In the last decade, but especially in the last 3 years, I’ve waded through and distilled an ever-building mountain of desires and ideas. I’ve contemplated all the things that I want for my life as a whole, all the way down to the daily level, and I have finally reached a place of refinement. I have my three life goals.
The same three have adequately held true and encompassing for over a year now, and have been unspeakably helpful to me already. Here they are:
1. Work remotely.
2. Be outside as much as possible.
3. Have a family.
Each of these could of course be broken down and expanded upon ad infinitum, but when I look at this short list, everything fits under one of these umbrella goals.
These types of goals are broad categories that are digestible because of their small number, while letting us keep all our human complexity.
What has this done for me? It’s focused me. Me, someone who never felt focused growing up, who thought that having an actual focus was something out of reach. For a long time I didn’t consider a narrowed focus desirable because the way I’d approached it before forced me to ignore large and important parts of myself. I always figured I was doomed to be interested but scattered, rich in experience but poor in mastery, serenity, and probably money. Uncovering these goals greatly reduced my struggle with the “choice-overload-followed-by-decision-paralysis” pattern. Faced with two options I can now ask myself, “which one puts you closer to one or more of your goals?” The answer is usually obvious, but even when it’s not, I at least have a guiding light to get me through the period of deliberation.
Notice that I said that I uncovered these goals, not that I set them. I didn’t make these goals up in order to put blinders on my peripheries and end up somewhere decent. Setting goals from the head without the heart doesn't work, or if it seems to it comes at a dear cost. I spent several patient, if anxious, years brushing away the dirt to find the bones of what I need to feel whole, vital, and free.
How I Found My Umbrella Goals
1. I Started Writing
I didn't worry about organization or prudence in the beginning. I wrote about anything and everything I wanted materially, creatively, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally- over and over, and for years.
I wrote as long-term as I could fathom, thinking about the kind of situation I want to be in when I'm dying, and what kinds of experiences I’ll wish to have had. Do I want kids? Do I want a marriage? Where do I want to travel, with who, on what timeline? What do I want for my creative life, my business, for work? How much money do I want to make? What type of geographical climate is ideal for me? Then, I wrote as short-term as I could fathom. What kinds of food do I want to be eating? How often do I want to exercise, and what type of exercise do I want to engage in? How social do I want to be? How many books do I want to read, or write, per year?
2. I Shedded the “Shoulds”
Looking at all I'd written, I then needed to figure out which of my desires were truly mine, and which rightfully belonged to others.
Some of this weeding out was easy. Some goals obviously came from a place of “this is just what people do,” or “obviously I should,” or, “if I didn’t do X I would disappoint my parents, or partner." This layer of “shoulds”and obligations were the first to be trimmed away. I learned to differentiate here between responsibility and obligation. One generally feels true and empowering, and the other feels foreign and disempowering. Some things weren't so obvious. Serious contemplation-and trial and error- over a long period of time was needed, and seeing a good therapist cleared a lot of things up as well.
3. I Asked, "What Don't I Want?"
I decided to honestly answer the question: "what is the hardest thing for me to deal with in life?" I wouldn't let myself skip over the obvious, assume that anything has to be a given of life, or that anything is completely unreasonable to ask for.
Here's an example of something I admitted, or allowed to be "real" to me: it is emotionally very hard on me to be required to be in a certain place, at a certain time, for a certain duration, especially for something that doesn't matter to me (AKA clocking-in.) The exception is when the thing is very, very aligned with my values and is meaningful, purposeful, and fulfilling. If deep meaning is missing or only partially present, then I at least need to feel that the situation is temporary, and/or that I’m compensated very fairly for my time- which I value highly.
When I’m required to put in hours, just hours, toward a goal that doesn’t mean anything to me, and especially when I’m paid very little for those hours, I naturally feel dulled, caged, stuck, depressed, and resentful. My guess is that many if not most people share this sentiment. Most, however, view this situation as a given of life, and would view me as entitled and complainy for wanting something different for myself. But just give this a try: unabashedly want what you want, and just think of ways around what harms you, even if it feels impossible or you feel like a “spoiled brat” for even entertaining the idea.
4. I Spotted Categories
I began to see how large swaths of my goals could fit under one roof, or be supported by one key factor.
Here are some examples of scattered desires and ideas I wrote about: travel, take an epic road trip to visit everyone, be around my sister when she has children, be there for my parents in their later years, take opportunities around the world- without having to sacrifice the life I've been building, stop starting over, live in several different cities and towns, go on backpacking and climbing trips, learn to fly fish, hike as much as possible, own very little, spend time living in a vehicle, visit places with truly dark skies, buy land, build a tiny house with an outdoor shower, and so on.
