We all set goals with the hopes they will be meaningful goals in some way. Really, wouldn’t we all pay a pretty penny for the answer to the meaning of life? As far as goals are concerned, meaning can be a fickle creature. Especially when focused on long-term goals, changes in our circumstances can change our desires, wishes, and motivations. A goal that was meaningful in one-way last month, may be meaningful in a completely different way after a major life event. Think about how the meaning behind learning a new language changes when you move to a new country; or how the meaning behind finally landing a promotion changes when you have a child.
As the meaning attached to our goals can change so easily, or disappear altogether, it’s important to stay aware of how this impacts your life. There’s nothing worse than pursuing a goal for a number of years, only to realize when you’re about to reach the finish line that it lost its meaning long ago. To help you avoid this scenario, let’s discuss three different manifestations of meaning and how they impact your goals.
Meaningful Goals Today
When I landed in El Salvador, I only had a basic understanding of Spanish. As I was planning on spending the next year in the country, I knew I had to learn the language quickly if I hoped to make any connections in my new community.
“LEARN SPANISH” became the be all, end all goal on my list.
I took classes, hired a tutor, plowed through grammar worksheets, kept a dictionary in my pocket, and practiced as often as I could. And, it worked. While it took me the full year to realize everyone was saying “gracias A Dios” (thank you to God) and not “gracias adios” (thank you, goodbye), I was a decent Spanish speaker by the time I headed home to the United States.
When you think about it, it’s rare to set goals that have a dramatic impact on our current circumstances. We work today for a promotion tomorrow. We save money today for a car tomorrow. We exercise today for better health tomorrow. The journey is meaningful today, while the achievement of the goal will be meaningful tomorrow.
When I was learning Spanish in El Salvador, every inch of progress I made helped me leap forward in my abilities to reach my goal of learning Spanish and connecting with my Salvadoran community. Spending 5 more minutes with my dictionary meant I had 10 more words in my vocabulary I could use that day at the grocery store. Having a short conversation with my neighbor meant I had increased my confidence to talk with the bus driver or the post man. Everything I learned, experienced, or gained immediately improved my day-to day life and abilities to communicate.
Learning Spanish was meaningful today, as the result had an immediate impact on my day to day life and abilities to enjoy the fruits of my efforts.
Meaningful Goals Tomorrow
As mentioned above, we tend to set goals whose results impact our futures. Complaints about our abilities to live in the present moment aside, we spend a lot of time looking ahead and thinking about what our lives can, will, and should be. When I went to graduate school, I committed to working towards a degree that would grant me access to my dream career. When I signed up for my first marathon, I vowed to follow a training schedule that would prepare me to cross the finish line many months down the line.
This is not to say that our journeys to our goals can’t be meaningful. I learned more about discipline, persistence, and strength while training for my first marathon than any self-help book could have taught me. The journey itself was transformative, but I had to wait to enjoy the benefits of the achievement of the actual goal. It wasn’t until I had finally crossed the finish line of my first marathon that I could look ahead to my next race, could understand the pride that came with running a marathon, and set my sights on my future goals.
Goals that are meaningful tomorrow don’t always come in nicely wrapped packages with a straight line from the beginning to the end. Instead, they can come in long, twisted chains with meaning that is hard to find. For example, let’s say that I knew I wanted to go to graduate school when I was in Kindergarten. Instead of pulling out my big purple crayon and writing, “GO TO GRADUATE SCHOOL” on my construction paper bucket list, I would need to take a step back, swing on the swings for a bit, and realize that there were a lot of goals I needed to achieve and steps I needed to take in between Kindergarten and graduate school.
We often need to make a few turns to get to the road that ultimately leads to our meaningful goals. And we may not find every turn meaningful. If I had been a Kindergartener with dreams of graduate school, I may not have found meaning in achieving 1st grade, 2nd grade, and all of the other schooling required to reach graduate level education. However, all of those goals would have been in service to my meaningful goal of going to graduate school. I would have needed to pick up my purple crayon and continued practicing my alphabet, reassuring myself that everything would someday lead me to the higher education of my dreams.
If you’re pursuing a goal that appears to have no meaning to you on the surface, look ahead and see if the achievement of that goal will open the door to meaningful goals in the future. If the answer is yes, reassure yourself that it will all be worth it down the line. If the answer is no, well, read on.
No one likes the word “meaningless.” Even if we’re on vacation and have nothing more to worry about than getting sunburned on the beach, we want our lives to be meaningful. The problem is that we can be working towards goals we don’t even realize are meaningless. The reason this happens is because goals can be inherently meaningful, but not meaningful to our lives.
For example, I wanted a pet parrot as a kid. I believed that the more I learned about the care and keeping of parrots, the sooner I would prove myself as a competent parrot parent and be able to achieve my goal. Well, it wasn’t long before I found out that my mom didn’t want a bird that would live for 100 years, have a cage that would take up half of the living room, and talk to her at all hours of the day and night. Suddenly, the goal and all of my pursuits of it were fruitless. Through all those months of grueling parrot research, I didn’t know my efforts were in vain. I had no idea the goal was meaningless. While learning about the care and keeping of parrots can be meaningful in itself, it wasn’t meaningful to my life and circumstances once I learned I would never be getting a pet parrot of my own.
It’s important to understand the meaninglessness of your goal, as it isn’t always a bad thing. When I realized all of my research wouldn’t lead to a pet parrot, I didn’t find the research inherently interesting enough to merit continuing it for its own sake. As I had no dreams of becoming a parrot researcher in the future, didn’t enjoy reading about various types of bird food, and would never have a parrot of my own, I saw no reason or way to re-infuse this goal with meaning. It was time to move on to dogs; a goal which the picture below proves was very meaningful and worthy of achieving.
If you do some soul searching and realize you have a goal that is meaningless in the grand scheme of things, ask yourself if it is adding value to your life in some way. Is it providing meaning to you in a different way than originally intended? Is it something you’d like to re-infuse with meaning, or is it time to move on? Ask yourself why your goal is now meaningless and what that means for your pursuit of it.
Take Action to Find your MEaningful Goals
There is nothing wrong with any of the types of meaning listed above. They each serve their own purposes for each of our meaningful goals at various points of our lives. What matters is that you’re aware of any jumps your goals make between the types, as this could impact your day-to-day life and future plans. As with much of our work surrounding goals, self-awareness is key and crucial for keeping your goals on track.
Michael Hyatt is a great thought leader as far as goal setting and productivity is concerned. In his guide on goal setting for beginners, he highlights the importance of writing down your goals. When it comes to keeping tabs on the meaning behind your goals, this point is key. When you consistently write down your goals and your reasons for pursuing them, you will be forced to grapple with their meaning.
While it’s easy to ignore ambiguity when our goals only exist in our minds and