Something is wrong with our goal setting. We have been setting goals for many generations, but look at where America is today. What is wrong? It certainly is not that we have not been setting goals, nor is it that we have not been working hard. We set goals. We work towards them. We have experts who analyze what sort of goals we should set and write books about it, and we certainly do read those books. We have a whole industry devoted to the fulfillment of goals, yet we don’t seem to be any more contented; it is even debatable whether America itself is getting better or worse.
Somehow, we have left something out of the equation. The goals that we are setting are not fully reflective of the values that we want to embody in our lives.
We are now living in a nation that is in moral crisis. The values that we thought defined America: opportunity, fair play, tolerance, compassion, free speech, even democracy itself, are being challenged. Why is America retreating from its core values? Fear. When fear takes control, virtue vanishes. Why and how Americans became afraid is a long story, but the bottom line is that we are living with the consequences.
In living memory, John F Kennedy observed that the torch had been passed to a new generation. Unfortunately, that generation dropped the torch and set the world ablaze. The baby boomers went from wanting to teach the world to sing to wanting to keep the world at bay. The older generation has failed. We cannot let the next generation fail too. We need a new generation of Americans, a generation with convictions and with the courage to see them through. The next generation can and must succeed.
We have set goals that were purely selfish, and such goals do not bring contentment, even when they are obtained. We need a new kind of goal setting. We need to set internal goals before we set external goals. I think we need, specifically, to set two kinds of internal goal.
Goal 1: Be an Honorable Person
No matter how successful you might become, you cannot really be happy unless you are proud of yourself. Why? Because you *know* your own history. You cannot fool yourself. You will remember every step that you have taken along the way, and the more shame there is accompanying one of those steps the harder it will be to forget.
I’m sure you don’t need me to give you examples of people who have wealth, power and privilege and yet seem to be constantly ill at ease, always angry and complaining, unable to form enduring close relationships, who are constantly drinking or snorting, or who are just plain bored with life. That’s not really success. How could it be?
Feeling good about yourself largely comes down to how you treat others. It’s about a little thing called ethics and ethics boils down to one simple principle: the golden rule, treating others the same way you would want them to treat you; be honest with them, respect them, feel for them, honor their dignity as fellow humans, no matter who they are.
The key to living by the golden rule, and to all human relationships, is trustworthiness. Are you reliable? Are you honest? Do you keep your word when doing business? Do you keep your word in romantic relationships? It is common sense that a person who cannot be trusted by his romantic partner, or his parents, or even his children, cannot and should not be trusted by anyone else.
If you cheat someone to get your first hundred dollars, you will surely cheat a lot of people to make your first million, and many more still to make a billion. Be honest from step one. Start giving something back as soon as you are able, even if it’s only a little.
We need to promote a culture of virtue. Anyone in a leadership position should do this because when we do right, we feel good about who we are. Employees who are proud of what they are doing will be more engaged and will stay longer. Customers will feel your commitment.
Think creatively about what it means to be good. Don’t depend on a religion or ideology to tell you. A great place to start is with Aristotle, Plato and the other philosophers of the ancient world.
Goal 2: Be a Person who is Capable of Happiness
Being good is not quite enough though. You also need to be able to enjoy your life. If good people cannot also be happy people then what will anyone have to live for? It is easy to overlook the fact that the ability to enjoy life requires a skill set of its own.
We see so many stories of rich young people who have everything handed to them on a plate as an inheritance and who, nonetheless, end up miserable.
Imagine if you suddenly attained all of your career goals. How complete would your happiness be and how long would it last? Who would you share it with? Would you simply become bored and lose motivation? Would you overindulge in some way? Would you make a new goal and start over, back to square one?
Buddhism says that suffering is a result of craving; to reduce suffering, reduce craving. One does not have to be a Buddhist to see that there is a deep truth in that. In essence, the fewer needs we have, the easier it is for us to be contented. If we want to be happy, we need to cultivate the ability to take delight in simply being alive, to celebrate the sounds and colors of nature and the textures that surround us, to relish the quenching of thirst with water, of hunger with plain foods. To be happy means to be happy in the rain, in the heat, in the cold. How can we have happiness if we make our happiness dependent on something over which we have no control?
The less needy we are, physically and emotionally, the easier it is for us to find contentment. We must learn to be happy with little before we can be happy with much; we must learn to be happy alone before we can be happy in a relationship.
We have to learn to differentiate between cravings and preferences. It is fine to prefer one thing above another, but when we start feeling as if we must have this or that thing, this or that experience, this or that person, then we are on dangerous ground.
Stop for a moment and think about the enormous advantage that a person has who can be contented with basic clothing, simple shelter and plain food. Happiness is the default setting for such a person. Of course, we cannot work on happiness directly; it is more of a byproduct. However, we can cultivate the virtues that make happiness possible: integrity, resilience, appreciation, self-discipline.
Now You Can Dream
Let your other goals be as big as you can make them, just don’t let them be your primary focus so that your happiness becomes tied to fulfilling them. Here are four things that will help:
Realism. Some goals can be achieved simply with hard work. For instance, if you want to become a doctor and you are smart enough to become one then you probably can. Other goals are more subject to chance. If you want to be President of the United States then there are only a limited number of spots open during your lifetime. You probably won’t be able to achieve it. You can still try, but it would be silly to assume that succeeding would be entirely determined by your own effort. Either a probable goal or an improbable goal is fine to pursue, but you should know which type it is.
Persistence. Put in the hard work that is required to become an expert in your field. Establish good habits and be consistent in investing time in your field of expertise every day. Once you have become competent, find some way to add a unique personal spin to what you are doing; strive to develop your specialty in ways that others have not.
Networking. Don’t be a person who uses others as tools, but do invest the time to keep up positive relationships with others in your field. Every new contact can potentially amplify your outreach exponentially.
Optimism. You never know when a chance to make a breakthrough might arise unexpectedly. Always keep your eye out for a short cut. You might just be the one to get lucky. Opportunism is not wrong if nobody is hurt by it. However, don’t take bigger risks than you can afford to, and remember that there is no substitute for the expertise that is acquired by diligence and experience.
A Warning: Don’t Buy the Magic Beans
In the well-known story of Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack sets out to take his family’s cow to sell at the market but he meets a trickster along the way and instead exchanges it for some supposedly magic beans. The world is full of smooth-talking swindlers who don’t care about your hopes and dreams but only want to use you for their own ends. You have to be very careful of anybody who wants something from you, no matter how friendly and benevolent they might appear, no matter how prestigious, no matter how well educated, no matter how seemingly saintly, no matter how much admired. Don’t be outsmarted. Beware of those who are on the take. And beware of those who come offering gifts too, because generosity can be a way of creating a feeling of indebtedness. Don’t risk more of your time or your money than you can easily afford to lose. Don’t accept more in generosity than you feel comfortable with. Beware too of mentors! Don’t get swallowed up by somebody else’s ego trip. Don’t be distracted. Don’t exchange your own goals or dreams for another person’s.
is hard, but I don’t think that it needs to be. If we start out with the right
frame of mind, prioritize our goals, and work diligently then, in spite of
setbacks and occasional tragedies, life can be a deeply enjoyable and