There is this popular, dramatic moment in movies where the selfless protagonist gives up their life in order to accomplish a heroic objective. Here’s a secret: That’s what we all will do one day. The day we die, regardless if it’s the dramatic or the anti-climatic kind, we do so for everything we’ve done up to that point: For the relationships we cherished, for the things we built, for the know-how we shared, for the fun we had. By then, that will be all we ever did and all we will ever do. What is the life you want to look back on when that day comes?
In order to find a satisfactory answer to that question, I came up with a set of life goals. In a nutshell, they’re about achieving and maintaining a happy and fulfilled life, free from regrets too profound or too numerous to remedy. In its most basic form, the way to bring this about is by doing the right things, doing them often, and doing them exclusively. Achieving the actual goals might be a desirable, but certainly not necessary to bring about the benefits that striving for them entails.
Here’s what I consider important enough to purchase it with the years of my life – however many I have remaining.
Making Every Year Memorable
Being able to look back on a year and consider it a year that was worth living is probably my biggest ambition. It’s about achieving personal growth, doing things I care about and avoiding routines that are just a continuation of the status quo. That doesn’t mean I have to experience an entire year’s worth of excitement. It just means there has to be something that makes that one particular year memorable. For me the easiest way to accomplish that is to go traveling – in 2014 I went on a two months trip through the Caucasus and Central Asia (and while stressful, it certainly was one of the most memorable things I did). Are you up for that kind of adventure? It’s easier than you think. Have a look at my guide to creating memorable travel experiences to find out more.
Look like a Viking
When I got serious about losing weight, I noticed that things became significantly easier once I had a really ambitious goal that made sacrifices worthwhile. Thus, instead of just aiming to lose a few pounds, I aimed for looking like a ‘buff viking’. The reason it became a life goal, is that I noticed the positive impact my striving for it had on my lifestyle – I focused on getting lots of sleep, eating healthy, exercising regularly. The emotional well-being that resulted from it might have been a fringe benefit at first, but it became a major reason for justifying the effort I put into it afterwards. Do I consider it essential to my life to look like a viking? No. But do I consider it essential to strive for it? Yes, absolutely.
Ever since my dad gave me my own little plot of land in the vegetable garden some 25 years ago, I got hooked on growing things. From buying a forest, to reintroducing the American pawpaw, or manufacturing a full-scale sea algae farm, my plans have changed significantly over the years. I still have yet to settle on which shape things will take, so for my life goals I thus opted to settle for a more generic description.
Usually I aim to make life goals as specific as possible, though in some cases (like this one), the specifics just aren’t known yet. It’s an area mapped out for future mental and physical exploration. Due to the lack of specifics, it wouldn’t be a good goal in the traditional management sense, but in this context I found it to be acceptable.
Raise Kids Well
One of my biggest aspirations in life is to not be a shitty dad. In a way this is my family-catch-all goal. It means that one day I hope to dedicate a serious part of my time and attention to ensure plausible deniability when my future offspring starts their own church, ring-tone-business or cigarette smuggling operation: At least I’ve tried.
In a way it’s a goal for my future self. I believe future Karsten will cherish being a good dad, even if current day Karsten is in a significantly more anxious state about having kids in the first place.
Drive a Shaguar
Just like some goals are anchored in the future (see the one about being a good dad), some are anchored in the past. Maybe it’s nostalgia, but I feel obliged not only to my future self, but also to my past self, even if it doesn’t really exist anymore.
Back when I was in high school, we did this thing where we went to see a movie while getting drunk – a result of the legal drinking age in Germany being 16 and a severe lack of opportunities to exercise that right in a small town in Germany. On one such occasion we saw ‘Austin Powers – The Spy Who Shagged Me‘. For some reason, the Union-Jack painted Jaguar (‘Shaguar’) seen in the movie became the perfect objective of my former high school self: Teenage me really liked the idea of making enough money to buy a nice car without giving up the non-conformist attitude I prided myself on. What better way is there to show that, than with an atrocious, resale-value-destroying paint job that makes people wonder if you lost your marbles?
Will this make the world a better place? No. Will this make me a better person? No. Will it bring joy to me for making my inner child giddy with excitement? Maybe. At the time of writing, I still haven’t gone ahead with this. My go-to excuse is ‘I don’t want to own a car in Bangkok’. Sorry Karsten-of-Christmas-past, but I promise, I haven’t forgotten. Until then, cherish this 51%-on-rotten-tomatoes masterwork:
Assisting Others in Achieving Their Life Goals
I organise my day into pomodoros – 25 minute segments of intensive, focused work. A full day’s work consists of up to 13 segments, or roughly 6.5 hours. Anything beyond that I can’t really sustain on an ongoing basis (main reason for the limitation being attention and focus, rather than time).
