It seems like just about every career advisor preaches the importance of goal-setting. These self-proclaimed “life’s path” gurus tell us that before we act we must have a goal, and that without a goal, it is impossible to make progress. To hear them talk about it, you’d think every successful person popped out of the womb holding a detailed road map for life.
Now, I don’t discount the importance of having a goal. The business world is a rational and linear place, and it’s hard to make it anywhere if you don’t come up with a plan and act on it. However, when success coaches focus so intently on the having of a goal, they set unrealistic expectations and leave a lot of people feeling frustrated that they can’t find one in the first place.
It sounds obvious, but it easily gets lost in the noisy world of career advice: Before you decided on a goal, you probably didn’t have one. People who make others feel inadequate just because they don’t have goals are conveniently forgetting there was a time when they didn’t have goals yet, either. Those people are lucky to be at a point in their lives where they know what they want, but they are forgetting to mention the confused, rudderless times when they weren’t quite sure what to do next. It’s a shame, because those are the times when you can dig deep and set goals that are really worth something. It’s a soul-searching process that is largely ignored in the world of “success coaching”.
Fortunately, the University of Chicago Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi gives that process its proper due. He writes, “There is no one out there to tell us ‘Here is a goal worth spending your life on’. Because there is no absolute certainty to which to turn, each person must discover ultimate purpose on her own. Through trial and error, through intense cultivation, we can straighten out the tangled skein of conflicting goals, and choose the one that will give purpose to action.”
The setting of a goal, at least a good one, is a very creative and entrepreneurial process. A good goal doesn’t magically appear just because you think you should have one. You need to go through a period of experimentation which may feel directionless at first. You need to put yourself out there, fumbling your way through a variety of situations. During this time, you will probably feel unsure of yourself, and you will probably feel a great deal of anxiety. You will find yourself at a complete loss for words when you’re at a party and someone asks you, “What do you do?” But choosing a worthwhile goal, one that will define your life in the years to come, comes only through this kind of search.
Sure, there are some people who always knew exactly what they wanted to be. They always knew they wanted to be a singer, or a doctor, or a rich and famous businessperson. They seem like they knew from birth exactly what they wanted to do with their lives. But most of us aren’t like that. We don’t always know where to go next.
So while we’re figuring it out, we have to spend lots of time traveling down roads that turn out to be dead ends. We have to spend lots of time feeling like we’re in the wrong place. We have to spend lots of time realizing we’re at the wrong party, with the wrong people, talking about the wrong things.
But if you keep pushing through those times, eventually you’ll start to connect the dots. Someone will say something at one party, it will remind you of something you read the week before, and the kernel of an idea will start to form. Then the people you met at another event, the ones who seemed so irrelevant to you at the time, will turn out to be crucial connections for getting that idea off the ground. Then the marketing articles you read months ago, wondering if they would ever be useful for anything, will help you map out a strategy for taking that idea to market. Things will start falling into place. And for most of us, that is how our goals get defined. Respect the process, and give it time. It’s a slow, winding road, but it’s how the best goals in life get made.