Staring down at the mad libs style question, “When I’m older, I want to be a ________,” I scanned my young brain for the answer.
I had a love of underwater docu-style shows. I'd watch sun weathered adults clad in black wet suits and scuba diving gear, falling backwards off of boats into water in hopes of discovering the depths of our alien oceans. I was transfixed by shows uncovering the ominously dusty tombs of mummies; the english accents of narrators describing the puzzling accomplishments of Egyptian society, one Discovery channel marathon at a time.
These jobs seemed..
I mean these folks get to dive into the oceans, see dolphins, taunt sharks in cages, high five their friends, have a snack, make some reports, talk into the camera with confidence, unwrap mummies, take pictures with mummies to send to their families, travel with their buddies, ride camels?? I didn’t see any cons here.
Meticulously scratching ‘Marine Biologist or Archaeologist’ (I’m sure spelled incorrectly at the time) into the blank slot gave me a shot of satisfaction. When I handed in my assignment, the calm approval of my 4th grade teacher reading my answer to what my wobble-kneed, 9 year old self wanted to do with the entirety of my life let me know I gave the right response. It was a lesson in impression. Children are sponges, soaking up everything they see, hear, and do, analyzing how it all fits into the small world they are beginning to discover. Those documentary tv shows inspired the deeper intrinsic desire of curiosity and exploration in me.
As I grew older this large, esoteric question became harder to answer as expectations shifted to determining if college was in my future and if so, what was I going to study and why? Dreams morphed into grades. Poems vanished into standardized testing. And my personal goals became narrowly focused on achieving A+ grades in my classes, while balancing extracurriculars in the little free time I had between working a part time, 20 hours per week job at the age of 16.
This linear path of achievement is ingrained in all of us: finish school, get a job, make money, achieve status by making said money. Drop it (the money) like it’s hot on loans/keeping up with the joneses. Rinse and repeat, and your status and money better grow every year or else you’re a sucka.
Aziz Ansari recently did an interview with GQ that made me stop and think about this standard, linear path we’re trained to believe about success and fulfillment. After being asked by the interviewer if he feels the pressure to do more after the success of his break out Netflix show Master of None, Aziz quips:
"I hope more people get very successful and then quit. Shouldn't that be the game? That you make a bunch of money and just move to Italy and live a quiet life? No one does it! You do a bunch of shit and you just want to do more shit. Tom Cruise! Look at that guy! He will not stop. He's still making these fucking movies. No one who does what I do—or anywhere related in my world—is ever like, I'm done."
His response is the kryptonite for the standard thinking about achievement, which usually goes something like this:
‘Well of COURSE you do more once you become successful! You create because you need to for success, because you aren’t the best, you aren’t the greatest, you aren’t truly WINNING unless you go go go go go!” (spoken in Oxy Clean advocate Billy May’s voice, R.I.P.)
Yet, plenty of us have become disillusioned with this path of success a.k.a rat race because it feels never ending, leaving you desperate for more external affirmation and outside approval to feel complete. It’s like a hole is etched out in your soul that is filled with evaporating liquid that needs to be replaced over and over and over again. It’s like no matter how much you eat you’re still hungry. It’s like we’re Mario running through each level of Super Mario Brothers collecting coins and looking for mushrooms (the digital kind of course) that makes us grow into this monster Mario that never stops growing and becomes an obese mega Mario that probably runs a lot slower and has lower back pain, but it doesn’t matter because we’re smashing everything in our way.
Why Traditional Goal Setting In Work Needs to Change
In my 29 years on this planet I’ve seen the same patterns of this empty path of success unfold within modern workplaces and it typically follows two points:
Tell (let’s be real, usually threaten) employees with goals that must be hit. These goals are almost always numbers based and driven solely by profit. Where that profit or money is actually going or why we need it (besides being bigger) isn’t discussed or framed within a context of deeper values.
The means of getting to these numbers isn’t thought in much detail except in a very linear focused way of its outputs.
There’s a few things wrong with this model.
Numbers don’t mean anything without context
If I walked up to you on the street and yelled, “We need 22.5 Million!” You’d be like “Lady get the fug up out my face, who are you?!?! Security!” And you’d probably also wonder, “22.5 Million of what?”
Even if I blurted, “We need 22.5 Million Dollas!!” You’d probably still wonder, “Ok cool, why do we need $22.5 Million?” If I then answered “Because we need to be bigger!” You’d still wonder, “Ok...but why do we need to be bigger though?” And if I said, “That’s just how it is or we’re failures!” I doubt you’d still be satisfied with that answer.
Let me stop you right there if you’re thinking I’m saying, “Eww money is bad.” Money is a tool. It’s a way of valuing things around us and ways for us to exchange value with each other. So it’s up to us to define the value of the money around us and for what and why we want to use it. Money only matters in the context of what we actually do with it. So if we need 22.5 Million because it’ll help us build better products/hire a video team to document new mummies/travel to space/the list goes on, that context is more grounding. Money just for money sake or gaining money because you aren’t successful unless you get more and more of it (and success is very subjective and personal) isn’t enough.
The means of getting to a goal is where we spend most of our time, not the end
We have to get comfortable with the journey, because we spend 99% of our time walking along the path to a goal. Getting to college was a 13 year journey for me (and to be honest, I didn’t have a drive for college, but ended up getting into one of the most competitive colleges in the world, but that’s another story for another day) and if I didn’t enjoy reading books, writing papers, pondering questions, working on experiments, unlocking my locker and putting books in it, and all the little meticulous steps of getting there, I probably would have been deeply miserable, but I liked school because I enjoyed the journey of learning.
We need to collectively spend much more time thinking and defining the means, the path, the journey of where we’re going. As Jack Kerouac famously has stated and has been quoted dozens of times, “The road is life.”
I’d challenge you to think about this. If you work for someone, think about the deeper why behind your work. Why are you working? What are your beliefs about the body of work you’re contributing to and the ways you want to create? What impact is it having on the planet, people, yourself outside of the money it makes?
If you’re an entrepreneur or creator, why are you building the thing you’re building? What impacts is it having on yourself and others? What are your beliefs about the process of birthing your (hypothetical) baby? What are the means of getting to the end and do you enjoy the process?
We of course have the basic necessities of our lives to upkeep, like having a roof over our heads and getting some food in our bellies. Outside of that, start to answer these questions. That’s half the puzzle of life. We spend an average of 92,120 hours of our lives working. That’s a lot of time and it should be time we truly think about and value (if we have the privilege to do so).
As Aziz Ansari stated later in his GQ interview:
"Undeniable is undeniable.… And I'm not gonna make something else until I think it's undeniable."
I think back to my childlike wonder about swimming with dolphins and chilling with mummies, and it was driven by the idea that doing those things just seemed undeniably cool and there was something to learn from them. We could all use more childlike curiosity and wonder in the work we do in our lives.