At some point on our path the question changes from “What do you want to be when you grow up?” to “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
Same question, different words.
I could never answer either of them. Oh, I’d come up with something — “astronaut”, “lead engineer”, that kind of thing — but it was never a reflection of my true desires or goals. I had no idea what those were.
I’ve never really had life goals, and it’s worked out just fine.
I think I know why.
Now, don’t get me wrong, if you’re goal driven, and can define and refine them to help motivate and guide you to some ultimate destination, fantastic! Seriously, I’m a little jealous.
But if, like me, you can’t look five weeks into the future, much less five years, that’s okay too. You may annoy a teacher or a recruiter with your lack of specifics, but so be it.
Goals are optional. Not everyone needs them.
There’s another approach to life, and it’s worked out really, really well for me.
Pick a direction and go. Watch for opportunities along the way. Consider the appropriate ones. And always be ready to adjust your direction.
The difference between a goal and a direction is specificity. A goal is “I want to be a department head”. A direction is “software is cool, I’d like to work on that.” A goal might be “I want to make partner.” A direction is more like “I want to be a more effective attorney.”
A goal is a destination to which you craft your path. A direction is a path to many different destinations.
Along your goal-less path you’ll be presented opportunities. The trick is to watch for them. Evaluate and take the opportunities that appeal.
Your direction may change in light of the opportunities you take and other changes that arise. That, too, is OK.
As I said it worked for me.
There’s no way I would have predicted in high school what I would be doing five years out, ten years out, or more. Any goal I might have set back then would have been quickly lost.
My goal-less path of the last 40+ years, on the other hand, has been awesome.
I said “sure” when a friend suggested we share an apartment in my second year at the University of Washington. When he and his then fiance said “you two should meet”, it lead to meeting my future wife, in the same apartment. We’ll celebrate 40 years of marriage next February.
I said “electronics” on my college application, so the University of Washington placed me in the College of Electrical Engineering, where I would stumble onto my life’s passion: computers and technology.
I said “yes” when rather than some big corporation I was offered a job by a small local company out of Seattle. I just wanted to write software, but I said “yes” to so many other things while there it became the beginnings of my “jack of all trades” approach that characterises so much of my work and life.
When that company skidded from 25 to 5 employees, I said “what’s the worst that could happen?” when applying for a job at another local company, Microsoft. “The worst” became a life changing 18 years as I enjoyed and benefited from what I now call Microsoft’s “golden years”.
I said “yes” when invited to join a mastermind group of internet entrepreneurs shortly after leaving Microsoft. From that came countless opportunities for growth, skills, and friendships, and ultimately lead to the creation of Ask Leo!, now in its 16th year.
None of this was planned. None of it.
It was all a side-effect of heading off in various directions and being open to what life threw at me. I can’t even say I was actively watching for those things, but I was fortunate to have noticed and taken advantage of them when they appeared.
Rather than a straight line to some predetermined goal, my life so far has been more of a drunkard’s walk through life along a very beautiful and rewarding path. I am not disappointed.
I can’t say what’s right for you. You may need specific goals to get you motivated and out of bed each morning. Fantastic. And, to be fair, goals can change as well. What seemed like a destination once, might also get adjusted from time to time. Your path may not be a straight line, either.
But if you couldn’t come up with a goal if your life depended on it, know that it doesn’t have to. Perhaps you’re the kind of person who simply need set off in a direction, and enjoy what the path offers along the way.
And that’s okay, no matter what your guidance counsellor or HR department might say.
Pick a direction and enjoy the journey.
I note that a lot of what I listed above started with saying “yes” to something. I’ve come to learn that’s a fundamental tenet of improv, and strongly suggest the book Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up, by Patricia Ryan Madson. It resonated with me deeply because it, too, supports the idea of just making it up as you go.