Can you grow goals?
November 26, 2011 1:41 PM   Subscribe

I used to have clear goals. Now I don't. Have you been through a foggy period in which you had no clue what you wanted to do with your life while everyone around you spoke with confidence about moving abroad, writing the book or saving the world? What can I do to shake myself out of limbo before 10 or 15 years fly by?

When I was 23, I knew what I wanted: to move to New York City to work as an editor. I'm 27 now and have been "living the dream" for three years.

Recently, I was having dinner with a super accomplished and ambitious friend. As he shared all of the projects he's excited to be working on, it hit me: I don't have projects. And honestly, I don't have big goals anymore, either. Every day is roughly the same: I roll in and out of work, go for a run or attend a yoga class, and head home to my apt. A few times a week I grab food with friends.

While I have no desire to live a life as turbo-charged as my friend does (seriously, he's a little manic), I really do want to be engaged with life. And excited about something. I'm just not sure HOW. My brain feels like a dull pencil tip, and it's been that way for years now.

Any suggestions about how to, well ... grow some goals? The one thing I can think of is to sign up for a class in something that at least vaguely interests me.

(Oh, one note: I very much want to fall in love, get married and have a family. While I don't apologize for that, it frightens me that it's my only discernible life ambition. And I know it's counterproductive to put all of my focus on it.)
posted by jessca84 to Human Relations (25 answers total) 87 users marked this as a favorite
Okay, I don't think having a happy marriage and family is not "good enough" as a life ambition/goal. Some people find more fulfillment in that than in saving the world, learning to fly, climbing the Great Wall of China or getting a promotion. Don't let anyone undermine that as a legitimate goal for your life. Hell, it's way harder to raise a mentally, emotionally and physically healthy kid and sustain a solid marriage than it is to do any of those things, anyway.

However. Other than staying open to the opportunities around you, you can't really set a goal to find love and "accomplish it." Join an online dating site. Look around you for people you may have overlooked. Decide what you want in a partner and start working on being the best partner for them. Obviously that'll depend on them, but developing kindness, patience, genuine contentment and conflict-resolution skills will sure make that a lot easier.

I think there's a certain level of ennui that most people go through in their late 20's when they realise that working is a bit of a drag and life just seems to plod on. Don't beat yourself up for going through something that most of us feel. I felt the same way a few years ago. So I planned a trip to South Africa and ended up meeting my husband. It's weird how life has a way of working out when you feel most lost. And there's not a lot you can do about it other than staying open to possibilities.

Don't give up. Good luck.
posted by guster4lovers at 1:53 PM on November 26, 2011 [13 favorites]

I feel a little like you, and I'm 26. I spent most of my life furiously working away at massive goals and achieved great things. I loved the sense of achievement (one can get huge highs from this), but at the same time, I was utterly burned out. When I got my first real job, my life became a lot more "normal". I love my job, but, like you, it's just roughly the same from day to day, with a little variety thrown from time. But you know what, you can't have everything. When I was striving for my big big goals, I neglected a lot of smaller, what-seemed-inconsequential-stuff, like social skills, parties, relationships (and not just romantic ones, but platonic ones too). Just living a "normal" life made me realise how much of an idiot I was, and how self-centred I had been. I learned to appreciate people a lot better and I'm a lot more happier with all my relationships now.

As for your question about "growing goals", well, take a weekend off. Go somewhere, it doesn't matter where, by yourself just to think about life and goals and what you really want to accomplish. You can't just "grow" major life goals just like that, you need an impetus for change.

p.s. I'm currently on my "away" weekend in a beautiful mansion in the countryside. By myself.
posted by moiraine at 2:02 PM on November 26, 2011

I love what guster4lovers said about staying open to possibilities. When I was 23 I knew what I wanted to, I wanted to move to England and have this totally cool life. I got to England when I was 27 and it wasn't at all what I expected... to have that dream end up being soooo not what I thought it was, was a hard pill to swallow... But I've stayed "open to possibilities" and now at 30, my life is completely cool...because I HAD to stay open to all possibilities- I was open to new careers, open to new friends, open to new hobbies... just keep moving about, in different circles of friends, in new bars, in new classes, in different cities, travel, make lots of plans- and then don't freak out when "life happens when you're making plans"!
posted by misspony at 2:03 PM on November 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm the same age as you, and I've mostly avoided that late-20s "this is it?" ennui. There are, surely, moments when I feel it creeping up on me, but then I do something and that makes me feel better. Here are some things you can do. You can do all of them, in fact, given a bit of time:

1) If you want to meet someone, join an online dating site. Seriously. The stigma's pretty much gone now, and I think being on a dating site really helps you develop a more positive attitude about dating. I don't know if this is a problem for you, but it was for me. I've gone on quite a few dates in the past couple of months, and though they usually go nowhere, it's actually pretty fun. You're just hanging out with a new person, is all.