Deciding on what to spend these 13 segments on, is a major practical reason for having life goals in the first place. I can check if I’m on track by seeing if for each segment there’s a corresponding life goal. If not, I need to ask myself if it’s really necessary.
In this context, an altruistic catch-all life goal is necessary. Otherwise the system wouldn’t leave room to help out others (something I care about and that makes me feel happy and fulfilled). Thus this guideline became a goal – to provide me with a reason to being a decent human being every now and then.
Gain Know-How Worth Sharing
Very much related to the previous point, assisting others, and the next one, avoiding rent-seeking, this is my personal equivalent to Stephen Covey’s sharpen the saw.
In order to build the expertise necessary to fulfil my other life goals, I feel I need to obtain the right kind of know-how. There’s a different quality to know-how – some is beneficial short term, some is beneficial in helping me profit at the expense of others, some is genuinely adding value.
For myself, the easiest way to determine if know-how is good or bad, is to think about whether sharing it with a large number of people would make the world a better place. The know-how to trick a system (e.g. Google’s website ranking algorithm) doesn’t pass that test. Research into weapons or arms wouldn’t either. How to fly a helicopter, manage a forest or write software on the other hand would qualify as ‘good’ know-how.
This goal ensures I focus on immersing myself in areas and acquiring knowledge that helps to make the pie bigger, rather than just allowing me to secure a bigger part of it.
Rent-seeking in short means profiting from a transaction without adding any value. Corruption would be one of the worst examples of it. Less sinister ones include everything that is aimed at getting you a bigger piece of the pie without making the pie bigger.
A lot of search engine optimisation (something I’m actually quite decent at) falls into this category in my opinion. More of a guideline than a goal, but since the objective of this goal list is to induce good behaviour, this one fits remarkably well. There’s no point in having a goal that you’re going to achieve without any effort on its own. This specific goal guideline is meant to draw my attention away from ‘easy wins’ and more towards generating value.
It’s an important goal for me because I’m a very ambitious person. As such, the strategies that promise quick wins, safe gains and good return-on-investments tend to be the most attractive. Unfortunately those are also the ones most likely to fall under rent-seeking. The purpose of this goal is to correct or limit this behaviour.
Maintain Financial Independence
I’m currently in the lucky position of not feeling limited by financial restrictions. In other words, I can do what I want (like, writing this blog) without having to worry about present or future financial expenses. Part of that is based on previous success, part of it is a lack of desire for status symbols, and part of it is the fortune of having rather mundane tastes and cravings. These circumstances allow me to sit in a coffee shop and type away at this vanity project, without having to worry about more ‘worldly’ matters. It’s a state I’d like to maintain, ensuring my world continues to be defined by first-world problems.
On a side note – this doesn’t prevent me from experiencing financial anxiety. Unspecified worry about all the known and unknown things that could possibly go wrong in the future. It might actually be this very anxiety that got me here in the first place. That’s what makes it hard to dismiss it. I consider it a mental issue that actually benefits my life, resulting in me simultaneously feeling safe and unsafe at the same time.
Be a Good Partner, Son, Brother
The quality of the relationships with those closest to us impact our happiness to a very profound degree. Maybe that’s a bit of an egoistic reason to pursue this. However, I’m not here to argue that I’m a good person. I’m here to argue that I want to do good things and I accept that the motivation for that might be inherently selfish. That aside, it would be hard to justify efforts spent on making the world a better place if you don’t extend similar efforts to your immediate surroundings.
It might be second nature to most people, but to me it’s one of the hardest parts of myself to influence. I’m not the most empathetic person and creating as well as maintaining these kind of close bonds is somewhat of a challenge to me. You might have already guessed that from the fact that I need to make this ‘objective’ a part of a ‘to-do’ list in order to accomplish it in a satisfactory manner.
What About You?
That sums it up for me. I feel it’s nice to have some structure and direction that I determine myself. However, I’ve also toyed with the complete opposite: Accepting no overarching objectives whatsoever and living life one step at a time. I can actually see the benefits of either – even though they’re complete opposites.
I hope this also gives you some ideas on taking charge of your life and set out your own objectives (or specifically choose not to!). If you’re not quite sure where to start, I can’t think of anything better than picking up a copy of ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People‘ by Stephen Covey. Don’t be put off by its cheesy title – it’s a very profound book that made me rethink a lot of major issues about my life.
What about you? Do you have any long-term goals or guidelines for your life? Do you think having them would add to the quality of your life?