Tuesday, December 13, 2005

How to set goals

Goals are interesting things, they limit you by excluding things that would take you further away from them and they free you be allowing you to excluding those things that would take you further from your goals.

There are short-term goals that can be accomplished in days, hours. even minutes, and long-term goals that will take years.

Problems arise when we think we are making long-term goals when they are really only medium-term goals. Like the story of the bride who had focused her life on her wedding day. On that day she told her mother with a dreamy smile, "I am at the end of all my problems." Her wise mother kindly replied, "Yes, but which end?"

Or the man who studied hard in school, got a good job with a big company with great benefits, and age forty asks himself, "Is this all there is, isn't there something more?" and goes out and buys a red, convertible sports car, but is still dissatisfied with his life.

A good long-term goal should be open-ended, something that most likely is not solvable in this life. These might be things like:
Feeding the poor.
Building sustainable housing.
Teaching developing farmers how to make technology to make their farms more productive.
Establishing human colonies on other planets.

This is like the story of the boy on the beach. There had been an exceptionally high tide the night before and as he and his father were walking on the beach they came across many thousands of starfish washed up high on the beach. The sun was getting higher and the temperature was rising and the starfish would be cooked alive if they did not return to the the cool waters of the ocean. The boy started picking up starfish and throwing them back into the ocean as fast as he could. The more experienced father, looking down upon his son said, "Son, why are you doing that? There is not hope to save them all." The son replied, "Maybe not, but I can make a difference for this one." Together they threw many starfish back into the ocean.

This is in start contrast to medium-term goals:
Having enough money in my retirement account to last until I'm 85.
Getting a degree.
Getting a good job.
Getting married.
Paying off the house.
Medium-term goals have a very definitive end-state. It may take 30 years to pay off a 30-year mortgage but after 30 years you can burn the mortgage papers. Getting a Ph.D. degree it can take 8-10 years but you'll have a diploma to hang on the wall.

Problems occur when you confuse medium-term goals with long-term goals. All of the sudden you have reached that goal and you stagnate because you've never thought about what comes next.
A young man dreams of becoming an engineer and working on the Space Shuttle. He studies hard and gets good grades and his first job is at a big company with good benefits that makes stuff for the Space Shuttle. He redesigns an old product with new components, since the olds ones aren't made anymore. He has reached his major life goal, life is good. Then the layoffs come and he flounders looking for work because his inspiration, the driving force of his life is gone, he had achieved that goal and he isn't sure where to go next.

You need to have at least one and preferably two "impossible" goals. I recommend two since it is entirely possible to achieve one and you should have a backup already in place, because a lot of impossible things have been achieved: powered flight, supersonic flight, travel to the Moon, splitting the atom, climbing Mt. Everest and many more "impossible" things have become possible; even commonplace.

In conclusion, get out a piece of paper or open a word processing document and write down all the goals you've ever thought about. Just write don't worry about spelling or grammar, do that later. Write for 15 minutes. Then organize into short, medium and long-term. Pick one and work at it every day.


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