“What do you do?”, I asked.
“Right now, I travel. I booked a one-way ticket to Bangkok, and I don’t really have a plan”, Dan said.
I poured myself some more coffee. More precisely, I ripped open another packet of instant coffee and added hot water to it.
“I guess I don’t really have a goal in life. I don’t really know what I wanna do”, he added.
We were sitting in a hostel in Bangkok, eating breakfast. I hadn’t known Dan before that day, nor do I assume that I’ll ever see him again or that he’ll read this article. But what he said struck a chord with me.
In the past, when I’ve had goals in life, I haven’t found that they made me happy in any way. At age 9, I had the goal of becoming a soccer pro or a geography professor — which didn’t work out, considering I have two left feet (but am definitely not a lefty) and am not particularly interested in academic work.
Later, I had the goal of graduating high school with a grade good enough to go to a great business school — which I did manage to achieve. I also wanted to graduate in the top 10% of my class, which I managed to achieve too. Then, things started getting crazy. I joined a startup, rose in the ranks to now being de-facto CEO of the core business, and we’ve achieved a ton of goals that we set for ourselves over the past two years.
What do you do when you achieve a goal? Do you celebrate? Do you throw a huge party because the goal has now been achieved, that you can now sit back for the rest of your life knowing you’ve achieved that goal?
I didn’t. In fact, once I achieved my goal, I was already so focused on the next step that I basically forgot about my previous goal. After graduating from high school, I got drunk a few times and started looking for a job to bridge the time until university started. After college, I was already in the middle of the startup world, so busy that I didn’t even attend my own graduation — and only picked up my bachelor’s diploma because the university called me and said “uhm Mr. Nitsch, we have had your bachelor’s diploma sitting around here for 6 months, would you like to pick it up soon?”
I had different things on my mind; I did not want to dwell on the past. And while achieving these goals certainly were steps in the right direction, they were exactly that — just another step towards a greater …. goal? A greater something? Yeah, what was I (and am I) exactly trying to achieve?
I don’t have a goal in life.
I believe that goals (however SMART they may be) are simply arbitrary measures of success.
They might be helpful in achieving a greater cause (as milestones, so to speak), but goals in itself will not give your life any meaning.
Let’s assume you’re an aspiring American football player named J.C. Jackson, and your goal is to win the Super Bowl. You have a good college career after a few initial bumps, but not so great that you get drafted. The Patriots sign you as undrafted free agent, and in a week, you will have won a Super Bowl.
Quick aside: I am rooting for the Rams, but let’s be honest — the Patriots will take it home.
And now what? J. C. is in his early twenties (dude was born in ‘95), and he has already achieved his “life goal”. What does he do now? Roll over and die?
Behind each goal, there lies one of two things: another goal, or great emptiness.
If you identify as “football player”, then great emptiness would be the case. I mean, you could go ahead and try to go to the Super Bowl again … and again … and again … and really, Tom Brady, how do you do it anyway?
But that’s kinda boring, isn’t it? It just becomes the new normal. I’ve had the same experience running a startup — when you make first few hundred thousands in sales, you’re excited as hell. But the more you do it, the more normal it becomes. And all the sudden, closing a huge deal is just another day at the office.
Achieving goals in life won’t make your life fulfilled. You cannot draw purpose from the past, only from the present.
On the contrary, I believe that having a greater cause to work for is what gives a life purpose.
A greater cause never ends. A greater cause will never cease to give you new things to strive for, new things to achieve. Because a greater cause is, by definition, never-ending.
My greater cause is to make the world a more efficient place. It’s not a goal, because by definition a goal can be achieved at some point in time. It has an ending.
Making the world a more efficient place, on the other hand, never ends. There is no such thing as absolute efficiency. And thus, it never gets boring. I can work towards this goal every day, one way or the other: by making the allocation of workforce in Europe more efficient (which is precisely, at a high level, what we do at Linguedo); by teaching people about how to get more out of their time here on Medium or through my workshops, or by being a team captain for my Lacrosse team and teaching younger men leadership and hard work.
It’s a calling, a mission, a greater cause. Whatever you want to call it — a goal is not going to give you purpose in life.
“So what if I wanted to make the world a better place?”, Dan asked.
“Well”, I said, “it’s always better to start small. For instance, if a homeless person is on your way to work, why not pack an (extra) apple every day to give to that person? You buy them in bulk anyway, so the added effort is basically zero — but the impact is way higher than zero.”
What sounds like a small action turns into a larger impact if you do it every day. Trust me, these apples add up.
This action is a system. It does not work towards a particular goal, but it sure as hell does make the world a better place.
If that’s your greater cause, you’re not going to do it in one big push. You’re gonna do it by consistently working for it every single day. Systems allow you to do that without even thinking about it.
Which is why I try to design my everyday activities so that they work towards my greater cause of making the world more efficient. My day job does it. My hobbies do it. And apparently, even random breakfast conversations at a hostel do it.
This leaves us with two questions:
- What’s your greater cause?
- What systems can you implement that contribute to that greater cause?
“I don’t know”, Dan said. “Those are good questions.”
I replied: “Now you have a goal: find the answers for these two questions.” It’s not an end goal, it’s a milestone. Towards a greater cause.
Then, our conversation faded to a different topic and eventually I went upstairs to get ready for the day. After all, I had to discover Bangkok, eat a ton of street food and drink Chang, Singha and Leo beer like there’s no tomorrow.
“Thank you, Dan, for this conversation”, I said. And I’ll say it again: thank you, stranger that will most likely not read this post (and thus not realize that I have tweaked a few bits of the conversation so they fit the flow of the story better), for providing me with inspiration.
I also never got a “real” answer to what Dan does for a living. But that’s okay. There’s more important things in life than work. Like, finding your greater cause — or discovering new countries.
As usual, if you hated or enjoyed this story or found it plainly boring, please let me know in the comments, by clapping or by sending an angry email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Feedback makes me a better writer, so .. give it to me baby! In return, I’ll deliver more content for you. ;)