I feel quite privileged to be able to write a post like this. Billions of people, many even within Western societies, hold responsibilities beyond what I could ever imagine having to deal with. I've seen countless posts for Father's Day that praise dads for persevering, having a deep rooted motivation to provide a better life for their children. I know my father reflects that, and I'm thankful for him everyday — that, to paraphrase Aziz Ansari, "My parents grinded so I didn't have to".
Now with that being said, I'm far from being without responsibility. It's those circumstances that were overcome that heavily influence the goals I have today. Aspirations to not only attend college but do well in it, get a solid job in a respectable field, and take every advantage of the opportunity that my parents afforded me.
I hope to outline my thought process around goals and motivations in this post, share some of the experiences I've had, and raise some questions to anyone reading.
I've written in past posts about the 'sprint VS marathon' mentality, and how a lot of my goals in previous years were very short-term and built around the herd mentality. You're judged by your academic success, so it should be a goal to achieve a good grade, whatever that takes. You're judged by your career readiness, especially for those who are inclined towards careers in business, so you're judged by the internships you get. This is a very reactionary approach to goal-setting, and one I fell into (and continue to fall into) too many times.
Attached to this idea is what I would call 'expected goals'. If you are in a certain position, with certain opportunities, there is a bare minimum that you should be able to accomplish. If you're in business school, it isn't enough to get a job in business — that much is expected of you. After all, if your parents paid thousands of dollars in tuition for you to receive a business education, shouldn't you at least get a job in business? This mentality extends, in my opinion, to a lot of disciplines. If you enter college as pre-med or pre-law, it's an expectation to get into med school or law school, respectively. Studying software engineering or computer science means you should be getting a job as a developer. It's not so much a goal, as an expectation.
For me, this meant that a lot of these 'expected goals' were motivated by fear — that if they weren't accomplished, I would be a failure. Hence, I tried to navigate life in a way that would raise the probability of those goals being achieved. Even though the college experience should educate you, challenge you, and leave you an enriched member of society, concepts like 'bird courses' and 'easy professors' are tossed around. There are even groups where these concerns are the main ones raised when choosing courses.
I started to give 'expected goals' more consideration throughout college, but not in the ways I should have. For example, I learned that it was easier to do well in classes I was interested in. Pursuing jobs that leveraged my skill sets, and what I enjoyed, were easier to obtain than otherwise. This has led me down a rather unique path — namely, a Political Science major with a background in growth marketing for tech companies.
I've given goal-setting an increasing amount of thought in my year off. In a lot of ways, working in growth at a startup in San Francisco was my goal throughout college. Hence, when I actually got here, I was a little lost as to what my next steps should be.
That led me to really wanting to challenge the idea of 'expected goals', and start defining pathways for myself that reflect what I'm really interested in. If I want to start a company, I should be building a skillset that better equips me to do that, not choosing opportunities that will give me the most external gratification from friends & family. My current role gives me that opportunity, but that should be the reason I'm motivated to do it, not the end goal of being in a specific role.
So how do you choose these 'real goals'? Unfortunately, I don't really know... But there are a few things that have helped:
- Read. Read different subjects, areas of interest, and take notes on what you learn, are confused by, and outright dislike. Recently, that hasn't taken the form of business / entrepreneurial books, but ones around philosophy — buddhism, historical thinkers, and modern philosophers. It's NOT relevant to my career, but it does help me reflect on my goals, approach to life, and why I do what I do.
- Talk to people. Can you remember the last really good conversation you had with someone? Why was it great? Are there others that come to mind? Surround yourself with people that challenge you, stimulate you, and support you through life. I've been making a conscious effort to invest more in those relationships, and I'm grateful I did.
- Do. If you have an interest in web development, hop onto Code Academy and start learning. Set your mind on a project and try to make it happen. If it's medicine, fix your mind on an area or problem and dive deep into it, with a goal of what you want to learn. I'm trying this with entrepreneurship — validating ideas, talking to founders, and seeing what really makes me tick.
Motivation and over-achieving
There is a stark difference between over-achievers who have 'expected goals' and those who have 'real goals'. The former are constrained by the expectations (as the name says) placed on them from external sources. If the expectation from school is to get a job in your field, then an over-achiever will strive to get the best job in that field. Anything less is a failure, right?
In my experience, staying motivated in that boat is very challenging. There are many forces that are out of your control, and no matter how you try to de-risk it, eventually you can lose motivation. Contrast the two goals below as an example:
- "I want to get a job in Silicon Valley for a tech company"
- "I want to build a product"
Goal #1 is binary — you either get it or you don't. There are other forces at play (i.e. visas) and restrictions that could make it more or less challenging to achieve. You can be motivated, but if that motivation is tied to a binary goal, you basically have to be putting in 110% effort until you achieve it. And when you get it — then what?
Now consider Goal #2, which is not binary. There are a variety of roles you could work in — marketing, sales, engineering, etc. You're not restricted by location, salary, or any other (arguably) binary variables. Instead, it's a goal that is driven solely by you, and is rooted deeper than Goal #1. It also, in my opinion, never really ends. You can build a product, but are you happy with it? What can you do to make it better? Did you build it the way you wanted?
I can think of a handful of explanations for why someone wants Goal #1, but I cannot even begin to imagine the motivations for Goal #2. When you set goal(s) that are 'real' and reflect who you are, then the motivation becomes rooted in something deeper than the outcome. It involves what you learn, and that shapes how you think about the goal.
So how does this relate to over-achieving? Simply put, Goal #2 is a lot harder for an over-achiever. Since it's not binary, and has an arguably wider scope, you're left wondering how to over-achieve. If it's a goal that's strictly built by you and meant for you, then is it even possible to over-achieve? I haven't exactly come to terms with this, nor do I have a good answer, but the implied answer is "no". As long as you're moving towards that goal, you're achieving it.
Goal-setting and identifying what motivates you is a very scary experience. It challenges what you believe in, what gets you up in the morning, and what shapes your outlook on life. A lot of people that I think have this down are not 'crushing it' from an external point of view. If you held them to the 'expected goals' we discussed earlier, they probably wouldn't do too well.
That's because it's hard to rank someone that isn't playing your game. And if you're not playing, then it's no longer about winning or losing, since you're enjoying yourself either way. As a final note, I am terrible at internalizing this perspective, but it's a goal of mine to do so. I think that doing so makes 'staying motivated' a lot easier, and will give me more purpose and fulfillment than I currently have.