When we burn with desire, every fiber in our body pulls in the same direction. We vigorously push through obstacles to achieve the object of our desire. Unfortunately, we don’t always live at this level of intensity. In between these peaks our days are dominated by routine, sometimes stretching out into such a featureless bore that getting by doesn’t seem to be enough to keep us going. Why bother? What’s the point? Where am I heading, and why should I work to find my way out? Without clear goals, we get bogged down in details and doubt, and drift into boredom and depression.
The degree to which we orient our lives towards our goals determines, to a large extent, our level of enthusiasm and our ability to achieve the things that make life worthwhile. Firmly committing ourselves to a particular direction can make the difference between a satisfying energetic life and one that verges on the edge of despair.
We form our first ideas of who we are and who we want to become when we are still children listening to our parents. As teenagers, driven by our quest for independence, we seek goals we can call our own.
However, most of us have a hard time deciding exactly how we’re going to live as adults. Whether our chronological age is 20, 30 or 40, there are many obstacles to finding our true calling in life. Some of us hang on to childhood dreams, afraid to let them go even when they hold us back. Or we may be unsure of our direction and don’t know how to define ourselves. Or we may not want a calling at all, preferring the directionless meandering of youth. Or, we may feel trapped by unclear or conflicting ambitions or feel obligated to follow dreams authored by our parents or others. Or we might have deep longings for some goal but are unable to overcome the obstacles that stand in our way.
As we struggle to define and achieve our goals, we must return to the drawing board to make adjustments that accurately reflect adult rules and needs. By the time we have successfully transformed from child to adult, our innermost dreams become actualized in the expression of our life’s direction.
Becoming more conscious of our goals
If we feel we are drifting, and that our sense of direction is not taking us where we want to go we need to consciously evaluate our goals, and align our life along the same line as our dreams. Building such a conscious plan, we must dig deep into our core value system, and imagine what we would like to accomplish to make our time on earth worthwhile. Each one of us is the keeper of our own passions and dreams, and as we explore our roles in life, we choose where we would like to end up.
Through a soul-searching process, we consciously create a plan that keeps us on course. A plan gives us something to strive for, a direction to go and a yardstick to measure our progress.
Goals for our many roles
At first, we might build a plan in one section of our life. We might want to achieve goals at work or school, or we might sign up for an exercise program that meets our desire for improved health, body shape and an active lifestyle. Becoming energized in any particular area of our life is a good start, but when we look at the big picture, we realize we wear many hats. Work is important, and so is our mental and physical health, our family and community, our creativity and spirituality. When we passively expect some roles to “take care of themselves” we may be allowing them to drift out of balance. Roles we ignore can cause problems. Instead, we can write all our roles into our mission, elevating our awareness of the things we need to do to make ourselves whole.
While subtle goals, such as our relationships, our spiritual health and our creativity may have been forgotten in the crush of daily life, these dimensions play an important role in our well-being. We can set goals to consciously improve the harmony, safety and joy of our relationships. To connect with the needs of our soul, we could include in our mission hobbies, artistic activities, service to others and deepening our spirituality.
By exploring each of our roles we can broaden the scope of our mission to include the full spectrum of our experience. Maintaining goals across all our roles keeps us in balance, and avoids troubling gaps. And as we achieve goals in these diverse areas, we have the best chance of being satisfied with the overall direction of our life.
Pitfalls in defining goals
We may mistakenly believe that by going away from pain, we’ll be pointing ourselves in the right direction. But avoiding pain doesn’t pull us forward. If our goals are too focused on what we want to avoid, we need to put more energy into getting in touch with and moving towards our dreams.
Another pitfall is defining goals not aligned with our dreams. Perhaps we have allowed someone else to script our lives for us, or are enamored with a romantic idea of the future without feeling deeply connected to it. When we strive towards goals that are unrelated to the needs of our soul, we feel inauthentic and depleted and the inner and outer aspects of our lives pull apart. Keeping our eye on our dreams and setting our sights above obstacles provides us with the most integrated energy and forward momentum.
Circle of influence
Most of us have an astonishing tendency to fret about things over which we have no control. One of the most seductive ways we can waste our energy is to try to change others. While we can help and influence other people, only they can change themselves. By blaming others for problems in our life or obsessing on how much better life would be if they behaved differently, we become tangled up in ineffective action and disturbed emotions.
Looking for a source of blame seems to run deeply in our collective psyche, and we may feel compelled to do it, even though it doesn’t help us at all. Becoming more conscious of this wasteful habit can help us regain precious energy that we can apply in more productive directions.
When we keep our focus on accomplishments within the circle over which we have influence, we gain emotional poise and energy. At first glance it may seem selfish to focus within the confines of our own growth and productivity. But we can have the most long-lasting positive effect on others by constructive aid and empathic understanding rather than by worrying, arguing or setting rules.