2) Get a couple of side projects. Most of my side projects are somewhat career-related (writing, freelance journalism, etc), but they don't have to be. You like to run? Train for a half-marathon. Taking a class is also a good idea. Think of something you'd like to spend your down time on, and do that.

3) Somewhat related to the above, is a nice way to get out of your comfort zone. I've only managed to go to a couple so far, but I'm a few groups and it's nice to know that you can get out there and do something different from time to time.

4) Plan a trip. Traveling alone is one of the great pleasures of being single and having disposable income.
posted by breakin' the law at 2:08 PM on November 26, 2011

Think about something you'd like to see real that doesn't already exist. Then, work toward making that concept realized.

Along the way, you may discover something else you'd rather work toward or that the thing you're working on isn't worth it, but you will certainly learn things and get ideas for future projects and strong sense of yourself.
posted by ignignokt at 2:12 PM on November 26, 2011

Reading suggestion: Stephen Covey's First Things First.

Engage in a lot of self-reflection. Examine your values closely. Be a water bottle volunteer at your next local marathon and watch the faces of the participants as they go past, making up stories about their inner lives and the factors that have brought them to that point, the point where your lives intersect for the moment that it takes to hand off that water bottle. Think about what you want your legacy to be.
posted by sillymama at 2:13 PM on November 26, 2011

Response by poster: A couple of you have mentioned online dating, so I just wanted to chime in and say I've been on OKCupid for over a year. Between that site and men I've met in real life, I've encountered four good connections but nothing sustainable yet. (Before then I was in a 5-year monogamous relationship.) Part of my problem is that I have been focusing TOO MUCH on dating. Because finding a partner matters to me so much, it has been very easy to neglect equally important life questions such as how can I live with enthusiasm? What can I create? How can I make the world better? Etc.
posted by jessca84 at 2:21 PM on November 26, 2011

Here's one way to do it. Forget Goals.

Someone mentioned Stephen Covey, his book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has a section about writing a personal mission statement. Once I had the values and ideals that you are about or want to be about I found that everything else "To Do" seems to fall in line and happen naturally.

You can also start heavily smoking weed. You will lose all interest in goals completely. Neat that.
posted by Staples at 2:43 PM on November 26, 2011

Three months ago, I had my entire world turned upside down. It was something that should have destroyed me emotionally, but I decided that I wanted more than to persist in misery of what had happened. I set a goal to "make the world mine" in whatever way I could.

I decided to do something similar to Rejection Therapy. If something scared me, or if I had the thought pop into my head, "better not..." then I would force myself to do it anyway. I opened myself up completely to rejection.

In these past three months, I have grown so much as a person. I have so much more clarity to who I am and what makes happy in this life. Just the simple fact of constantly stepping out of my previous comfort zone has changed my life forever. And because of the things I've done in these past months, I've met the woman of my dreams whom I know I will marry. I probably would have never met her had I not been going out of my way to try to get rejected.

Extinguish that little fear inside that keeps you content with the status quo and you'll find your goals and desires.
posted by Nerro at 2:44 PM on November 26, 2011 [4 favorites]

life coaching.
posted by Acer_saccharum at 3:13 PM on November 26, 2011

just wanted to say that some of the things you are looking for are secondary , being a consequence of other stuff . For example : enthusiasm , joy .
Also , some things/goals are just about yourself , and some are bringing joy to others .
When there is nothing in particular that makes you happyly jump , why should you be "enthusiastic" ? Or , joyful? Being healthy , with some friends (not fully lonely ) and not unhappy is important as a good base/foundation . These are the things you should always maintain to keep yourself able to accomplish better exiting stuff .
you said "goals" -- they should keep getting bigger and deeper as you keep growing . So , you wanted to become an editor . To edit what ? To produce more of edited stuff about what ? Maybe think about goals not for yourself , but for the work that you are able to do . To please yourself you don't need that much , and you have it already , I think : nice secure income , good food , place to live .
Instead of "what can I create? " -- look around and see : what is needed to be created for others ? Where your abilities can be of help ? Can something be done using your position at your present job ?( at the job itself or using the salary and free time that you have thanks to your job ) It could be some very small and short projects of very different nature , just try them one by one
posted by Oli D. at 3:25 PM on November 26, 2011

If I were you, I'd be planning an exciting, adventurous trip just to shake things up and change my perspective. Travel feeds the soul.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:30 PM on November 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's nothing wrong with taking a little time to just enjoy the space that you're in. You're in the city you've always wanted to live in, and you have the job you have always wanted. Those sound like pretty big wins to me. Plus, you're still young (27 seems quite young to me; I'm 51).

