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It’s easy to get sucked into the trap that other people have it all figured out. It’s easy to think that if we just did the same things that those successful people we look up to do, that we’d have it made. There are a lot of problems with that idea, not the least of which is that other people’s goals are not and never will be the best goals… For you.
Raise your hand. How many times have you looked at someone’s success and thought that maybe you could do that too?
- Create an online course
- Travel the world for free
- Have a perfectly curated life (and showing the best of the best on social media)
- Run a marathon, free-climb in Yosemite, or perform slick stunts on the ski slope
- Build a multi-million dollar online empire
- Get a TV special with your name on it
- Host a talk show
How many times do we, as a society, look to others for what we should be doing with our lives?
It’s great for inspiration, to be sure… But adopting others’ achievements (and goals) as our own doesn’t ever end up how we think it will.
Your Life is Your Life
“Comparison is the thief of joy.”—Theodore Roosevelt
Comparison is a human nature thing.
We all do it. We all look at our neighbors and friends and think one of two things:
- Their life is so much better than mine and I must change myself to be more like them
- My life is so much better than theirs and they should change themselves to be more like me
Rarely do we automatically think that our lives are on par with others’. We never see their struggles (and they never see ours). It’s easy to compare when all you’re looking at are the outside factors.
The first bullet is also known as “keeping up with the Joneses”, a phrase that means we curate what our lives look like on the outside to match the level that other people exhibit. In his book The Millionaire Next Door, Thomas J. Stanley notes that real next-door millionaires don’t practice “keeping up with the Joneses.” Real millionaires are frugal, live below their means, and don’t care about buying a brand new BMW every year or living in a mansion.
The second bullet is a demonstration of arrogance and judgment upon our fellow humans. This is also in our human nature, sinful though it is. It’s easy to look at someone down on their luck and pronounce that we’d never sink to that level, even if we were in the same circumstances.
The “Best Goals” Are Subjective
What does this comparison stuff have to do with choosing the best goals for you? All of it, actually. Goals are deeply personal and individual.
Dropping out of college to start Microsoft was a deeply personal decision to Bill Gates. He didn’t do it because someone else did so before him—he did it because he believed in what he had to build and offer to the world.
So what makes us think we can be successful by dropping out of college too?
I’ve found that it takes a lot of trial and error to figure out what goals I want to pursue. In many ways, it’s easier to do this as a kid when we don’t understand the realities awaiting us in adulthood.
Want to be an astronaut? Sure, honey, you can do whatever you set your mind to!
But if you decide you want to be an astronaut when you’re halfway through a degree in literature, you’ll get a different reaction—because that’s how society works.
For most people, choosing the best goals is a process. Sure, some people are born knowing what they’re going to do for the rest of their lives, but others experience false starts and pivoting because the path from point A to point B is a really squiggly line.
Step One: Set Your Intention
You won’t have a clear idea of what goals to even think about until you know what your intention is.
Where do you intend your life to go? Who are you doing this for? Why are you doing it? Without holding yourself back, answer a few questions:
- What do you want to do?
- What do you love doing?
- If money were not a factor and you could do anything, what would it be?
- When do you feel most happy, or most alive?
I used her framework to distill my own intention:
“I choose to create a wealthy life.”
Ideally, anything I do will positively answer the question “does this move me towards a wealthy life?”
Download the Self-Reflection Questionnaire! Take the time to think about these questions and be honest with yourself.
Step Two: Make a List
Get a pen and some paper. You don’t want to be erasing anything here.
Set aside some time—anywhere between 30 minutes and two hours—to brainstorm and write down a comprehensive, stream-of-consciousness flow of goals, ideas, achievements, and things you want to have, do, or be.
It’s important to include experiences and proficiencies along with the material wants. It’s also important to be specific.
The broadest of my “goals” is more of an abstract desire: to be financially independent.
This really needs to have a dollar amount and a timeframe attached to it to make it real. Something like “I want to have a passive income of $10,000 a month within five years” is more tangible than the vagueness of financial independence, which looks slightly different for everyone.
Keep your list in an easily-accessible place. Maybe post it on your wall next to your computer. The key is to keep those ideas, goals, and desires in front of your face so you don’t lose focus on them.
Step Three: Clarify
Some goals sound nice. “Wouldn’t it be nice if…?” is the phrase preceding these things.
- Wouldn’t it be nice if we could travel full time?
- Wouldn’t it be nice if we owned a Tesla? (We got to drive one last year—it’s pretty cool)
- Wouldn’t it be nice if… [insert desire here]?