Setting goals that match our values
Every action we take affects our relationships, our community and the world. When we fully embrace this profound personal responsibility, we are drinking from the deep well of wisdom taught by the great religious and social thinkers. By respecting values that transcend our individual needs, we can insure that we at least peacefully coexist with the world and at best leave it better than we found it. While altruism may seem quaint and old fashioned in today’s high pressured culture, following such a value system forms a strong soulful basis for mental wellness.
Attitudes about self and obstacles
The mental framework we have placed around our goals becomes a crucial factor in determining how we respond to obstacles. If we become discouraged, start doubting ourselves and putting ourselves down, we have less energy to focus on moving forward. If we take obstacles in stride, make adjustments, and stay flexible and persistent, we continue towards our goal. Exploring our own energy, and learning how to improve ourselves gives us many benefits, not only for achieving particular goals, but for living life as fully as possible. Using defeats and obstacles as learning opportunities can be the basis for a healthy life plan.
To work towards goals and overcome obstacles we need to be alert to the dangers of self-attacks. If we are intolerant of our own faults, become angry with ourselves, and call ourselves “failures” and other negative labels, we get sucked down into negative emotions that make us feel miserable, and block our forward progress.
Our value as human beings goes far beyond the particular situations we strive to attain, and even beyond the sum total of all our accomplishments, large and small. Instead of attacking ourselves and tearing ourselves apart for failing to live up to some image or plan, we need to develop respect for ourselves that stands tall despite external circumstances. The story we tell about ourselves gives shape to the unfolding of life events. If our story allows patience and flexibility and includes a solid and secure self worth that has value independently of any particular external accomplishments, we’ll feel more confident and resilient. By accepting that each individual has an inherent value, and drawing from this belief in a fundamental value of our personhood, we are not so buffeted by each success or failure. If we do not have these elements in the story we tell about ourselves, we should seek counseling or other mentoring to develop a story that will hold up more robustly in the face of real-life obstacles.
An especially insidious form of low self-esteem arises when we begin to believe we are growing old. In our youth oriented culture, we have been brainwashed to believe age diminishes our value as human beings. To the extent that we believe this self-destructive point of view, every sign of aging whispers the beginning of the end. By reframing age as the vessel of wisdom we continue to achieve appropriate goals until the end.
Through heavy weather, we need resources to help us keep our feet on the ground. Internal resources, such as faith and flexibility, and outlets such as exercise and hobbies help us stay balanced. And we need our social network of family, members of our religious community, mentors, counselors, co-workers and others. This network offers emotional support and caring as well as providing additional perspectives, recreation, and even expertise and direct assistance. Building and maintaining a strong network of caring, mutually supportive people becomes a foundation for our resiliency through difficult times as well as giving us wholeness and satisfaction in easier times.
Resolving conflicting goals
While we have a strong desire to achieve our goal, we usually have to sacrifice something to attain it. When we set out to accomplish our goal, at first we might not have completely visualized and committed to the sacrifice we need to make. Once we get started we come face to face with these conflicts. For example, to achieve mastery in our job, we might have to give up our evening leisure. Or to achieve harmonious family life we might have to give up additional hours at work. If we volunteer our time, to strengthen our connection with our community, our volunteering might cut into time both work and leisure. We might want to succeed in school, but we are caught up in drugs or other distractions and don’t know how to give up our recreational to achieve our academic ones. If we get stuck in such conflicts, we need to come to terms with our sacrifices and trade-offs, and rethink our commitment. To achieve a dream we need to be prepared to grow out of old patterns.
Goals change, mission is subject to revision
As we proceed towards our goals we learn more about ourselves, our values and the world in general. And all the while the world and everyone in it continues to change. By the time we get halfway there, we’re different and the world is different, and what we set out to achieve may no longer have the same value it did when we started.
We might start out anxious to achieve financial dominance. Later in life, we may realize our happy, nurturing family life is far more important to us than slaving to acquire a million dollar bank account or home at the beach. Job, marriage, kids, growing older, each stage of life brings with it a new set of challenges, and gives us a new framework for our goals. As we gain new skills and insights we might also broaden our understanding of what we want to accomplish.
Some of our goals may shaped by unfolding circumstances. For example, our first job might have been thrown into our lap, and what started out as a chance job offer gradually turns into a long-term career. Our original plans may also be radically altered by the arrival of love and children. In our youthful zeal to envision our empowered adulthood, we may not have taken into account how responsibility to a family would affect the course of our plans.
