I recently spoke with a young woman struggling to figure out what she wanted to do after relinquishing a path to become a doctor. She had excelled academically, which earned her a full scholarship to college. There, immersed in a culture that emphasized excellence, she shouldered the expectation that highly intelligent people should pursue highly academic and prestigious careers. Today, the focus is on STEMs. For many, being a doctor is considered the apex of a biology- and health-centered STEMs career. This was the goal she felt her academic mentors, and society in general, expected of her.
By the end of her undergraduate program, however, she realized that, for her, scientific work was deeply unsatisfying. The problem now was that her identity and self-worth were tied together with this notion of becoming a doctor. If she took that away, who was she?
American author and radio speaker, Earl Nightingale said:
“People with goals succeed because they know where they’re going.”
I’m not sure it’s that simple. In a very concrete and practical sense, a goal is the aim to accomplish a desired result. Whether the goal is self-established or imposed by an employer, team or teacher, it enables the creation of a plan and strategy to meet and achieve a target. Goals may be small, short-term objectives or grand, long-terms ambitions. Either way, they are a dangled carrot that leads you where you are going. The completion of such goals is a common metric of success.
For me, this quote means different things depending on the scale. On the small scale, I quite agree. We have a clearly defined project to complete. We break the work down into sequential chunks and set goals to complete each chunk, creating a logical path towards our objective of succeeding with the project.
On a grander scale, If you have not clearly defined your own vision of success, can you succeed? It’s a question of self-awareness and self-actualization. Where do you want to go?
It’s obvious to say ‘we know where we’re going because we have goals’. Goals provide us with a target that moves us towards a vision. But, whose vision? How deeply have our parents, or peers, or popular opinion influenced our own expectations and definition of success?
Knowing where you are going isn’t simply about setting goals and pursuing them to completion. It is about setting goals that align with what is meaningful for you. The world is full of people who have, by popular definition, achieved success yet are unfulfilled, unhappy, and lost. Perhaps they have hung their hat on the wrong metric for success?
What matters to you? How do you want to contribute? Where do you want to go? Goals will take us where they lead. But until we can authentically answer these questions for ourselves, that may not be where we truly want to go.