It started to look like travel is a top value for me, and since I don't have a trust fund, I can't just go. I have also found that I'm exhausted and deadened by the save-up-to-go-then-come-home-broke, rinse-and-repeat cycle. So, I'm going to need a source of income that doesn’t require me to be in any one place, where I can support myself while in motion. A job and eventually career where I can make my own schedule, and be present in places at times that are important to me. I then made an endless list of possibilities for achieving this over and over, but to cut to the chase, it became obvious that one of my umbrella goals is to work remotely.
If you're thinking of beginning this process, or are already in it- you'll know when you hit one of the roots. It sends a jolt up your spine.
5. I Kept Writing and Reviewing
I kept finding broader and broader umbrellas until I had my list. I kept writing, and going over what I'd written. Past me told present me more than I ever could've guessed.
6. I Didn't Let One Goal Negate Another
Once I had my small, but broad list of goals, they all felt so vital that I knew none of them should be considered negatable. For example, I shouldn't work toward a remote career that makes having a family strenuous or impossible. Sure, I'd be willing to take on a remote day-job that would make family life hard right now, since I’m not fully living off my career yet and having a family isn’t something I want right this instant, but I’m not going to work toward a career that would negate this possibility later.
I site that example because a couple years ago I realized I was doing just that. Because of the jobs and connections I kept naturally falling into, along with a nominal sense of myself and my desire to travel, at one point I decided I wanted to be a green-buyer for coffee roasters. This would have me traveling to remote regions around the world at least a quarter and up to three quarters of a year- which would make having a healthy family very strenuous, and nearly impossible.
Realizing this was painful, because the most organic and exciting path laid in front of me lead to this career choice. But I knew that this was a crucial turn-around moment if I wanted to put myself in a better position later, when having kids was being put on the front burner. If I hadn’t examined my true desires in life, I may have gone ahead with that path, and I surely would’ve found a way to deal with it. But this is my one life that I get to design and build, and I want to do the best I can for myself, my heart, and my family- both my present and future one.
7. I Got to Know My Mind
Through therapy, reading books, writing a lot, talking with others, and giving in to all sorts of experiences, getting to know myself has been the most humbling, difficult, and rewarding work I've ever done. I'll never be finished, but I still feel accomplished at all I've learned about my own heart and mind, and how they relate to other hearts and minds.
I bring this up because it was also an important factor in changing paths away from coffee and into illustration, and lately deeper into writing as well. The coffee industry isn't for introverts or those with generally anxious temperaments, and this is a reality that I'm increasingly accepting (and even embracing) about myself.
Being outside as much as possible helps with my anxiety and gives me the kind of solitude and quiet that I crave.
Getting to know my mind also helped me examine my motivations for wanting children and a marriage, and they check out.
8. I'm Not Afraid to Change
If a goal or part of a goal doesn’t feel right to me anymore, I re-evaluate. I'm not afraid to drop things, add things, and refine forever. These are bones, not stones, and more is bound to be uncovered as I dig. If the light I've followed turns out to be a streetlight instead of the North Star, I change direction and keep looking. I'm not static, so my life goals likely won’t be either, or if they do solidify it won't be until much later.
9. I Prioritize
As I try things out, and simply grow older, some things have naturally dropped off my list. I get the sense that I simply have to prioritize. No one can do it all. Life is long, but it’s limited. This means letting go of some goals to make way for others to really manifest. It means prioritizing on a daily level.
I don't go out at night much. I've prioritized the type of social scenario that I most enjoy, i.e. one-on-one or small groups getting together mostly during the day. This way I can spend more time and energy on my work, which is immensely important to me, and getting outside.
Some examples I can think of that aren't my own: If your goal is to write and publish a novel, you’d better get going. Maybe you need to cut back on time spent socializing to do this, and maybe this starts tonight. If you want to go back to college and get your degree, maybe it’s time you split the hours you normally spend at the gym to work on applications, and to scour the internet looking for a higher-paying job, so you can work fewer hours while in school. Start setting yourself up now, get creative, don’t wait.
10. I Don't Freak Out
If something ends up being a dead-end, I try my best not to freak out. Also, I go have a beer with friends sometimes, and spend a whole day watching movies and eating cereal every once in a while. My urge to find what drives me and abide by it doesn’t include the urge to let it drive me into the ground. I try to remain human.
I hope this has helped someone out there, and I would love any and all responses. You’ll notice that comments are closed. This is to avoid the nastiness that can come from anonymity, and to encourage direct engagement. I read every response I get at firstname.lastname@example.org.