We may fear that changing our goals means failure. But is it really? Or is it the wisest course? How do we know when to keep trying, and when we should modify our goals? The way we answer these questions can contribute to a successful, rewarding life. Sometimes, remaining enslaved by our original goal can be destructive to our overall success. Recalibrating our original goals we may realize they are impractical, they squeeze out other important aspects of our lives, are no longer or never were in a direction we want to achieve, or interfere with the happiness of others. Being open to the possibility that our original goal may fail or change gives us the power to adapt to real circumstances. We stay energized and maintain our working harmony with the universe, rather than setting us apart in a rigid or competitive stance.
Perhaps we are expecting too much too fast, assuming we’re working against an urgent deadline. We can’t get everything we want whenever we want it. In the gap between wish and fulfillment lies patience and acceptance.
The sum total of our life depends on the accumulation of our efforts through time. We may need to get through many delays and defeats to achieve a worthwhile goal. Bouncing back from defeat, we can go on to achieve our dreams. In fact, slowing down our time line, and accepting the power of patience, we can actually accomplish more difficult, far-reaching goals than when we are in a rush for a quick victory.
As we set out to achieve our goals, we need to take an intelligent, open-ended look at the way we have been conducting our quest. Do we have the right resources, or do we need to take a time-out to do more preparation? Or should we simply carry on?
We must also stay in tune with our responsibility to society. We don’t achieve goals in a vacuum. If we think we are going to ignore other people’s needs while we achieve our own, we will find ourselves cut off from the people around us and ultimately cut off from the deep wellspring of values within ourselves. By working creatively and openly with others to find a win-win solution that benefits everyone, we maintain our dignity and values and achieve a deep soulful sense of relationship in the world.
Achieving goals is not the end
No matter what goal we achieve, life goes on, and we need to stay energized and engaged. Even if we were to win a Nobel Prize, we still must get up the next morning and continue living. We need to keep our goals open-ended, allowing room for continuous improvement and growth.
For most of us, our daily work will end some day. We retire from our job and the kids move out of the house. Are we prepared to carry on with full meaning and vigor or are we planning to relinquish our orientation towards goals and “just live?” If we have no sense of what we want to do after retirement, we “fall off the end of our plan.” To continue living a vibrant, energized life we need to maintain expansive goals that open towards the future, and that give us plenty of room to express our unlimited potential. When we work hard to help others, whether to improve the environment, help the helpless, or improve our community, our open-ended challenges bring fulfillment forever, without fear of running out of steam. We can open up even more room for growth by setting internal goals for deeper creativity, wisdom, or spirituality.
Goals draw us to become bigger than our small self
Cultures throughout history have admired heroes who press onward through powerful obstacles in order to achieve their goals. In our imagination, we share the gut wrenching urgency of our hero saving the world or saving a lover from disaster. On the other hand, we hate the self-interested villain who struggles mightily to gain money or power to satisfy his own ego. These attitudes toward heroes and villains suggest profound collective wisdom about the things that energize us. By applying this wisdom to ourselves we can tap into wellsprings of energy as deep as our own myths.
Just as our heroes struggle to give themselves to some goal greater than themselves, we are filled with the most energy and intensity when we contribute to the people around us. A purpose that transcends our self-interest stands the test of daily details and obstacles. Whether this transcendent purpose focuses on service to God, to society, to family or community, we find ourselves less lonely, more integrated with the whole, and less restricted by our own limitations. Ultimately, when we are able to shift our focus to a goal that is greater than ourselves we are relieved of a tremendous burden. The center of our life shifts beyond satisfying our own needs, and our neurotic self-involvement is healed as if by magic as we let go of the endless stream of need for self.
If we want to find a greater sense of purpose, we can gather ideas and information from many sources, such as the empowering ideas of motivational coaches, religious, philosophical and spiritual insights, or even artistic expression. While our search is intensely individual, the answers we uncover are profoundly universal, leading us beyond our limitations towards truths of mythological proportion.
To successfully win a race, a runner needs to focus clearly on the end. Without that greater focus, the race is a series of aches and pains. As the runner’s attention is drawn towards achieving the goal, aches and pains fade into the background.
If we feel we are lost or floundering, meandering through life without real purpose and drive, one of the healthiest places to put our attention is in clarifying our goals. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl observes that the most important ingredient for surviving adversity is to have a sense of purpose. When we have a mission, one that is meaningful to us, and then we work towards achieving that goal, we charge full force into each day. Obstacles along the way may interrupt our progress, but we know what we’re trying to achieve, and know that even after detours we’ll get back on track. Goals empower us and give us resiliency to face the daily grind effectively, gracefully and energetically.
See also: Anxiety, Beliefs, Habits, Identity, Midlife crisis, Religion, Story
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
On Life After Death by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
Existential Psychotherapy by Irvin Yalom
Life After Life : The Investigation of a Phenomenon–Survival of Bodily Death by Raymond A. Moody, Jr.
Wherever you go, there you are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Hero of a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey
Awaken the Giant Within by Tony Robbins
The Feeling Good Handbook by Dr. David Burns