When I graduated from high school, I filled out a time capsule entry along with the rest of my graduating class. My friends and I all voted on things like “who will be the first to get married”, “who will make the most money”, and “Who is most likely to succeed” and included the answers in our time capsule entries to compare against the real-life results, ten years down the track.
It’s now been nearly ten years since I wrote that time capsule entry, and I still find those questions as loaded as I did at the age of sixteen. For example, we were all happy to speculate on who would get married first, but no one was willing to speculate on whether that marriage might last. Similarly, we all voted on who was most likely to succeed, but not once did we question what success might actually look like.
Success has always seemed to me to be particularly difficult to define, because there’s no universally accepted definition. Does ‘success’ mean raising a family? Does it mean becoming a CEO or president? I work in a commercial law firm, where your career success is tied to the little number that expresses how many hours you billed to a client that day, the pay rise you received last financial year, and the last big deal you worked on. It’s easy to lose perspective in that setting, and I often do.
Last year, I decided that I needed to force myself to view success on a bigger scale. I wrote down a list of 100 things that I wanted to achieve across the course of my life, and decided that they would be the focus for my goal-setting over the next few years.
Once I finished the list, I sat back down and reviewed those goals to work out a timeline for achieving them. The first thing I noticed was how few of those goals related to work. The second thing I noticed was how few related to money. Instead, the goals I had set for myself were about travelling the world, educating myself, finding happiness and experiencing new things. My goals were things like ‘learn to speak a second language’, ‘live in another country’, ‘earn a Master’s degree’ and ‘go skydiving’.
There were still goals on that list that do revolve around work and making money – for example, my goal to ‘build my dream home’ is only practical if I make a certain amount of money beforehand, and ‘work for Google’ is clearly a career-related goal – but the majority of goals had nothing to do with money or power. ‘Make partner at a law firm’ didn’t feature on that list; nor did ‘have $1,000,000 in the bank’. The things that make me happy, apparently, are largely found outside the office.
This was a particularly important revelation for me, because as a Type A personality, it’s incredibly easy for me to get caught up in failures: a single mistake at work can send me into a plague of self-doubt; a bad month of billables will usually see me losing sleep and tears. Having other ways to measure my success and find happiness makes it easier to cope with the small setbacks, and forces me to gain some perspective over the things that happen at work. Most importantly, it makes it much easier to be happy on a day-to-day basis when my happiness isn’t entirely dependent on just one aspect of my life.
Doing away with new year’s resolutions
I’ve long since given away the idea of writing ‘ new year’s resolutions’, because it seems to me that those lists always seem to include things like ‘lose weight’, ‘give up sugar’, and ‘drink less coffee’. I’ve found that reflecting on what I don’t like about myself and what I’d like to change about who I am is a surefire way to start out the year in a deep blue funk of depression and self-loathing. Instead, I now go through that list of goals, and work out which ones I’d like to tick off in the coming year. I write a list of books I want to read, and countries I want to visit, and experiences I want to have, and add those into the list of new year’s goals as well. I have that list written down in my little notebook of lists and notes and reminders, and I try to refer back to it at least once a month – not only does it allow me to stay on track with the things I want to accomplish during the year, and reminds me of the things I have left to do, but it also gives me the opportunity to reflect on and feel good about what I have achieved so far. In the weeks when I have bills piling up and I’m despairing about not saving enough money this year, it’s comforting to be able to remind myself that I’ve managed to do something else that was important with that money, like visit a country I’ve always wanted to see or move out of home.
I still hold lofty goals for my career, and hope that one day I’m considered to be successful in my field. But at the same time, it’s not the only thing I want to achieve in my life. Sixteen-year-old me was pretty convinced that success looked like a great job and a lot of money, and it took me a long time to realise that maybe that wasn’t all that mattered to me. If I’ve learnt anything since I filled out my time capsule in high school, it’s that I can’t compare what I’ve done and what I want to achieve against the achievements of my peers and colleagues – and that I can’t compare my definition of success against theirs either.
Olivia is a lawyer, music teacher, perpetual student, traveller and obsessive list-maker living in Perth. When she isn’t working, studying, travelling or making lists, she’s usually asleep.
Needing some inspiration to get you started on goal-setting? Come to Lumi’s Vision for the Future event in Melbourne on the 6th February, 2016 from 10am-1pm – where Lumi will help you design your personal vision for a future when you have achieved your goals!