My goal is to do something big. Like write words that change the way the world works. I want people to scream my name like I’m Alesso on the first day of Coachella.
Unfortunately, I have no idea how to do this. A big vague goal, as it turns out, can only be achieved by way of small, concrete goals. Like “write a first draft tomorrow” or “update the blog on Tuesdays.” It’s easy for me to set the vague goal. It’s almost impossible for me to recognize what the small ones need to be.
Don’t get me wrong, I totally make goals. But my goals (“this month, I will go to yoga”) never seem to that propel my life forward in any direction (as in, “this month I will start my application for law school”). This pattern hasn’t bothered me much until recently, when I realized if I don’t make some changes I might become one of those 45-year-old men who lurk in coffee shops “working” on their “novels.” The kind that monthly-auto-subscribe to a webcam service. And don’t have retirement plans. Or loved ones.
I might have what clinical psychologists call a goal-setting problem.
During my senior year of high school, my English teacher assigned us to make a list of long-term goals – what we’d want to be doing in twenty years, where we’d want to live, etc. After class I went into the girl’s bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror and thought about it.
I had completed long-term goal #1 last weekend: drink alcohol at a party before graduation without getting caught by my mother.
I thought about what goal #2 should be. Writing a Nobel-Prize winning novel? That seemed cool.
It wasn’t such a crazy idea. After all, I was good at lots of stuff. I had all A’s and the lead in the school play. Sure, I wasn’t super popular, but I did have a charming set of freckles and I was college-bound.
Plus tons of adults told me I was special, so I knew I wouldn’t have to try very hard. Someone as delightful and freckly as me just had to stand on the proverbial corner of life and wait for the big things to pull over and wink suggestively. All I would have to do was follow my heart and dream big and do what made me happy.
When I went to college, I modeled my goal-setting strategies after my intellectual heroes – the hipster seniors and juniors who slouched around campus looking beautiful and unperturbed in carefully–curated thrift store couture. They didn’t seem at all interested in long-term goals or internships or resumes. They made art. They mixed music. They lived off-campus and rode fixed gear bikes. I think one of them even had a pet snake.
That’s the kind of life I admired. I didn’t WANT to do an unpaid internship. I didn’t WANT to sit in an air-conditioned office.
I did, however, want to look mysterious at parties. And I had been taught to follow my heart.
I studied hard. I learned about Bataille and Barthes and Foucault and Jameson and the fallacy of postmodern identity. I befriended the hipsters and talked to them about contemporary art and post-colonial theory. I studied abroad. I bought a bike. Before I knew it, I was the beautiful hipster slouching around campus doling out my thoughts on post-structuralism in late-Shakespearean tragedy. I was the queen.
Right before I graduated, I met with the career counselor to discuss my plans for the future. She went over some professional options for me – things my peers in the English department were preparing for at this very moment. They included:
- English Professor
- English teacher
Nowhere on the list did I see “hipster,” “bike mechanic,” or “snake-mom.”
I was shocked. Other students had already been thinking about this? They had planned – maybe even for months now – to pursue careers? HARD careers? Like, immediately?
I waved the list away. I knew what I wanted: to NOT conform like all these other blind students wandering around campus, lost in the machine of postmodern capital.
Being a 9-5er was for squares. Grad school was for cogs. I wasn’t going to be a square or a cog. I was going to be a REAL person. No more ivory tower bullshit. No more dates with sons-of-doctors and pre-MBAs. I was going to meet a real man with real values – like a farmer or an artisanal beer brewer. And this was going to be the start of my very big, happy life.
I sat in my guidance counselor’s office on that warm Los Angeles morning and told her I wanted to get a job as a waitress in a city where no one knew my name. I was going to read whatever I wanted and write every day because I was destined for literary greatness and there was no way I could do that if I went to law school.
My career counselor, a wonderful and wise woman, just looked at me.
“Don’t take too long,” she said.
I skipped out of her office into my bright Kerouac-ian future. I worked on farms. I got a job in a coffee shop. I read Don Delillo. I traveled alone. I fell in love. I lived with my parents. I worried about money. I couldn’t focus. I stayed up all night on the Internet searching for my next plan. I started a million things and never finished any of them.
The panic hit. My shaky resume. My precarious bank account. My insurmountable student debt – more money than I had ever seen, more money than I could ever hope to make in a lifetime. And I still, after all that farming and traing-riding and soul searching, had no idea what kind of job I even wanted to pursue.
It’s been nearly three years since I graduated. It’s still warm in Los Angeles. I still don’t have a career path. As it turns out, I can’t just wait around for greatness to find me. Greatness comes to people who work hard and make viral YouTube videos, not to girls who keep elaborate diaries.
I’m sitting outside. It gets dark early now, and I’ve already started pouring cheap wine into my 39-cent IKEA mug. I have no idea what I’m going to do with the next year of my life. I have no idea what I’m going to do after I finish writing this piece. It’s not a good feeling.
Maybe if I were better at setting goals I wouldn’t feel like this, but maybe it wouldn’t make a difference. I could have a high-powered job in an office with glass walls and steel furniture and I’d still feel this way – clawing, empty, nervous, un-tethered.
Maybe it’s not supposed to feel good.
Maybe not-knowing-what-I-want is the foundation for internal and external discovery. For the exploration of pain, regret, and anxiety; the exploration of the emptiness from which all meaning is made.
Maybe out of that, I can someday make something big.
But it’s a start.