how i (don't actually) live a goal-driven life

goals are great. they make you feel like less of a blob and more of a go-getter. they help you convince yourself that you’re doing stuff with your life. let the record state that i am pro-goals.

however, i disagree with the way i’ve seen (some) people use them.

goals are often set arbitrarily. i’ve certainly observed this in the workplace. “we’re not moving fast enough. there’s not enough of a sense of urgency here. we should be putting in more hours, taking shorter lunch breaks, working harder.” cue alarm bells. cue drop in respect. cue loss of faith in leadership. i’ve also observed this in our personal lives. “i really wanna lose three pounds.” yeah, regina? why?

my sophomore english teacher, mrs. ferdinandsen, dispensed some wise words that echo in my mind whenever i do something new or different: you should always know why you’re doing what you’re doing. this might sound obvious, but it’s really easy to end up doing things just because someone else shamed us into doing it, or because we see everyone else doing it, or because we jumped in impulsively without thinking about it. in the long-run, it doesn’t matter if we make an arbitrary decision or two, but if this is our default mode of thinking, then… great! we’re on track for a mid-life crisis. we risk lying on our deathbed filled with regrets because that’ll be the first time it’s crossed our mind that maybe we should’ve done things differently.

values: the fundamental why?s

once you start questioning why you’re doing what you’re doing in whatever situation, you’ll notice that you can continue asking why up until a certain point. there are two general scenarios here. i’ll illustrate with oversimplified examples.

scenario 1: yup, i knew i was doing this for a good reason.

i wanna buy new furniture.
my house could use a facelift.
because the furniture is super old.
why do you care if the furniture is old?
because the stuffing is worn out and my back hurts whenever i sit on the couch.
why do you care whether your back hurts or not?
because i can’t play with my dog when my back hurts.
why do you want to play with your dog?
because i love and value my family, which consists of me and my dog. yup, i knew i was doing this for a good reason.

scenario 2: okay wait lolz i don’t actually wanna do this.

i wanna buy new furniture.
my house could use a facelift. 
because it’s been awhile since i decorated.
why do you care about decorating? 
ionno. buzzfeed said it’s something every grown adult should do.
why do YOU think you should do it?
ionno! because i want to be more adult-like.
why don’t you think you’re ‘adult’ enough?
i do!
then why are you doing what someone else told you to do?
… … … okay wait lolz i don’t actually wanna do this.

in scenario 2, you realize you don’t really have a good reason to buy new furniture — at least, you don’t have a reason that aligns with your values. 

living on my own terms

i try hard to make deliberate decisions and live my life with intent, and it’s difficult to live this way without first developing an intimate understanding of what i care about and what kind of person i want to be. there’s not enough time in the world to attend all the events, read all the books, make all the friends, and learn all the skills. i’m going to have to pick and choose from a mole of options, and value-alignment is the best decision-making framework i’ve found given that i’m optimizing for long-term happiness/living a meaningful life. apparently gandhi once said, “happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” yup. for me, at least.

okay, gail, so how do i come up with my values?

1. make a big list.

you probably already have an idea of what you value. here are a few prompts that can get you started. set a five minute timer for one of these prompts and write down as many things you can think of. when the timer goes off, set another five minutes and pick another prompt. 

  • what traits do you really admire in other people?

  • at my 100th birthday party, it’d be awesome if people described me as ________.

  • i care about ________.

  • __________ is really important to me.

  • think about a time you felt really satisfied. what values were you honoring?

  • think about a time you felt frustrated, guilty, or ethically/morally piqued. what values were being challenged?

  • examine lists of personal values and write down ones that resonate with you.

2. look for themes.

do you see any patterns? are there a buncha things that seem similar? can you distill these items into a few buckets? 

when i did this exercise in 2012, i noticed that everything fell into three (fairly broad) categories. at the time, i called them the human spirit, molecular reactions, and free will. the names of the categories or themes don’t really matter as long as they’re meaningful to you. :)

now that you have a few themes, does this inspire any other important values you might’ve missed?

3. whittle down your list.

i know i just told you to generate more values, but now we’re gonna cut ‘em down. reduce your list down to the ones that are most important and represent your fundamental beliefs. this step is driven by practicality. the point of this whole exercise is to help simplify your decision-making and help you sanity check whether you’re living life on your terms or someone else’s. (the first time i did this exercise, i came away with 4-8 values for each of my three themes.)

4. review and repeat.

every so often (approximately annually), i review my list and repeat an abbreviated form of this exercise. i also simplify my list after every iteration. this past summer i saw that most of my values were actually products of smashing together various combinations of four core values, so now i meditate on those four values whenever i find myself in tough scenarios. as you collect new experiences, your values may shift and that’s okay! (imo,) it’s a great sign that you’re growing and evolving. the scariest part of this for me is that as my values change, so do my needs. i noticed that some friendships and relationships that once felt fulfilling no longer felt that way, and i was able to point towards a misalignment in shared values as the culprit.

share your values with me!

let me know if you actually go through this exercise and want to share. (and especially, let me know if you want to do it over boba.) it’s always a fun and interesting conversation for me when someone else has carefully thought through their values and seeks to live them out. whee.