I Achieved Most of My Long-term Goals — and it’s Not What I Expected
Thirty years ago, when I was in my mid-twenties, I remember going through goal-setting exercises. I read books and watched videos and did worksheets to help me determine what I wanted to accomplish in my life, personally and professionally. I was determined to get clear about my long-term goals and then, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, I was going to crush them. (Remember, it was 1991.)
Like most people, my big-picture goals were focused on the final destination — some hazy endpoint far-off in the distance where I would finally have all the things I wanted. They were centered on things like attaining a certain income level, getting my weight down to a certain number, and taking nice trips to certain places.
It’s interesting to think back on those goals I set in my twenties and realize I’ve probably achieved many of them (except for the weight; it’s always the weight). I don’t attribute this to any great feat on my part; it’s as much a function of time as talent. If you’re on this earth long enough and have a general sense of where you want to go and what you want to do, you’ll like likely get pretty close to who you hope to be.
Nonetheless, if my 25-year-old self could look have looked forward three decades and seen me today, he’d probably be excited and say, “Congratulations, man! You did it — you’re there!”
And my 55-year-old self would chuckle, shake his head a little and say back to him, “I’ve got news for you, kid. There is no there here.”
The Arrival Fallacy
I’m not implying I don’t appreciate the things I have in my life today that I longed for back then. I’m blessed to have had a career that afforded me and my family a nice lifestyle. I have a degree of freedom and autonomy in my work now I could only have dreamed of in 1991. Above all, I have an amazing wife and children whom I Iove and who love me, too.
Those aren’t trivial things, and I don’t take them lightly. But I also realize that my view in my twenties of what it would be like if-and-when I reached my long-term goals was misguided, or at least employed the wrong metaphor.
When I thought of the future back then, I envisioned a mountain top; a summit. A place where, at last, all my hard work had paid off and I’d accomplished all the things I wanted to do and be and get. And then I would be done. Happy. Fulfilled. If you’d asked me what I wanted after I’d planted that flag in the mountain peak, I’d have probably fumbled around and answered, “um...I dunno. More?”
And there’s the rub. I was so focused on the achievements I was striving for that I had no sense of what I wanted to do on the other side if I was lucky enough to achieve them. Like many of us, my mantra was, “let’s just focus on getting there; we’ll figure the rest out then.”
That, I suppose, is what happens — but not in the way we expect. With age comes perspective, and as all those things you are striving for start to come into reach, you begin to realize it’s not going to be the utopian dream you expected. You still have fears and challenges, joys and sorrows. You still have life.
This myth that there is some combination of acquisitions and achievements that will bring us fulfillment is known as “the arrival fallacy.” It’s a term coined by Harvard lecturer Tal Ben-Sharar, who describes it as “this illusion that once we make it, we attain our goal or reach our destination, we will reach lasting happiness.”
I learned this first-hand a number of years ago, when I became obsessed with getting a convertible after a business trip to south Florida in the middle of a cold, dreary winter in Atlanta. The weather was glorious in Naples, and I decided to rent a convertible for the duration of the trip. I loved riding around on that trip with the top down and the warm Florida sun on my face. I resolved then and there to get rid of my boring SUV and replace it with a convertible. I was obsessed with the dream of riding around every day with the top down just like I had in Florida, my wife by my side and my kids in the back, all enjoying the fresh air and sunshine.
I finally got that convertible, and it was fun for a few weeks. But then the weather got hot and I found myself sweaty and sticky when I put the top down, so I kept it up except for the evenings. When the fall came and the cool air returned, my kids complained about how cold they were on the way to school, and my clients started asking if I’d been playing a lot of golf because I was so tan all the time. Anytime I had to get so much as a shovel at the hardware store, I had to borrow my wife’s car because it wouldn’t fit in my cramped convertible.
