I’ve written about goals and goal setting in a previous post. It was tongue-in-cheek. My intention was to spark thought about the right questions to ask when setting a goal. But an ongoing conversation with my 17-r-old, college freshman, son has me thinking more about the topic of goals and the relation of plans to goals.
A Plan Is Not Busy Work, It Is Essential
My son is required to complete an Academic Plan for a class. He is on the bubble about what he wants to major in and so is dragging his heels about drafting a plan. He thinks there is no point in working on a plan, and putting it in writing, if it’s likely to change. So, he is thinking of this assignment as busy work. I am encouraging him to create the plan, finish the assignment, and realize that it is not carved in stone. My reasoning is this:
1- A goal represents an end that you have in mind.
2- A plan represents the means for achieving that end.
Unless a goal can be achieved with a single action, setting a goal and having no plan is the equivalent of not setting a goal. It may be a dream, or a wish, or perhaps a hope, but it’s not a proper goal.
A goal is something tangible, measurable, achievable (at least potentially), and exists during a window of opportunity (there is a timetable, or deadline for reaching it). A plan maps out how that is going to be done. What are the steps? What are the necessary resources? Are there pre-requisites, or contingencies I should be aware of?
One of the most important things to grasp in life, as young as possible, is the relation of plans to goals. That is to say, knowing the difference between means and ends. It is a rare person who keeps this concept in mind as the basic metric for decision making of all types.
Everyone Is Living For Some End
Everyone is living for some end. Even if they are unaware. Most people haven’t clearly defined it to themselves. This causes many to live very passively, in a state of hopeful disappointment (so as to not plagiarize Thoreau’s ”quiet desperation”, though they are functionally the same). People hope their lives will magically get better. Whatever better means. But they are living out a series of steps that feel predestined for them without much thought of their own. Succumbing to social and economic pressures, they live and act as if their own agency doesn’t have a lot to do with their own lives. To many, life is a lottery game, or a roulette wheel, and some people get lucky. They hope to be among the lucky.
But without a specific end in mine, clearly defined, and pursued for the value it represents, most are passively adrift. Their favorite words are ”If only…”. This even affects purchases. Or maybe it especially affects economic decisions of all sorts. People seem to be very confused about their relationship with money, thinking it is an end, when it is quite literally a means, and only a means. The result is they are either trying to accumulate money as an end in itself, or spending it for some feeling it cannot buy.
The Antidote to Passivity And Its Soul-Crushing Effects
The antidote to this hopeful disappointment or quiet desperation is to spend time thinking about what you really want. Identify your desired end. What ultimate goal do you have in mind? What would make life worth the effort to stay or get healthy, or the effort to establish better habits? Is there any worthwhile payoff for the hard work? What would make your life one you actually want to be living? Unless you define this ”most valuable end” and then live as if that end really is as valuable as you say it is, you’re cheating yourself. And you’re definitely not being authentic. And you’re forgetting how short this ride on the merry-go-round is.
Maybe you haven’t worked out your lifetime ”most valuable end”, supreme goal yet, but it certainly helps to start there and work backwards when planning. For now, you can start small to learn how to think of means and ends, and to plan sequentially so that you take the steps necessary to achieve the desired end, by taking action in the right order.
Today’s Academic Plan Yields Tomorrow’s Dream Life
I pointed out to my son that he is in an intermediate phase of life. He is wisely in a local community college that is cheap. In it, he can get all of his general college credits out of the way, keeping an open mind about a major. He will be ready to transfer those credits and his enrollment once he’s decided on a solid major. His immediate goal is 60 transferable credit hours in required courses. That’s it.
That intermediate goal is actually a means to a larger goal…a 4-yr degree at a university. And that, too, is an intermediate goal to the larger goal of a good, high-paying job. Which is also an intermediate goal to the ultimate goal of a life he wants to be living….to success defined in his own terms. I think I’ve helped him to see the relation of the academic plan he drafts today to the ultimate goal of his dream life.
Talking with him over the last couple of days made me want to share the conversation and hopefully the insights with you. This framework of setting a clear goal, then making a plan on how to arrive, works in every part of life. It even makes life more fun, even if a little more challenging. It’s better to be proactive and work a plan towards a goal you actually want. The relation of plans to goals is what turns a dream into a possibility, and can transform it from a wish to reality. Certainly better to be armed with a plan towards a clear goal than to be a leaf on a stream, hoping things will magically get better, while passively floating towards what might just turn out to be a waste treatment plant.