Something that’s been coming up in a lot of my conversations lately, is the concept of having a clear vision for your life.
It’s always an interesting conversation, because while I see immense value in being purpose driven and having a vision to strive for – I’ve also witnessed its potential to cause distress and dissatisfaction in people’s lives (myself, most certainly, included.)
In this post, we will look at a few examples that demonstrate what happens in the vision setting process that can lead to stress and dissatisfaction. I also want to offer up some food for thought and hopefully, you’ll walk away with a new way to think about your vision and purpose that allows for a bit more flexibility (and ultimately, happiness) along the way. (P.S. you’ll notice that I use the terms purpose and vision for your life interchangeably in this post, they are definitely separate concepts but for this post, it’s not as important to distinguish.)
Let’s look at 3 brief examples of how this idea of having a vision for your life can lead to stress or dissatisfaction.
1. My sister is in the process of transferring from community college to a 4 year university. Since she is transferring in as a junior, the infamous “pick your major” conversation was one of the biggest things on her mind. My sister is extremely hard working and ambitious, and as a result, I watched her put a lot of unnecessary stress upon her shoulders as she went through the process of selecting a major.
- I don’t have a vision of exactly what I want to do/be, so I am nervous I am going to choose the wrong major
- Betsy (fake name) is so lucky, she knows her purpose is to be a teacher so she knows exactly what classes to take and doesn’t have to waste time figuring it out. I wish I had that
- As soon as I can figure out my purpose I’ll feel more motivated in the things I do (class, extracurricular activities, etc.)
For those of you who don’t know my sister, that girl is a ray of sunshine, so it was painful to see this pressure of having it all figured out impact her mood, sense of confidence, and general level of happiness.
2. Conversely, a close friend/colleague of mine has a very clear picture of what she wants to do with her career. We have talked a lot in the past and she knows exactly the types of projects, people, and skills that exist in the industry. She is one of the most intelligent people that I know, so when it comes to job opportunities, the world is her oyster. I’ve had the opportunity to be a close friend through her last two job transitions and here is the interesting phenomena that tends to happen.
- She’ll apply to a few organizations that excite her, she crushes the interviews and the job offers start coming in. It’s everything she wanted right?!
- When it comes time to make a decision, which granted is a very important decision, she stops herself and thinks “shit, is this actually the right move? Is this absolutely going to get me to my end goal? Is it the best choice?”
- The result is that rather than get pumped for the amazing options in front of her, she becomes plagued with the pressure to make the perfect choice. At times, she will even undermine her accomplishments because they’re not exactly what she thinks she needed. The end result is still a great job, but the pressure along the way makes the journey stressful and anticlimactic, rather than exciting and affirming.
3. A guy I know from the gym is just a few years from retirement. He was recently laid off from his job and was working to answer the question of “what’s next?” I had a few chances to speak with him through the process. In our first conversation, he told me “Matt, I’m tired of this shit…I’ve been doing (sales) for over 30+ years and the last thing I want to do is ramp up at another company right now. I feel like I finally have an opportunity to stop working for someone else.” Our following conversations were awesome, the guy had clearly been successful in his life. We’d talk about ideas of what he could do and some of them really got him amped but each time we’d go down a path, the momentum would slowly crumble because when it came time to pull the trigger he wasn’t sure that it was the best option – I sensed a fear of “what if this is the wrong decision? The result, he is back in sales and honestly I don’t think he is happy about it.
All of the above examples are really close to home for me, they are stories of people who I love, respect, and look up to in many ways. The examples also purposely span from college, to mid-career, to end of career. I chose these examples to show that this is something we deal with throughout our lives, so if it is a source of distress/dissatisfaction in your life as well, that’s not going to go away unless you directly address the root cause.
Now, let’s explore the root cause and the impact it can have on us.
At one point in our lives, we’ve all thought about our vision for who we want to be and what we want to achieve (our legacy). If you haven’t, you should certainly take some time and start thinking about it.
The issue, is that when setting our vision, we tend to put a very specific end-goal in our minds of what our lives need to look like in order to feel like we “succeeded” or “made the most of it.” When we finally define that clear end-goal, it tends to come with a very clear-cut path in our minds to get there (or at least a desire to have one).