When the lease ran out on my dream car, I turned it in with no regrets. I had some fun times in that convertible, but they never rivaled that moment I had touring around south Florida on that business trip. That had been a moment of happenstance when everything fell together to create a joyful, fleeting moment in time. But instead of enjoying it for what it was, I made it an acquisition target. A new goal to acquire a new thing. But when I got it, the new thing didn’t transfer to the realities of my day-to-day life. And it certainly wasn’t transformative.
This is how people with unlimited means end up with cars and planes and yachts and still seem to crave…more. I remember something the personal assistant to a multi-billionaire once said to me about all of her boss’s many and varied possessions. “Deep down, he’s really unhappy and lonely,” she said. “Buying more stuff is the only thing he knows to do to try and fill the void.”
Finding joy in the small moments
It’s easy to become morbid about this, but there’s also a certain grace in the awareness of it. We get to a point where we realize our journey through life isn’t so much a mountain-climbing expedition as it is a sailing adventure.
We set out for, say, Monte Carlo, only to find ourselves in drydock in Fort Lauderdale. Then our lack of navigational skills and the winds of fate zigzag us around all over the world, to places we never intended to be and don’t really know how we got to. Sometimes we’re in Bimini and it’s pretty awesome. Sometimes were in Antarctica and it’s cold and miserable. And even if we do finally get to Monte Carlo, after a while we get bored and restless and start yearning for something new. You can only spend your days sun-tanning with French models for so long, after all.
Eventually, we wise up and come to realize that what did matter — what does matter — are the moments of joy we experienced along the way. We stop viewing things as being the source of joy and instead just appreciate the joy itself.
Not long ago, I had one of those vivid dreams that seem so real you’re shocked when you wake up and realize you aren’t actually there. My kids are both in college now, but in my dream they were young, about eight and six years old. We were back in our first house, and my daughter was playing in the pile of autumn leaves I had raked up, while my son pedaled around the driveway trying to get the hang of his new bike. I was watching all this from the kitchen, and I remember seeing the beige, ceramic coffee jar we used to keep on the counter. It was a trivial item I’d forgotten all about, one we probably gave away when we got a new fancy self-grinding coffee maker. But for some reason, when that benign little coffee jar came back to me in my dream, it anchored me deeply to that time in our lives.
When I woke up, all the sweet memories of those years came flooding back to me, and I felt regret that I didn’t appreciate that time of life more when I was living it. I thought back to how those days felt to me then, how I was consumed with the responsibilities of work and family. I worried about the future a lot, and any given day seemed relatively mundane. There were bills to pay and lawns to mow and softball teams to coach. I loved my life then as I do now, but I couldn’t appreciate how fleeting it all would be, when life was simpler and the kids were safe under our wing.
I can appreciate it in retrospect, though, and let it inform my perspective about today. In the fall of 2019, my wife and I decided to move into a smaller home better suited to our new, empty-nester life. But the Covid-19 shutdown hit just a few months later, and suddenly our kids were back in the nest with us for an extended, unexpected stay.
The smaller footprint of our new house meant the four of us had a good bit less room to stretch out and find our own spaces than we used to have. I can’t say there weren’t times during our long quarantine when we didn’t get on each other’s nerves. But I also know my wife and I appreciated the bonus time we got to spend with our kids, when there was nothing much to watch on TV and nowhere we could go. After a while, we even grew bored with our — gasp! — smart phones, and old-school pastimes like puzzles and board games and books became modern again.
You’ll have to ask my kids if they enjoyed their time being locked-in with me as much as I did with them. I suspect I know what their answer would be, but hey — that’s the way it’s supposed to be. And maybe they did enjoy it a little, and gained a deeper appreciation for the great family we have along the way.
If I could tell my 25-year-old self one thing, it would be this: There is no summit; there’s only a path. As we go along that path, we come to realize many of the things we thought we wanted don’t bring us the fulfillment we expected. It turns out the small moments are the ones that really matter.
I’d tell myself to relish the good moments and find a way to embrace the bad ones at every point of the journey, because they’re all building on who you are and who you’re going to be. And once they’re gone, there’s no going back, because it turns out the path only runs in one direction: forward.