If you want a suggestion on what to do going forward, maybe spend some time thinking about what you enjoy and what makes you happy.
posted by tallmiddleagedgeek at 3:54 PM on November 26, 2011

Can you work on something with your friend? I have a buddy who just. Does. I mean, he comes up with an idea and hits the ground running. Working with him on a few projects has been amazingly inspirational and really helped me get my focus going when I work on something.
posted by GilloD at 4:30 PM on November 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Totally agree with what everyone is saying about self-reflection and I also agree getting away for a while is a good idea to help you get started on that process (a mini modern day vision quest).

But also, I just want to ask you... what do you like? Anything? Are you interested in, like, Japanese culture or vintage roller skates or stamps or films? Anything you used to do, maybe? Do you or would you like to make anything (food, art, crafts, music)? If you have ANYTHING to go on, just start trying stuff in that arena. Also, how's that yoga practice of yours? Yoga can open up great opportunities for self-reflection, too.

I've been reading the book Simple Abundance this year (one short essay per day) and while there's a bit of woo sometimes, I have really gotten a lot out of her ideas for self-reflection and getting to know oneself (she has exercises and lots of suggestions for stuff you can try). I totally recommend that. I started it January 1, which you could wait and do, or you can begin it immediately. (I think starting from the beginning is a good idea, though.)
posted by pupstocks at 4:38 PM on November 26, 2011

Travel is great, but remember that you will be waiting at home for yourself when you return. Perhaps you will find your goal more by planning your trip (where do you want to go? what do you want to do there?) than actually going on the trip. If you could go anywhere, where would you go? Why? Who would you like to meet on your travels?

Ask yourself questions and write down the answers. Answer quickly, impulsively. Later, reread your answers and decide whether or not you agree. Interrogate yourself. Make your goal to truly know yourself. You can do this while traveling or at home.
posted by mimo at 4:42 PM on November 26, 2011

I'm in my 40s and I've never had any idea how people figure out a direction or what they want. I think this is a lot more common than people talk about. (So don't panic!) Nobody wants to be the characters from Office Space, but nearly everyone is.

That said, I'm reading comments and ideas with interest. Thank you for asking the question!
posted by Occula at 4:59 PM on November 26, 2011

...everyone around you spoke with confidence about moving abroad, writing the book or saving the world?...

You know what? Most of those people never really do move abroad, write the book or save the world. So it's not like you're missing out on anything but the idealism.

I thought my life was set and stable at least three different times in the last decade. Four, if you count right now. But I'm too old and cynical now to ever believe it fully.

Embrace your fog. Just be alive and do whatever you love.
posted by rokusan at 5:05 PM on November 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

When I was a teenager, my life plan was to become a writer... and live with/take care of my grandpa. In my early 20's, he passed away. I turned 34 last September, and am just now filling out forms and such to try and get into school next semester.

I've finally figured out what I actually want to do with my life. I refused to go back to school just for the sake of it, racking up student loan debt, until I knew that I wanted to stick with it.

By the time i get my psychology degree, I may be too old to relate with the teenagers I want to help... but maybe it will help me teach their families how to support them?
posted by myShanon at 9:06 PM on November 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

I have friends who openly tell me that the amount of stuff I do makes them feel like total underachievers and terrible about themselves. I apparently look like I have shit pretty together. Well, I feel just as lost and aimless as anyone. I'm doing all this to keep my options as open as I can, and keep myself busy. I don't have some grand plan, I just sign up for things and then do them until I finish them. I'm too stubborn to quit. This is basically the entire secret to who I am.

So, yeah. Sign up for stuff and beat yourself up hard if you quit, and you'll be amazed how quickly your life fills with Projects. Be careful what you wish for :)
posted by troublesome at 10:34 PM on November 26, 2011

I don't have projects. And honestly, I don't have big goals anymore, either.

Something to realise: as long as this is not making you unhappy, it is okay. And if it is making you unhappy, ask yourself whether this is because you really want these things or simply because you think you ought to want them. If it is the latter, let it go. You don't need that, because it isn't what you actually want.

