by Drew Rozell, Ph.D.
Imagine what your life would be like if you dropped all of your goals this very second. Can you? If you are like most people, you probably have a great deal of difficulty in imaging what this would be like (or you have just fired me for posing such a silly question).
This type of reaction speaks directly to my point — that we often define ourselves through our goals. In fact, our goals become so deeply tied to our sense of self that we often no longer question why we work towards the goals we set for ourselves. The pressure we feel to distinguish ourselves from the crowd frequently drives us to set the wrong goals. If we are then faced with having to let go of our goals, we resist, kicking and screaming. Knowing this, it’s critical to examine why we set the particular goals we do to ensure we are on the right path for ourselves.
Years ago when I was applying to colleges, I did not have a good sense of what I really wanted to do with my life or where to direct my energy. Being the fifth of five kids, my parents weren’t thrilled about paying for yet another child’s education. So, they started dropping hints for me to apply for an ROTC scholarship to pay for my schooling.
These scholarships are somewhat prestigious as the government picks up the entire tab for college. In return, recipients have to take military classes, are expected to major in engineering, and spend at least 4 years in the service as an officer and 4 years in the reserves. Sounded decent enough to me.
After a while, the competitive nature of the application process even got my juices flowing. I was going to do whatever it took to win. After a battery of interviews, tests, pushups and physicals, I got a phone call informing me that I ha been awarded a scholarship to the University of Florida. I had actually achieved the first part of my goal and secured a free ride to college! I remember being quite pleased with myself. Then reality struck.
When I arrived at school in the fall, I had trouble adjusting to my newly regimented life. I had little in common with any of the other midshipmen. Since I spent a lot of time with these young men, this meant I had few friends.
My feet bled constantly from my tight white shoes rubbing the skin off my heels. The cleaners turned my dress white uniform a pale shade of blue (THAT goes over well with the brass). I struggled to remain conscious during my dry engineering classes. Come to think of it, I despised the whole experience.
However, as I look back, there is no need to call in Sherlock Holmes to figure out what went wrong. My need for independence, disdain for authority, and lack of ironing skills stacked the deck against me being successful in sustaining this goal.
While this was clearly a wonderful opportunity to achieve a great goal for the right person, the simple fact was that this goal was not right for me. The things that mattered most to me — my freedom, my individuality, and my love for studying people — were not being nurtured in this environment. In fact, they were being almost completely suppressed. My “great goal” was in direct conflict with my values and I was completely miserable.
But unhappy as I was, I still felt the need to hang on to this goal. I was no quitter. No, I would do this even if just to prove to everyone else (regardless of whether they really cared or not) that I could achieve this goal.
One fateful day when I was required to wear my nice white uniform around campus, I caught a glimpse of another person in uniform as he exited from the busiest building on campus. You see, you are supposed to recognize the emblems on the shoulders of other military folks and salute the officers. Since I could never master what the bars and squiggles meant, I just did what I always did when such a situation arose. I tried to hide among the other students.
I guess my uniform did not exactly blend in the sea of shorts and flip-flops since I can still hear this Marine’s booming voice echo across the quad. “Midshipman, do you think I can get a salute out of you?” he bellowed. Hundreds of students froze, including me. Completely mortified and with all eyes on me, I guess I must have raised my hand to my cap. It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life, but also turned out to be one of the most liberating.
That was it. I no longer cared what anyone thought, not my parents, not my siblings or my friends. I came to the realization that while pain is inevitable in life, suffering is optional. I quit the program the next day. For the first time in my life, I gave up on a really big goal.
Immediately, I felt like me again. I had no plan, no goals, and far fewer worries. As time passed, I found I was really drawn to psychology and decided to major in it. I found enjoyable work during the school year and worked full time during the summers to make up for expenses. Opportunities that were previously obscured by my laser-like focus on my goal appeared all around me. Giving up that particular goal was the best thing I have ever done for myself.
So, I am challenging you to examine your goals. First, what are your values? Now, do your goals reflect these values? Have you ever really thought about the relationship between your values and your goals? If not, I strongly encourage you to take the time to do so. For if you are truly setting goals around your values, you are living your life at the highest level and giving yourself a tremendous gift. This is where you will achieve true success, both intrinsically and through the financial rewards that often follow doing what you love. When you set the right goals for yourself, these goals will become so compelling that you are naturally drawn to achieving them and they can be reached with remarkable ease and without suffering.
So ask yourself, “What would be a great goal to drop today?”
Drew Rozell is a personal and executive coach. He writes a monthly column centered around tips for personal and professional success for the Central New York Business Journal. Visit Evolution Coaching and sign-up for a FREE coaching session.