For most of my life, I had three major goals. You might call them dreams; I sure did. But really, they were goals I wanted to achieve. They were: living in New York City, publishing a book, and traveling the world.
In October 2016, my wife and I moved into a tiny room in someone’s Staten Island basement. We had two suitcases and a part-time job between us. But we did it. We had moved to New York. This came about a year after I published a novel and just a few months after we backpacked Europe, racking up almost 30 countries in the few years we’d known each other.
In the movies, when you accomplish your goals, there is a “happily ever after scene”. You are standing on the mountaintop with the hero’s pose, gazing over the conquered horizon. You’re smiling ear-to-ear on your wedding day. You’re hoisting the trophy over your head triumphantly.
And the credits roll…
But in real life, the story does not end when you realize your dream. There is no happily ever after, only the decisions that await you tomorrow.
And the problem with so many of our goals is that they often leave us asking “what next?”
When we are chasing something, say a gold medal at the Olympics or the publication of a novel, it seems so hard, so impossibly far away that we spend most of our time wondering if we are ever going to get there.
What if we do? What if we get that ceremony and strike that hero’s pose? The story continues. Weddings lead to marriages and careers lead to retirements. Life marches on. It does not fade to black with a standing ovation just because you have accomplished what you’ve long been chasing.
Goals are not an end themselves. They are a means to an end.
When we reach a goal, something small like meeting a deadline at work, we move on to the next one. Those greater goals, we sometimes call them milestones, work the same way. We reach them and we (like it or not) have to keep moving.
The question is where? And why? Not just why do we keep moving but why were we chasing the milestone to begin with? If goals/milestones are a means to and end, what is that end?
The human condition is one of striving. We dream of the day when our striving ceases and we can live in pure rest. But this is not really possible. We need something for which we are existing – a purpose. There is nothing more vital to the human spirit than a meaning to pursue.
And our goals are the way we pursue meaning. The answer to the What Next problem is to figure out what the end is. It can’t be another milestone, can’t be something you actually “achieve” in a traditional sense. It has to be something you participate in, throughout all seasons, within all goals and milestones. Something that includes but transcends the circumstances of the day.
Without this, we will chase milestone after milestone. We’ll reach some and fall short of others. But either in failing or succeeding, we will feel a sense of loss, a sense of loneliness. The kind of thing that comes from an absence of striving.
Discover your purpose and you do not lose any of the value of your goals/milestones. In fact, they increase exponentially. They become one chapter of a cohesive story, a life of consistent purpose.