Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Roads are more important than destinations

Standard inspirational advice usually goes something like this: "Set your sights on lofty goals and never let go of them. Choose your destination, and the road will take care of itself. If necessary, you'll make your own road! Dream big dreams, pursue them unwaveringly, and those dreams are bound to come true."

Bad advice! This invariably means young people choose grandiose, unobtainable dreams—movie star, rock star, sports star—and waste many years of their lives throwing themselves against the obstacles that stand in their way. In the end, they are usually defeated because the goal disregarded what was realistically possible.

So what is the alternative? "Choose a wise road, and the destination will take care of itself."

It's okay to have a general direction you want to go in, but it should be more of a meta-goal then a specific one. For example: "Use more of my creative abilities on things I find meaningful." Within that general goal, a lot of things are possible. You don't need to know right now exactly what the destination will be.

At this moment (and every moment), you stand at a crossroads. There are a number of roads open to you. There are also a number of roads not open to you. You can't become a movie star right now because no one is offering you the position. Your wisest move is to choose the most promising road from those that are actually available to you.

Right now, at this crossroads, you must look ahead at each road as far as you can see. You aren't looking for a specific destinations but the spectrum of choices that this road offers. One road may lead to Europe and another to Africa. You don't need to know the exact city you'll end up in; you are just evaluating the range of options each continent presents. In your current circumstances, you may see that Europe offers better options, so that's the road head off on.

A funny thing happens on roads. Unexpected things turn up—things you weren't expecting when you first made your plans. There are unexpected obstacles, but also unexpected opportunities. If you have already fixed your sights on a specific goal, then you are going to barge through the obstacles and breeze past the opportunities, because they weren't part of the plan.

If your goals are more general and you aren't driven by a schedule, then you can afford to listen to the road. You can stop at the obstacles and figure out what they are trying to tell you. You can also stop at the opportunities, do a little analysis and say, "Wow! This is a lot better than my original plan!"

The nice thing about unexpected opportunities is they are organic. They flow easily. You don't have to force yourself. An opportunity is when the world has a need, and you happen to be in the right position to fill it. That's different from you having a need (to be a movie star) and demanding that the world fill that need.

The conventional advice says, "If the world doesn't give you the road you want, then pave your own." Unfortunately, that's very expensive—clearing all that forest, etc. It's much better to use a natural road when available. If you want to get to the next valley and a mountain range stands in your way, you shouldn't draw a straight line on the map and follow it blindly; you look for natural passes in the mountains. They may not take you exactly where you intended, but they get you past the obstacle.

Likewise, there is no particular value in choosing a specific destination in life and barging toward it come hell or high water. For one thing, by the time you get there, the destination may be gone! The trouble with choosing a specific goal right now is that it is based on information from the past. You don't know how the world is going to change or how you yourself will change. In most cases, those lofty childhood goals are just you trying to reproduce someone else's success. They aren't you finding your own success.

It sounds like a truism, but traveling is a journey. You can't really know what works for you until you get there. By all means, visit Europe, but don't decide beforehand what you are going to like best about it. You don't want to choose your destination, force your own road through the mountains, then find out the destination wasn't all that great anyway.

To a certain extent, you have to trust the road. You use all your skills to choose the most promising path, but once you're on it, you have to listen to it. Don't let a better opportunity pass you by because you were on a fast-track to somewhere else. Stop and smell the flowers!

Maybe that was what you really wanted anyway.