What often happens with this approach is that the specific end-goals in our minds are typically articulated as a role or a specific measurement (i.e., I want to be a doctor, I want to be a teacher, I want 10 million dollars, I want to win 6 NBA championships [Bron, if you’re reading this, that means you]). Naturally, with the specific end vision, comes a clear-cut path to get there. “I have 10 years to become a partner, I’ll start as an analyst, then I’ll need to go to business school for my MBA, then I’ll come back and do x, y, and z, after that I’ll finally be a partner and be able to enjoy my life.” We chart out these paths because they provide us with a sense of certainty in our lives, a false sense of certainty, I’ll add – but it still helps many of us sleep better at night.
Our tendency to become laser focused on the end-goal and our clearly defined paths to get there can lead to the following negative outcomes:
- Stress: When we think about our vision it’s easy to stress out. “I don’t know my vision or my purpose.” “I know what I want to do but I don’t have a clue on where to start.” “So and so is so lucky she knows exactly what she wants to be.” “What if this is the wrong vision for me, can you remind me what yours is?”
- Rigidity…and also stress: We get so hooked on the end result that we don’t leave any room for “life” to happen…and “life” certainly happens (by life, I mean new circumstances such as falling in love, having a baby or getting fired, fresh perspectives like an epiphany that shifts your world view, or detours along the way such as a unique opportunity to travel or experience something new) When we are rigid in our approach, “life” happening can cause massive amounts of stress and dissatisfaction regarding our current situation because its not part of the path we set and we didn’t plan for it to happen.
- Tuning out…and also stress: Being laser focused on the end result can also remove you from the present moment. Rather than being able to enjoy things as they are happening, you are focused on calculating the distance to your end goal and all you see is a gap (i.e. your vision is to make 10 million dollars, you just made your first million but all your thinking about is the 9 million more you need to make.)
It’s twisted, because the whole reason we create a vision for ourselves is so that we can ultimately feel satisfaction with our lives and be happy. Critical components to happiness are less stress, the ability to deal with change and adversity as it comes, and being fully present in each moment we experience. Given that logic, it doesn’t quite make sense to deprive yourself of such things to on the road to happiness.
So what should we do?
I am not suggesting that we stop thinking about our purpose and our visions for our lives and just wander around aimlessly. I am suggesting however, that we rethink how we define our visions and path to get there. Rethinking our vision/path can free us from a rigid, myopic focus on the end goal and open us up to an adaptive, fluid approach that still takes us to our ultimate destination but allows for some flexibility and joy along the way.
Here are two simple tweaks you can make that will have a massive impact on the road to reach your vision.
- Forget your role, focus on your contribution: as I mentioned, when we set a vision for ourselves, it can often come in the form of a role (i.e. I want to be a doctor, a college professor, or a personal coach). The challenge with focusing on roles is that to a degree, those things can be out of your control – financial situations, decisions from others, and general life circumstances can all impact your access to a specific role. Your contribution however, is something that you control 100%, all of the time. Contribution is focused around the outcome rather than the role – its saying “I want to heal people” rather than saying “I want to be a doctor.” When you focus on contribution rather than role, new doors open up. Suddenly, you don’t need to wait to finish school, residency, or have 5 years of experience to start living out your purpose. Suddenly, you don’t need someone else to tell you “yes, we approve that you can do this with your life now”
- This same line of thinking also applies to visions that have a unit of measurement connected to them (i.e. I want to make 5 million dollars) Instead of thinking about the 5 million dollars, think about what it would mean to you to have $5m. Would you be able to travel the world? Would you be able to contribute philanthropically? If these are your goals, you don’t need $5m to get started. Typically, these units of measurement have a deeper intention behind them and once again, when you get to the core of what that is, a whole new world will open for you.
- Allow room for life to happen: I can’t stress this enough. We tend to see our existence and personal experience as the center of the universe and forget that there is a dynamic and interconnected world of people and circumstances out there that we have no control over. It’s impossible to try to control everything that happens and when we do, we stress ourselves out and waste time and energy fighting against this force of the universe. When we are rigid, we can close off to some amazing other opportunities – “Yeah, I wish I could have volunteered with that organization in Delhi but I have to study for my GMAT if I am going to get into business school by the fall” <– (There is nothing inherently wrong with that but in many cases, when I probe, its part of a precisely defined 12-year plan that has every year mapped out and accounted for.) For me, while I believe in ambition and planning, I also believe that there is a deeper intelligence at play and things happen for a reason – whether it feels like a good thing or bad thing. That’s why I like to leave a bit of room for serendipity and for an alternate route to my end goal.
