"Beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life. Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living within that way of life."
â€”Hunter S. Thompson
Let me share a secret with you, gentle reader. I used to be goal oriented. Big time.
Back before I decided to take a scary hairpin turn in 2001 and launch into a new profession as a business owner, I worked at a salaried job with an indexed pension and fair amount of job security. I had a career plan that was jam-packed with goals and benchmarks that could have guided me a quarter way into this century.
Goal setting was safe, predictable and highly effective at insulating me from taking risks.
None of it helped me figure out how to do more of the work I found enjoyable, and less of the kind I found unfulfilling.
Granted, some goals can give you focus and a sense that your efforts are helping you achieve a specific end. But just like good chili recipe will advise on the use of Texas hot sauce: use sparingly.
Goals stack up quickly if you're not careful. And it's easy to wind up with ones that are lousy at adapting to changes that you are most definitely going to have to deal with in your work and throughout your life.
You can't steer what's beyond your control.
The trouble with most goal setting is that it focuses too much on external factors that are outside of our control. In other words: it's built on assumptions that the world will continue operating the way you expect it to (or at least hope it will). Examples: I can count on working for this employer for a good chunk of my career, the economy will keep growing, I'll keep working with people who are familiar with what I can do, and my skills will remain in demand in the marketplace.
I probably don't need to tell you this, but things just don't work that way anymore.
Self reliance is new default setting for careers.
Most of us today can't count on having a job for life. As my friend James Altucher likes to remind: "the age of domesticated cubicle jobs, an era that lasted only about 100 years out of the past four million, is over."
So why then do so many of us keep planning our lives and our work as if the opposite were true, and entrusting our deepest needs for fulfilment to the whim of others or to forces beyond our control?
Your biggest risk is embracing inertia.
The more rigid you are in your goals, the less open you are going to be to new ideas and more often than not, it's because they disrupt those carefully made plans of yours. The trouble gets even deeper when things don't go according to plan and you end up feeling frustrated and blame yourself for not meeting whatever goals you set for yourself.
I've been there. It's nothing but a recipe for grief.
Today, what's needed more than a list of goals is a way of working and of being that fosters resiliency every day.
Don't look at uncertainty as an obstacle to be navigated around with contingency plans. Instead, see it for what it really is: it's the fabric of life itself.
One of my favourite Stoic thinkers, Marcus Aurelius, sums up the challenge this way: "The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing, in that it stands ready for what comes and is not thrown by the unforeseen."
Make deeper commitments.
Rather than spending more time making plans based on a future that most of us are terrible at predicting, focus instead on making commitments today and hold yourself accountable to meeting them every day.
Here are the commitments that I work hard to uphold:
Practice through your work the virtues that are entirely within your power: simplicity, tenacity, frugality, kindness and probity.
Own the choices you make in life and how you react to the choices of others.
Stay curious about the world and remain willing to wade into the dark waters of uncertainty to get better at what you do.
Build your work around how you can better serve a community with knowledge, rather than just providing a service to a customer.
So how about you?
What kinds of pledges can you make to help you stand ready and grow both as a professional and as a person?
To get there, stay focused on how you can be better at what you do today. Not a decade down the road: right now.
That applies as much to running a business as it does to managing a team.
Be self reliant in your thinking and hold yourself to the pledge you make to yourself and you'll be amazed by how this opens up new avenues for you in life.
On that final note, one more bit of sage advice from Marcus Aurelius, reaching to us from across the expanse of nearly 2,000 years: "Do not let the future trouble you. You will come to it possessed of the same reason that you apply now."
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