Let’s start with how life usually feels. Like you’re in a cloud, uncertain where to go, without a real direction. Feeling lost, but maybe wishing or hoping there could be some direction for you.
Think of the cloud as your confusion: what should I do? Where should I go? Maybe you feel like you’re drifting. A lot of spend most of our lives in a cloud like that, uncertain how to proceed. It feels like being lost, either unable to find a path, or fearful of what might happen if you change.
Assume for a moment that you could take a God’s Eye View of your life. Imagine a line representing what you need to do and where you need to go in life. That line would symbolize living your best possible life, leading in the direction of your ideal.
“Your Ideal” is just a symbol for a life well spent, meaningful accomplishments, and making a mark on the world that matters. It’s OK if you don’t know what that is, most people don’t. That’s what this article is about – how to find it, and how to think this through.
You have no chance of getting there if you are lost in the cloud of uncertainty though, and so there comes a time when you must break out of the cloud, and choose a goal! Let’s follow the dotted line along the actual path of a person’s life.
The green dot is any goal really that you might want. To make money, have a successful career, to have a happy marriage, anything that is meaningful to you at a moment in your life.
Most of the time, if we don’t know what our ideal and life direction is though, we’re prone to pick “nearby goals” that we think will make us happy, like “I’d like to bring home more money and get that promotion.”
As life goes on, we find ourselves picking a series of goals in succession, and following our life’s path onward, like this:
Most careers look like this. We make jumps from job to job, look for a bit more money, more responsibility – but without much overall direction. After doing this for 10 years or more, it can feel pretty “wandering”. Because it is. Notice how far off the life line is from where you need to go.
Most people wander in their goal selection because they are picking “nearby” goals. Their lives may not have much vision, and may be all about tactical choices (like how to get a salary bump).
To avoid wandering, you have to set your sights on something valuable in the distance (Your Ideal) and head in that direction. How do you do that though?
Value of Self-Knowledge
What is this line of “where you need to go”? That line represents self-knowledge. When a person grows and matures to the point where they understand their strengths and weaknesses, they can start to plot a general direction.
But life gets in the way, and there’s a difference between where we are trying to end up, and what actually happens:
Think of the green dots as the things you try to accomplish in life, and the yellow dots as where you end up after trying your best. And notice how they’re never the same. But how with some self-knowledge, you are now on the general path of where you need to go, even if not exactly on it. This particular life path started off in a cloud. Then wandered for a while. Now as you can see, it’s far from perfect, but it’s generally on track.
Goal Choosing and Feedback
How do these goals get chosen? Well, most of life is a bit like a science experiment on a population of one: you. If you don’t know the answer of where to go and what to do (and no one does), then you had better get to experimenting to get some information! So what do you do?
- Try things. Pick a direction, shoot for a goal, attain it, and then check in and see how it feels.
- Make mistakes. Do things wrong, get punished by life, and see how that feels. That will tell you where not to go, which isn’t as helpful as a positive result, but still it’s information.
- Look for examples. Try to spot other people in your life who seem similar to you, and who seem to be doing it right. Imitate.
- Aspire. Think big, dream big, pick meaningful things to do and then see if you have it in you to do them.
Personally, this feels about right to me, because it’s a bumbling, uncertain, dangerous, and maybe a bit anxiety causing. Sounds like a perfect model for parts of life to me.
While you may bumble around and not know where you’re going, if you do it long enough and keep your eyes and ears open, your goal choice gets more focused & accurate, and you get more self-knowledge. The self-knowledge comes from checking in and seeing how your successes and failures feel.
This is all an experiment. You are the scientist, your life is an experiment, the goal is to find your right path and your ideal, and the best you can do is trial, error, and feedback/learning from those errors.
As an example: maybe you go for the big bucks in your career, and work crazy hours to get there. Or maybe you decide you want to lose weight. You might even achieve it. How does it feel to have a lot of money, a sense of purpose at work, and no free time?
No one should tell you how to feel – this will be a good trade for some and bad for others. But whatever that feeling, it means something, and our recent experiences at all time color our next choices.
Now We’re On Track (Mostly)
As you get good at this process, you get on track, and this is what that looks like. Notice that you’re not going to get on the line and stick to it. That is for a fantasy world where you control everything that happens. That isn’t the world that I’m living in. We get close to the right path. And as we “tack back and forth” picking local goals that are achievable, and moving forward, maybe we get closer and closer to the line without quite getting there.
The Twist: The Ideal Isn’t Achievable
It is an ideal because there is little else higher for the individual that can be aspired to. But because of human imperfection, inability to control the world, and a finite lifespan, the ideal is not to be achieved. Mortality gets us all before we reach the absolute top. With time, you come to look at “The Ideal” and “Heaven”, and “Life Purpose” as what it is: directional guidance, and not a destination.
No one is going to the North Star, we navigate by it.
And so as you follow the path, there needs to be reward in walking the path. In the pursuit and anticipation of your next goal.
In the friends you make along the way.
In the relishing of victories, even though they’re temporary.
With this silly little example of lines and dots, there are several important things about self-improvement we can see.
- Things that make you feel good and bad are information. Pay attention to it. When you succeed or fail at an outcome, study how that makes you feel. It’s extremely important. You will choose your next goal in part based on that, will you be conscious of why?
- Having a goal, even a bad one, is better than having no goal. This is because achievement and failure on goals gives us information about the world, and about ourselves. It is also because being in a cloud is a lonely and lost place to be. And so it is clearly better to pick a wrong goal and get busy at it, than it is to sit and do nothing. Bias yourself towards action.
- Perfection is impossible and should not be sought. Life is like a dance, or a piece of music. The goal of a dance is not to arrive at a particular spot on the floor, or for the music piece to reach its finale. If you are not enjoying the dance and the music, why do it?
- Your competition is you yesterday, not any other person today. Remember that line, the way you should be going, heading up and to the right. Find it for yourself. There is no guarantee that anyone else’s line goes in a similar direction. Do not compare yourself to other people’s paths because this is at best bad information that will not help you, and at worst active misdirection!