- Pro Tip: when you focus on contribution rather than role, it becomes much easier to allow room for life to happen. When you focus on contribution, everything you do, every place you are, and everyone you meet can become an opportunity for you to make a connection, add a tool to your toolkit, or get an experience under your belt that can support your vision.
By making these tweaks, my hope is that:
- You no longer have to stress about knowing exactly what you want to be. You can instead focus on who you want to be – a subtle but powerful shift. When you focus on who you want to be, rather than what, you never have to wait for someone’s permission to start being that person – you can start RFN
- You get excited about life’s curveballs and welcome them with open arms rather than fight vehemently against your current circumstance. This leaves you with energy to step into new situations with full force and a positive attitude, when you do that, things just start to manifest for you
- You are more present, happier, and ultimately more productive! Your journey no longer feels like a chore, it becomes enriched, exciting, and joyful. The journey is no longer something you have to do, it’s something you get to do
I know some folks may read this post and say “That’s absolute bullshit, if you want to be the best, you need to be laser focused on the end result and not waste time on anything that doesn’t get you there.” Just yesterday I saw a post from an Instagram influencer where the caption read something like “Turn your blinders on to everything but your end goal.”
Maybe that approach works for you and if so, by all means continue – but this is why my perspective has shifted.
For the last 8 years, I’d consider myself a pretty purpose-driven individual. For me, my passion has been sharing health, well-being, and encouragement to others. To achieve this, I set a vision. I thought that I would need to be a well-known health and fitness coach if I was going to have any impact on people’s lives. So I got certified as personal trainer and yoga instructor and set out on my way. I started off by creating a small personal training company in college with a close friend, which we tried to scale to a web based business and failed. I was close to graduating college and had nothing to show for it – I felt ashamed and lost, what was I going to do now?
When received my offer from Deloitte Consulting, I was honestly not too pumped about it. I felt like this would take precious time away from my end goal but I took the job anyway thanks to some advice from a few good mentors. At first, my perspective didn’t really change, I wasn’t really happy because I wasn’t doing what I was “meant” to be doing. Consulting wasn’t my purpose, so how was I supposed to live it out at a place like Deloitte? I felt like I had to put my vision on hold. My thinking during that time constantly revolved around an “exit strategy” – what was the best way I could leave and get back on track.
Over time, I started to realize that it wasn’t that I couldn’t live out my vision at Deloitte, it’s that I wasn’t. I had been so focused on the role that I thought I needed to have to live out my vision that I became blind to the other paths. As this perspective shifted, I started to realize that there was an entire pool of people within my company who were looking to go deeper in their health and well-being but didn’t have the time or the resources. All of a sudden, doors began to open – I started leading group workouts and meditation sessions for colleagues inside and outside of the office. I got to use my consulting experience of public speaking and building presentations to deliver health and fitness concepts to a much broader audience in a more compelling way and most recently, I’ve been granted the opportunity to travel the world for 6 months collecting and sharing tips on health and well-being. It’s been at Deloitte, not even as a full time personal trainer, that I have been able to make the biggest impact on people’s health and well-being so far in my life.
Before I shifted my perspective, I rarely considered things outside my defined path and when I did, I couldn’t really enjoy them. For the last couple of years however, I’ve opened myself to the serendipity of life and am able to look at challenges and opportunities as productive detours that have the potential to take me beyond what I would have imagined on my own.
So to close, again, this doesn’t mean don’t set goals and forget your ambitions. No, being a lazy bum and sitting and waiting for things to happen wont do anything for you. Instead, stay productive but be open to detours along the way, cultivate a sense of faith that there is a deeper reason for your current circumstance, and allow yourself the time and space to explore what that may be.
P.S. If there are any challenges you’ve run into or any tips or tricks you employ when thinking about your vision, I’d love to hear your perspective.
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