It was my husband who first introduced me to the concept of goal orientation. Before I met him, that kind of thing was completely foreign to me. I lived my life drifting from one whim to the next, with only fleeting thoughts as to how my actions today would impact my life as a whole. Occasionally I might come up with some random idea about what I wanted in the future (e.g. to make a certain amount of money, or to have a certain title on my business card) but even then I didn’t take the time to reflect on whether this goal was truly the best thing I could do with the limited time I have here on earth.
I never sat down and put serious thought into questions like, What kind of person do I want to be? At the end of my life, what do I want to have accomplished?
When I first met my husband, I marveled at what he’d been able to accomplish in his life. He’d grown up poor, raised by a single mother who hadn’t had the opportunity to get an education beyond high school, and yet he ended up with degrees from Yale, Columbia and Stanford. On top of his degrees, he’d traveled the world, knew all sorts of fascinating people, and had a career he enjoyed. Though I may not have phrased it this way at the time, I wondered how he was able to live such a great story.
When I asked him about this, his answer was simple: It’s all about knowing the goal.
It seems that for some people, like my husband and his mother, goal orientation comes naturally. They’re always thinking about the big picture, making sure their actions right now are building towards their larger vision of what they want their lives to be like. For others of us…not so much. We tend to live down in the weeds, staring at the trees, never considering the forest. Darwin recently had a great post on this subject, in which he analogized living without goals to building a structure without an architect. He writes:
The house or office you are sitting in was built according to a plan and a purpose, a purpose from which it is now only able to deviate to a limited extent. My house cannot suddenly become an office tower, though it has an office in it. My office building would make a very poor house. But they are built knowingly, according to a plan. And yet, our lives seem often constructed to a purpose without the architect knowing that he is in constructing something with walls and doors — an edifice which will suit some ends well, and other poorly. Individual choices pile up unto some particular type of life, and once that life is built people sometimes find it is not, in fact, the kind of structure they want to live.
When we got married, my husband and I carefully considered what kind of life we wanted to live, and set goals accordingly. For me, it was a completely new way to live. Suddenly choices that once seemed difficult were crystal clear. An underlying sense of aimlessness was replaced with the feeling that my daily actions were adding up to something larger; like I was creating something great, one choice at a time.
Needless to say, our priorities have radically changed since our conversions, but I find that living a goal-oriented life is no less important now than it was then — in fact, I think it’s more important now. Having goals is always important for success, whether you define “success” as having a certain dollar amount in your bank account, or becoming a saint. Living a life dedicated to God requires no less focus and intentional effort than living a life dedicated to worldly achievements.
Today, our goals look something like this:
- Love and serve God to the very best of our abilities, and inspire our children to do the same
- Have a strong, happy marriage
- Have a close relationship with our children, so our family is their home base (i.e. so they’re not peer-oriented)
- Have enough financial stability so that our family can be comfortable
- Put down roots in one area so that we can build a sense of community with our extended family, our church, and our neighbors
…And so on. For an example of how this helps us in daily life:
A few weeks ago I had one of those moments when I felt like the walls were closing in on me, and I announced that I wanted a bigger house. Our house is less than 2,000 sq. ft., and has three small bedrooms — pretty big by historical standards, but, compared to the suburban Texas standard of living, sometimes it feels pretty small with five kids. My husband and I sat down to discuss the possibility of getting a little more space. A more expensive house wasn’t exactly in the budget…but we could probably find some lender who would approve us for a loan…and he might be able to take on some extra work at the office to cover the increase in expenses.
In my old way of thinking, I would have wanted to do it. The whim of the moment led me to want a bigger house, so I would have pushed forward to make it happen. But when I considered this possibility in light of our family goals, it became clear that that would be a bad move: Having my husband be stuck at the office even more hours per week just to pay for a bigger house would go against priorities #2 and #3, and would probably negatively impact #1 as well. We decided against it, and the small sacrifice of staying in our current digs left me with that satisfying feeling — which is still relatively new to me — that this one action was building toward something bigger. Without goals, my individual choices were like stones tossed into a pond; now, it’s as if they’re stacked together purposefully, to build something beautiful.
Having clear goals for our family is invaluable in big life decisions, but helps in the little choices of daily life as well. It doesn’t mean that everything always works out perfectly, but it’s like having a family compass: We may get off track once in a while, but we always know where true north lies.