? Long-term life goals often change, so can we really call them goals if they are not certain?
However, the big issues that I think are missing from all the goals stated above is; what will it mean to those people when they have achieved those things and why do these people want these things?
I have found the concept of job titles fascinating. They seem to give people a sense of identity and also of achievement. Often a profession is central to the way a person describes themselves. Yet, I think that achieving a certain title or profession can often be the start of a lack of both personal growth and long-term fulfilment. To explain this further I will use the example of a teacher, but note this can really apply to any profession.
When a person studies to become a teacher and they teach their first class, they feel like they now have reached the state where they can make “being a teacher” part of their identity. But it can also feel like the end. Now that you have reached that goal, where to next? Yes, you could get a variety of promotions in the teaching profession but they are simply extra add-ons to your already established identity of being a teacher. Ultimately, I think we all sense at some point that by becoming a member of an already established profession in a manner that has also already been established, our lives are not actually adding anything new to the world. In the case of the teacher, they are simply another teacher, another person who has slotted their life into a system that existed before they did. They did not create and build their own identity but simply fitted themselves into a prepackaged identity.
I think that thinking about life as a direction rather than as a collection of goals may be able to help us with the issues I have raised. In having a direction in life we have a greater ‘why’ for what we are doing and any achievement, task, or work we engage in is simply seen as a stepping stone and not an end-point.
What would happen in our example of the person becoming a teacher if they had a direction rather than a goal? Say for example part of their stated direction they wanted to take in life was; “To be curious as to how people learn, not only for myself in my own personal growth but I want to be valuable to others around me in helping them learn more effectively.” This person may become a teacher or they may not. If they do end up working in a classroom their reasoning might be along the lines of, “I want to see and experience first-hand what my society says is the best way of learning. I want to experience if learning is really happening in schools and understand what goes on behind the scenes.” Now they may come away from their experience and decide that continuing to work in schools is the most effective way to keep fulfilling their direction in life, but this is not necessarily so. They may choose to explore whole new ways of helping others learn effectively which may not involve classrooms, or schools, or even teaching at all. In this sense, their direction in life is not tied to a particular profession nor to a particular way of doing things.
You may also notice that in the example of a direction given above there is no specified end. We don’t know how long our lives are going to last and how much of a difference we can make in this world. But we can live our lives so that we never stop making a difference. We will never reach an endpoint and exhaust all human potential knowledge.
While it is good to celebrate achievements and certain accomplishments, if they are endpoints and they aren’t feeding into your direction in life, the questions of; “So what?” and “Now what?” inevitably arrive. As noted before, all these things must simply be stepping stones on the journey you are taking.
Let me add one more example of how this idea of goals versus life direction applies. This time in the area of family. Many people have the life goal of getting married and having children, yet it seems, when we look at divorce statistics, that marriage is treated as a goal and once people have achieved it they are not sure what to do with it after that. A similar thing can be noted with children. Many people achieve the goal of having children and then spend little time with them allowing them to be raised by daycare centres and schools. Simply having goals and achieving them is not enough, and seems to have had quite detrimental effects on our society. Our families must be part of our direction in life and the legacy we are hoping to build if we are wanting them to last.
If we can find a way to have our deepest wants and desires met within the overall arc and direction of our lives and that they are not simply ends unto themselves, I do believe we will be able to build more fulfilled long-term lives for ourselves. So find that direction in your life. Clarify it in your own mind and through deep and honest conversations with others so that you can build a legacy of purpose throughout your life.