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I’ve been thinking a lot about goals lately. This post is the third of three in a short series sharing a few disparate ideas I have about them.
A few weeks back, I wrote about how I think traditional, metric-based goals are pointless and overrated. There were some who disagreed with that article, but just as many, if not more, who agreed. For those who do set goals and want ones that fit with who you truly are, it’s worth asking: where do these goals come from?
Our culture presents us with a default set of goals. As someone who has lived in Canada his entire life, I can only speak to the defaults that North American culture provides. These include:
- Become incredibly fit—get six pack abs, even!
- Make a ton of money. Millions, if possible!
- Buy a big house so I can live comfortably.
- Accumulate a lot of possessions for that house, like the latest tech and fancy furniture.
- Become famous! Or at the very least, well-respected in my field.
… the list goes on.
Some cultures value collective goals over individualistic ones like these, and many families and communities prioritize things differently. But, for better or for worse, these seem to be the goals we’ve settled into in modern North America.
There’s a default script that accompanies these default goals. And it has a bunch of milestones along the way to let you know you’re on the right track. Graduate high school, attend college or university, get a degree, and then get a job. Find your true love, save some of each paycheck for retirement, get married, buy a house, settle down, and have kids. After the kids leave home, mellow out, and eventually kick the bucket. Bend the rules in a few ways and you’re considered eccentric. Go against them entirely, you’re radical.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating that we move to an off-the-grid commune, give up our worldly possessions, and abandon all pursuit of productivity and success. But I am arguing that it’s worth reflecting on whether these default goals are right for you. Even if you decide the defaults are worth striving for, at least you will have actively reflected and made that call yourself.
Over the past few years, a good friend has pushed me to reflect on where my goals come from. I’ve been reflecting on this default script ever since. In this stepping back, I’ve come to notice how we value the idea of more above pretty much all else. This “mindset of more” is what leads us to strive for more of everything: more fitness, more money, more square footage in our home, more possessions, more fame, more productivity, more happiness.
This mindset of more is so deeply embedded within our cultural values and norms that we hardly notice or question it. Of course we want more of everything we have. Why wouldn’t we?
But there’s a big problem with goals that originate from this mindset of more: they have no stopping point. This makes pursuing more of everything a trap. We can always become fitter, richer, and more famous, and accumulate more possessions and a bigger house. Pursuing more of everything—instead of goals that have a stopping point—can ultimately be an empty, hollow pursuit.
Step back and perhaps instead of striving for more money, you realize it’s greater financial freedom that you really desire. Maybe you don’t actually want a bigger house—you instead want a home that fits you and your family—not some mini-mansion full of rooms you don’t use. Maybe after reflecting, you realize you don’t want to become insanely fit—but that you want to develop eating habits that keep you trim, while letting you also indulge in the odd heaping of butter chicken so you don’t live some twisted life of muscly deprivation. Unlike metric-centric goals, these reframed desires have a stopping point.
Everyone is different—we’re all raised with and live inside different values systems. At the end of the day, you may decide that the defaults are right for you. But odds are there won’t be a perfect overlap between what you value and what our society expects you to want.
The values that drive your goals should originate from one place: you.
Going against the grain—and opting out of the defaults—takes reflection and is not always easy. You may even experience guilt, doubt, worry, and a host of other negative emotions along the way. But by questioning the defaults, you’ll be able to live in alignment with what you actually want.
There is no prescribed path to live a life that’s true to what you value. It takes time to look at the goals you’re chasing, and ask why you’re chasing them—whether they’re what you truly want, or if they’re what you’re expected to pursue.
At the end of the day, this reflection is worthwhile. When you accept the defaults, you run the very real risk of living a life out of alignment with who you are. It’s easy to accept the defaults. But doing so can also be a recipe for regret. As Bronnie Ware, the author of Top Five Regrets of the Dying has written, there is one regret people on their death beds have above all others: they wish they would have had the courage to live a life true to themselves, instead of the life others expected of them.
Reflecting on where your goals come from isn’t only a way of setting goals you care about—it’s also a way of living in alignment with who you truly are.