“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
From a young age, we are trained to always be looking to the next thing. What does it look like to be happy, to be successful, to be grown up, or to be ready for life? The next milestone is always the place where we assume things will be better: graduate high school, or graduate college, or get that particular job, or get married, or have kids, or buy a house, or buy a car, or get a certain amount of money, or pay off debt, or publish a book, or retire…
There’s always something we’re working towards. Something that, when achieved, will let us finally relax and feel done, at least for a while. We are working towards victory.
And as many of us know, victory never comes. There is always another milestone. The feeling of relief and euphoria and elation fades. The world continues to spin and we have to keep moving.
I am beginning to realize that living without a victory condition, and without working towards that next milestone, is necessary for contentment and joy. This isn’t a new idea–the value of contentment and/or not being attached to the matters of this world has been espoused by a variety of religions and philosophies for millennia. But living it is new for me.
I’m not looking forward to finishing my master’s. I’m not dreading it either… it is just a thing that will happen. Taking classes right now is about learning, and I need to keep learning even after I graduate, so in a sense, there will be no change. There is no way to “win” at ministry, nor is there a stopping point. I can’t win at praying for people and then be done with that work. I can’t win at my marriage and start coasting.
A few months ago, I spent some time reflecting on my personal vision and mission. I wrote down what I wanted to do, and then I wrote some strategies for how I could do those things. In the Church, I want to support and develop leaders. Outside of the church, I want to use my skills and abilities to help people achieve their goals (through project management, among other means).
A week or so ago, I watched the latest episodes of How I Met Your Mother with April, and a couple of lines jumped out at me:
Mitch: Even if it sounds completely crazy, what is it you want to do with your life?
Mother: I want to end poverty.
Mitch: Great. Then every decision you make from here on out should be in service of that.
One person can’t really “end poverty.” I can’t really win at developing leaders or helping people and organizations achieve their goals through project management and consulting. And that’s OK. It’s probably great, actually, because it reframes our lives into something even more meaningful. It means that we never stop living. The milestones no longer matter. There will always be a next chapter, as long as we are alive.
Every decision I make should be in service of my mission. That statement gives me permission to stop doing some things, and focus instead on other tasks. It gives me permission to stop investing times in the things I am told by others are important, and instead invest my time in the projects and tasks I think are important. It gives me permission to take off the mask and persona of someone trying to meet the goals that society tells me I should be trying to meet. My goal is not to win, it is to live, and to make the lives of others better.
I have been getting similar feedback from the book about introversion I have been reading. Introverts often feel societal pressure to pretend to be extroverted because that is what is needed to be “successful.” The author tells us to instead learn to work in the way that works best for us, regardless of what we think the world wants us to do, and we will become more productive and happy. And as we learn to do this, we do better work, and feel more fulfilled, and that creates a positive feedback loop. Trying to work in a way that makes us unhappy is self-sabotage. Just the same, setting a finite victory condition–a point where you feel that, once you reach it, everything will be better–is setting yourself up to fail.
Victory comes not in a singular moment in time, but in a life well lived.