“What do you want to be when you grow up?” We are charmed by childrens’ answers to this question, by their dreams, by their limitless imagination and potential for the future. As they grow into adolescents, the question grows heavier, the expectations more realistic, and we ask, “What do you want to study in college?” possibly with the addendum, “What do you want to do with that degree?”
And when the children are young adults, they enter the workforce and they take on annual goals, and they set their gazes on “career ladders.” And so it continues, until they enter management (or don’t) and reach retirement age (or don’t).
In America, at least, we are promised life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We love deciding what we will pursue, and then we fucking love pursuing it. “Nothing will work unless you do,” Maya Angelou tells us from the inspirational poster we scroll past on on our Pinterest page… or, if you prefer your instructions from little green men: “Do or do not. There is no try.”
And so we spend our lives in pursuit of goals, as though pursuing goals were the same as pursuing happiness: we graduate high school, then college, then get our first job. We set personal goals–we want to be in shape, we want to be the owner of a new car, we want to be a triathlete… and that’s if we’re very very lucky. It could just be we want to be people who can afford to pay the rent and put food on the table.
The Pursuit of Happiness
I’ve always been goal-oriented. My computer is riddled with “workplans,” in which I set a goal in the distant or not-so-distant-future, and then work backwards from that goal to plot achievable milestones. Over the past five years, I’ve used spreadsheets to become debt-free, to lose 20 pounds, to start a business.
Having goals, I’m slowly realizing, starts with the assumption that something is “not ok” right now. If you’re working towards a future state of different-ness, then there’s no way that you are “ok” in your current state of being… and I, for one, love having goals. Looking to the future lets me ignore the present. I don’t need to think about now when I can think about then. Things will be different then.
Here’s what I’ve learned about goals, though: I don’t actually enjoy achieving them. When I finally reach that last line in my spreadsheet, when I can finally say, “I wanted to do this and so I did,” I find myself coming up short. Now what do I do? I ask, finally forced to think about the present, and I’m told, Time for a new goal, just like everyone else.
That’s better than the alternative, though, where we work towards a goal… and we fall short. We’re forced to acknowledge this failure, to look into the future and see nothing more than we already have in the present. Now what do we do? we ask, and we’re told, Time for a new goal, just like everyone else.
Maybe it’s actually time for a different question.
Who Do You Want to Be?
Basing your identify or your self-worth on what you do and what you achieve is a lose-lose situation. If we base our identities on the pursuit of goals, then achievement leaves us without an identity… and if we base our self-worth on the pursuit of goals, then the lack of achievement leaves us without self-worth.
A life well-lived is not defined by a series of goals that have been methodically pursued and achieved. A life well-lived is a series of well-lived days, and while those days may include activities in pursuit of future goals, they all occur in the present moment. The only time that exists is now.
What if we focused on that, on making the most of who we are in the present moment, in the present day?
Asking yourself who you want to be (rather than what you want to do) is about living a life of values, not goals. It’s about identifying what it means for you to live a valuable life and then being the person who lives that life every day. You won’t need to focus on some hazy future. Instead, you’ll be comfortable with the present and with yourself as you are right now… because if you’re being who you are truly meant to be, regardless of whether or not things are “ok,” then there’s nothing for you to regret or change about yourself or your life.
Living a life of values instead of goals is scary, on several levels. There’s no way to distract yourself from the present moment and how you’re interacting with it. What have you done today to make yourself the kind of person who is living a valuable life? It’s a different kind of pursuit, one with a much faster turn-around, and one that you can’t numb yourself to in the expectation of things changing someday. Are you living a life of integrity? If not, then you need to do something about that today.
You also have to identify what your values truly are. What do you care about? What’s actually important to you? How do you want to look back and remember your life as having been lived? This is terrifying, because (at least for me) the answer might be a giant question mark, and you’ll realize that to some extent you’ve been living your whole life on auto-pilot, following common wisdom and doing what your parents and teachers and bosses have always told you to do.
Even worse, as you begin to identify your values, they may differ greatly from those of other people, or even of the culture in which you live… and it takes a willingness to be vulnerable in the face of those differences to be yourself. Being utterly vulnerable in the face of judgment is one of the scariest things in the world… but it’s not quite as scary as the idea of looking back on your life filled with regret.
I’m still on this journey myself, but so far it has been worth it. There’s a different quality to the breath you take when it’s your breath supporting your life. There’s a lightness to be found here, as though a weight has been taken off of you–a weight you never even realized you’ve been carrying that you’re finally able to put down.
There’s nothing more to pursue and you can just be.