Life Without Goals

By Fatmanur Erdogan, Hürriyet Daily News

On Tuesday, I attended a seminar organized by BUMED, Bogazici University’s Alumni Association. The seminar was called “Socratic Dialogues”, and it started out as a pleasant gathering of like-minded people who came together to learn, share and connect. The seminar leaders Erman Eryaman, Seçil Ece Yılmaz, and Sinan Tüzer opened the dialogue with the topic “Know thyself”.

According to Wikipedia, “The saying “Know thyself” may refer to the ideal of understanding human behavior, morals, and thought, because ultimately to understand oneself is to understand other humans as well.” At the BUMED seminar, the group consensus was that to know ourselves and others, we need to question everything about ourselves and our lives.

However, one brave student raised his hand and said, “You say questioning everything is good, but it makes my head spin! How about not questioning things so much?” In response, the group bombarded him with the virtues of relentless self-examination, and the foolishness of choosing any other road. I found their reaction interesting, because on the one hand they were discussing the importance of intensive questioning and examination, and the need to be courageous in the face of it. And yet on the other, there they were, caught up in groupthink and ganging up on the sole contrarian voice in the room. Yes, I guess they were right – self-examination and change are difficult for all of us, even for the people who insist on them.

What does this have to do with the role goals play in our lives? Well, the seminar leaders told us if we don’t know where we are going, it won’t matter what path we take. The implication was clear: if we want to be in control of our lives, we need to have goals. The audience agreed wholeheartedly. However, play the role of that contrarian student for a moment. Does having goals really put us in control of our lives? Can we really control our path in life as much as we’d like to think? What happens if we don’t have goals? Are we necessarily lost?

Hermina Ibarra, Professor and Chair of Organizational Leadership at INSEAD, has researched the subject extensively, and collected her findings in a book called “Working Identity,” a book, by the way, I highly recommend to anyone planning on a big life or career change.

According to Ibarra, we don’t necessarily have to have a goal to move forward in life. And, in fact, as others have pointed out, that mindset is actually quite entrepreneurial. Entrepreneurs often don’t have a goal in mind when they first start out, they simply bring together disparate but already-existing tools and start doing things with them. They define their goals as they go, and they let those goals evolve over time.

Contrast this to the “plan and implement” method, the goal-oriented approach we see everyday in the corporate business world. First define a goal, and then use the tools available to you to reach it. Most of the workforce is accustomed to thinking and working this way, and it’s hard to go against that flow. Our corporate minds are just not trained that way.

Now, in a way, the “relentless examination is good” group at that BUMED seminar was actually more like the risk-averse “plan and implement” corporate crowd, and the lone student who asked why we don’t just stop with this endless questioning was more like the flexible entrepreneur who lets his goals evolve over time.

The moral of the story? It’s okay to stumble through life, learning by trial and error, having only a vague idea what the end goal looks like. In fact, entrepreneurs do it all the time, and they get public accolades for it, not groupthink shoutdowns in crowded seminar rooms. What matters is that you keep trying, that you be open to the unexpected, and that you keep searching, even when you don’t really know what you’re looking for. It’s not called living an unexamined life. It’s called living your life like an entrepreneur.

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