Recently, I caught up with a friend I don’t get to see often enough. Neither of us were in a Major Life Crisis, so we were doing that thing where we swap minor problems back and forth—everything from busyness to boredom to the various ways our aging bodies are mysteriously misbehaving.
Naturally, we share that delightful human instinct for wanting to share solutions we’ve found. But after the conversation, I reflected on the advice we’d swapped, and I realized we had mostly both been talking to our past selves, rather than each other.
We were sharing things that had helped us, as opposed to things that we thought would actually solve each other’s problems. For example, someone might have said something like:
“Yoga helped me so much… you should do yoga too!”
There’s nothing wrong with this. If something helps us, it’s only natural to want other people to try it too, so they can receive the same benefits.
But we all have differing needs, and take differing things from each experience. What you get out of yoga might not be what I would get out of it. Perhaps you loved it for the quiet reflective time away from the busyness of life, while I really need a vibrant new community.
Of course, yoga can be both, but that’s not the point. I realized that instead of focusing on the object which helped us, it might be more helpful to explain why it helped:
“Yoga helped me [connect with a cool community / become stretchier / spend more time with rubber mats]. Is there an activity which could help you in the same way?”
Instead of pointing my friend specifically towards yoga, I could help them put their needs into words, and make changes which could help meet those needs.
In other words, I realized I could give better, more personalized advice if I focused on why something might help, rather than on what my recommendation was. This idea stuck with me, and I found myself applying it in other areas of my life—in particular, when setting goals.
Finding an underlying direction…
I feel like I’m constantly revising what I’m aiming to achieve. At any one time, I’m juggling a few different projects, and my goals can usually be expressed as “finish this, then finish that, then finish the other thing.”
But if I focus on why—on what grander, deeper purpose the goal is supposed to achieve—then my perspective broadens and I realize there are many more options open to me than I first perceived.
For example, imagine I wanted to star in a local amateur musical. I practice, I work hard, and eventually I go to the audition and do my best.
If I didn’t get the part, I would be sad: I failed to meet my goal.
But if I look deeper at my underlying goal—my why—I might see that, actually, what I really wanted was to get out of the house, to meet some people, and to improve at performing. This part was only one specific way I could have met those needs. Now, I can look for another activity—or activities—which fulfill those underlying desires.
If we can express why we have a particular ambition, we can usually find multiple paths to achieving it.
Instead of ‘goals’, I’ve come to think of these whys as ‘directions‘: not a single, specific future, but a whole host of potential futures which all contain something I desire.
… So you can move toward concrete benefits
Directions have another advantage over specific goals: we don’t have to complete them in order to see the benefit.
Let’s take another example. Imagine I had the ambition to own a yacht. (It probably won’t be surprising that this isn’t an example from my own life.)
Like before, I could look for the underlying needs I’m trying to meet. Perhaps I want to show off, or to spend more time on boats, or simply want to have more excuses to say the word “yacht.”
Now let’s further imagine that even after going through this process, I’m completely set on the specific goal. Sure, there are other ways I could meet the need to spend time on boats, but I’m determined that I’ll get my yacht, come what may.
Even in that case, it makes sense to determine a broader direction that will move me toward my specific goal—like “having more disposable income.” If I move far enough in this direction (let’s be real: very very far), then I’ll be able to afford a yacht.
But even if I don’t make it all the way, any movement in this direction still brings me the benefit of more disposable income.
It also encourages me to search the broad space of possibilities which move me in this direction. Instead of focusing on the end result—the yacht—which doesn’t suggest any concrete actions, thinking about this direction suggests specific, attainable actions:
- “I will spend less this week”
- “I will find temporary, part-time work”
- “I will write 500 words on my novel”
- “I will find another three clients for my business”
Thinking about the direction naturally leads us to come up with smaller, more achievable goals, which themselves take us towards our underlying desires and needs.
Why, not what
Multipotentialites are often accused of leaping from goal to goal, but perhaps we’re simply finding new ways to meet the same underlying need.
Next time you find yourself setting a goal—or even simply wanting something—try to identify why. What’s the need you’re trying to meet? Are there other ways you could meet that need, and are any of those ways better or easier? And does that why suggest a broader direction you could use as your focus?
My final example for the day: in writing this post, my why isn’t to convince you that this way of thinking is the best. It’s to help you out, any way I can.
Maybe that means you’ll look for more underlying whys in your life. Maybe you’ll give better advice, by looking for the need the other person is trying to meet. Or maybe it’ll simply remind you to go back to yoga so you can spend more time with rubber mats. As long as it helps someone, somewhere, I’ve moved in the right direction.
I hope you can do the same.
What are your goals right now, and what are the whys beneath them? Have you set any broad directions for your life at the moment? Share your story in the comments below!