The idea that everyone should be ambitious, think big, have goals, change the world etc. is just that: an idea. You don't have to adopt ideas that don't resonate with you.

I have never been ambitious. I never had any particular goal, or desired career. I drifted through three years at university because it was way to escape a grindingly depressing background. I had a great time, even though I slacked off and never felt particularly engaged or driven by my work. I then drifted into a career I hated, largely because I needed a job and that was the first one I was offered, and also because it got me to London. I put up with that much-hated career for over twenty-five years. Often I would stop and think that I ought to change jobs, I ought to write that book, I ought to do this or that... and those thoughts made me feel guilty and useless. And yet I look back on my life through those years and I realise that most of the time - especially when I wasn't having those negative thoughts - I was more-or-less happy. I earned a living wage, I got to take holidays and travel, I was happily married for a while somewhere in there, I was mostly fit and well... and this is a good life, isn't it? This is more than many, maybe even most people in the world get. We are encouraged to be dissatisfied by the rather creepy, greed-driven expectations of our Western societies and when you stop and really think about it, it's actually quite an insidious and pernicious thing. We do not have to go along with it.

(I did reach my limit with the job, about two and a half years ago. I was in a position whereby I could afford to quit, so I did. I had no idea what I would do, or what sort of job I would ultimately return to. As usual, I had no plans, no goals. And now I am doing something different from my previous job in every imaginable way. And I really like it. So I guess one way of shaking up your life is to quit your job, if you can afford it!)
posted by Decani at 5:06 AM on November 27, 2011 [6 favorites]

Maybe it's not so much goals or projects you need at the moment but to decide what you value in life so that you can make sure you're working towards those values. I second those who've said spend some time reflecting on where you are. What's important to you right now? What sort of person do you want to be? What sort of relationships do you want to cultivate (this includes family and friends)? What sort of environment/community would you like to live in? What do you get out of your current job and what could make it more meaningful to you? This might help you see what's good in your life at the moment and how you can build on it or change it.

You might want to take a look at the section on identifying your values in The Happiness Trap by Dr Russ Harris (also see his website). I've dipped into this book and whilst it's by no means given me all the answers to my own person ennui, it's helped me to identify some positive elements in an otherwise seemingly negative situation. You can then start to build on those. Sometimes there's great satisfaction and enjoyment to be had out of the small stuff of everyday life as well as the big stuff.
posted by Intaglio a go-go at 8:01 AM on November 27, 2011

Start by giving to others. Pick a charity you think might enjoy being involved with and volunteer. My sister became passionate about singing after she started singing regularly at nursing homes with a group and was inspired by the immense appreciation her audience members have for her voice. Another friend who knows a thing or two about photographing started volunteering for a traveling group of doctors who perform surgery in other countries for children pro bono. She documented their work, and in exchange got to travel to some amazing places and meet some incredible children. Helping others who have much less than you do is a surefire way to kindle some passion in life -- and it also can be a way to meet other people. Generosity, I've found, always has a way of doubling back on you and opening up new avenues of exploration and growth.
posted by mmmcmmm at 4:36 PM on November 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

You could just make up a bunch of projects or goals, but I think you're on the right track when you talk about 'growing' them. I spent a lot of time achieving my goals, and had them all completed by age 29. It was great! So I sat back and enjoyed the fruits for a while, which was also great. But eventually, I wanted something else to work towards.

Spend some time thinking about your values, and your strengths. There's no rush. What does the world need more of? What do you need more of? And then do something that brings more of those things into the world. Then do something else that brings more of that into the world. Maybe it'll be a series of short projects, or maybe a larger goal will emerge over time.

I liked the book Discardia for this, which starts out with a bit of decluttering of your home (something I can always use) but is really about making small changes to your life to bring it closer to your ideal. I'll second the rec for the Zen Habits website, although I prefer his earlier stuff. But just spending some time focused on the big picture is really what it's about.
posted by harriet vane at 3:41 AM on November 28, 2011

The story of the Peng bird vs. the dove, by Zhuangzi. Peng is huge, epic, ambitious. It takes a thousand years for him to prepare for his epic flight to the ends of the sky. The dove just flies to the nearest tree, and does it every day.

This story has been debated for seventeen centuries. Some think the Peng bird represents the highest ideal. Others say that the Peng and the dove are equal, each perfectly adapted to its circumstances. Some say that the Peng represents empty, grandiose pretention, and the dove real, everyday virtue.
posted by Tom-B at 9:13 AM on November 30, 2011

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