I know I’m supposed to have goals.
We’re all supposed to, right? We’re told by our culture, by each other, and by what sometimes feels like common sense that this is the best way to conduct our lives. We’re told that we should identify clear targets, go after them, sacrifice for them until we achieve them. And many of us are very good at this. We train for marathons. We lose the extra weight. We go back to school. We start businesses. We pay off our mortgages and our student loans.
That last one—paying off my student loans—is a goal of mine right now, no question. And I have to say, it’s a fun goal to have because it’s so huge and so clearly defined: in January I owed $56,753, today I owe $54,181, my interest rate is 6.8%…Go! As the months go by I’ll watch the progress bar move slowly towards the right, and someday the gap between what I’ve paid and what I owe will close, and I’ll treat you all to a virtual glass of champagne, and we’ll clink our glasses together, and I’ll feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment.
But there’s something a little peculiar about choosing debt payoff as a goal, at least in my particular case. I can’t help but notice that my goal consists of a collection of negative sentiments: I want to NOT have debt, I want to NOT have the stress and anxiety that go along with debt, I DON’T want to have to make student loan payments anymore. It’s not a goal to do or to have or to create or to become or to experience…rather, it’s a step away from danger, a wish for an absence. It’s a big, gaping hole in the ground that I’m trying desperately to fill in as quickly as possible so that I can do…what?
In other words, I know I’m trying to escape from something, but what am I escaping towards?
Here’s where the mountaintop comes in. I’ve been on a lot of hikes, and in the vast majority of cases the goal of the hike has been to get to the top of the mountain. And also to enjoy the journey, presumably. But because of our human frailty and vulnerability, we cannot safely walk up a huge mountain and back down again with nothing. In order to make it there and back, we (apparently) need special shoes, we need backpacks with food and bottles of water, we need waterproof jackets and hats and sunglasses and sunscreen and extra socks and hiking poles and GPS and maps and first aid kits and sometimes ice picks and yak tracks. And it can be surprisingly easy to get really caught up in the gear: Ooh, smartwool socks! Ooh, delicious granola bars! Ooh, the latest technology in waterproof, windproof, breathable fabric! But is the gear the goal? Not really. The mountaintop is the goal. The gear is just a means to an end, a set of tools that enables you to confidently and safely begin walking.
Sometimes I wonder if my situation is similar. Is working to pay off debt with no subsequent goals in mind the same as stocking up on all the cool gear without any current plans to climb a specific mountain?
I don’t want to belittle my goal of paying off debt, because it is a real goal, and it is important to me. But I do suspect that it functions as a stand-in, a distraction from the fact that I don’t currently have a lot of other large goals. And writing this here feels a little like a confession because I know that I’m “supposed” to have goals and that people who don’t have any goals are complacent, unimaginative, small-minded.
Then again, isn’t there something to be said for being at peace with your life right now? I can see the value in pursuing a goal if you already happen to have one, but trying to come up with things I wish I had can feel like an exercise in discontent.
The truth is that in many ways, I am really happy with my life right now. For the first time in a long time, I’m an adult with a Real Job. I’m happy to wake up early and go do my job for 8 or 9 hours, and I’m happy to leave it after that time is up. I live in a beautiful city with lots of places to explore. I get to spend a lot of my day outside, walking. I have my family and friends. I’m in good health. I’m in a book club. I’m taking Spanish classes. I practice yoga. I have access to free libraries (as do most of us) and free Internet (because my landlord is a nice guy). Honestly, if I could change anything at all about my day-to-day life, it would probably be to get more sleep. Or to have a washer and dryer in my apartment. But these small annoyances aren’t obstructing my happiness in any real way.
And actually I do have goals. It’s just that they don’t happen to be particularly expensive ones. I want to remember friends’ birthdays early enough that I can get it together to send a card or gift in the mail. I want to be kinder to strangers. I want to find more ways to communicate better in difficult situations. I want to get better at my day job. I want to figure out the next step in my career. I want to become a better writer. I want to improve my Spanish. I want to stay healthy. I want to read more books. I want to keep learning and growing as a human being. I want to find more ways to add value to the world. Most of these goals are free, or nearly free, and few of them are easily measurable. And more to the point, I can pursue any and all of them whether I have student loans or not.
And so here is my real confession: I don’t think it’s necessary to have humongous, measurable, expensive goals in order to live a meaningful life—at least it’s not necessary for me at this particular point in my life. I believe that it’s okay to have goals that are embedded in the day-to-day, goals that defy measurement or are imperceptible to others. I believe that goals can take the shape of intentions, that they can slide in and out of hibernation or materialize without warning. And I believe that in some cases, goals can even be buried, hidden beneath the surface, visible only when we find ourselves suddenly at the top of a mountain that we didn’t even fully realize we were climbing.
As for those bigger, visible, measurable goals, maybe I’ll end up formulating one or two or ten of those sometime in the future. And maybe not. But I figure in the meantime it can’t hurt to pay off these loans as quickly as I can.
What do you think? Is it necessary to have big, huge, expensive, measurable goals? Do smaller goals hold less meaning? I’ve been thinking about all of this a lot lately and would be very curious to hear your thoughts.