The problem with “wouldn’t it be nice if” is that a lot of the time we don’t know how much work and effort really goes into achieving those goals.
Traveling full time sounds nice, but the reality is that, without a home base, it can get tiring pretty fast.
Owning a Tesla would probably be cool, but worth it? Probably not. They’re expensive, the electricity they use still depends mostly on fossil fuels to generate, and where I live, the cost for annual tabs is astronomical.
It’s important to dissect the items on your list to determine what it would actually take to reach them. Is it money? Location? A certain level of comfort with risk and or rejection?
Are you willing to spend or sacrifice the time, money, or other experiences to reach this one?
A personal finance blogger I know puts it really well: you can afford anything… But you can’t afford everything. This includes goals.
Step Four: Experiment
Okay. You know your intention, wrote out your list, and clarified the reality of each goal. Now what?
Now it’s time to find out if it’s really something you want to achieve!
“But wait!” You ask. “Shouldn’t I have figured that out in step three?”
Kinda, but really no. Step three, clarification, is about what it will cost to get there, not whether you enjoy the process or even the end result.
Take another look at your list. Do you know people who have already achieved things on that list? Can you get in contact with someone who does?
Look around for opportunities to get your feet wet immediately. There’s no better way to decide if it’s one of the best goals for you if you don’t experiment.
But more importantly—be open to the possibility that you will no longer want to reach that goal. It’s just as important to find out what you don’t want and don’t like as it does the opposite.
What if you end up dissatisfied or even hateful towards the goals you’ve been working towards? What if you absolutely loathe the process? While yes, the path to your goals is probably going to be wrought with difficulty, hating each second of the process is an indicator that maybe you should find something else to work on.
Step Five: Adjust
Goals change as you work towards them.
In December 2018 I wrote a huge list of goals to work toward in 2019, and I fully recognize that some of them will change, I will “abandon” some, and it will all be okay.
Choosing the best goals for you isn’t just about their first definition.
Whatever goals you choose, you’ll need to be flexible and avoid locking yourself in a mindset that, if you don’t reach the exact result you specified, you’ve failed.
So, adjust your heading. Make a new list. Experiment again.
Goals are “more like guidelines, anyway.”
Let me give you some real-life examples.
Amy Simpkins, the author of Spiral and co-founder of muGrid, a renewable energy storage and microgrid company, wanted to be an astronaut from the time she was a child until she was at the point of filling out the astronaut application. She had all the right experience, taken the right classes, gone down the correct career path, and yet… She kept putting it off.
And putting it off.
Why would someone, who since childhood dreamed of being an astronaut, put off such an important step in the process?
Because the goal didn’t fit her anymore.
Her career had been a straight line for her whole life, but that application was the turning point. She realized that it wasn’t the best goal for her, and she pivoted her entire career onto a new path.
Somewhat similarly, when I was a kid, I wanted to be a veterinarian. Like, gung ho about it. I had all sorts of books on animals, husbandry manuals, and knew more about dogs than my parents could believe (or my sister could stand.) And then it was the end of our family dog’s life—the dog we’d had since I’d turned two.
After that day, I no longer wanted to be a veterinarian. For a while, I was totally convinced I would be a successful author by my senior year in high school. When that didn’t happen, I switched to criminology, and then psychology, and finally mechanical engineering, where I stayed because of the subtle implication that my parents wouldn’t pay for the extra years that came with changing majors.
Goals and Dreams Change
I’m really glad I figured this out. My degree and the four years I spent getting it are not “worthless,” even though I don’t really use it in my job.
When I first started this blog in January 2017, I wanted it to be strictly mental health-related and quickly got hung up on one specific post that stalled me for a year.
I ended up publishing a version of that difficult piece in March, after over two years of growth and changing goals. I’ve evolved in what I want this blog to showcase and thus I include more productivity and lifestyle pieces than before.
For most of my adult life, I’ve gone through cycles of intense research on how to lose weight and then despair that none of it worked. Now, my goal is simply to achieve a healthy weight and get there using the methods I’ve proven work already—for me.
What shouldn’t really change all that much is your intention, though it might go through different iterations as you pass through the seasons of life.
In all I do, it’s my intention to create and live a wealthy life. This encompasses all things: spirituality, health and fitness, finances, relationships, community, recreation, and profession.
I’ve tried to choose the best goals for me by understanding that it’s okay to be wrong at first and change gears.
Call to Action
Experiment with your goals! If something doesn’t feel right, adjust it! Have you ever realized a goal wasn’t the best one for you and changed it to something else? Join the discussion below.