The bully-victim's guide to goal setting
On why being S.M.A.R.T. about your goals won't help as long as you don't know what you truly want.
Posted on July 26, 2020
When growing up and becoming young adults, my closest friends and I thought we had it all sorted out.
Life was supposed to be a hedonistic adventure, and our highest priority was to live as spontaneously as possible.
By having as few ties and obligations as possible, we kept ourselves available to seize the day and embark upon that next big adventure.
Or so we told ourselves.
There was a lot of talk about traveling the world. As backpackers. Climbing mountains. Studying martial arts in Japan. I remember fantasizing about how cool I would come off as a dive instructor in Bali. Or being a mountain guide in the Alps.
For the most part, that next adventure rarely became more than another night out on the town, getting drunk and trying to get laid.
During which we used to mock those among our peers that led more structured lives. Those who—compared to us—were dull, assiduous bores that didn't know how to enjoy life.
Deep down, we knew that this way of living brought us no closer to living like Patrick Swayzee in Point Break.
But our rationale was that even if we hadn't started walking the walk YET, we never turned down the opportunity to have fun.
As painful as that subconscious insight was, it got worse when many of those so-called nerds started to emerge as the real adventurers. Some of them became ski bums, others studied abroad.
And some, of course, traveled the world as backpackers. One of them even became a divemaster in the Philippines.
While I spent most of what I earned on beer and hangover pizzas, I spent a lot of time making up excuses for not getting my act together.
Instead of turning my vague dreams into actionable plans, I used lame explanations to justify my lack of resolve.
And when I ran out of external circumstances, I always resorted to blaming the situation on my self-inflicted, constant lack of money.
The backpacking dream was still prevalent, but I had no-one to go with. All of my friends were either in college, military services, or just in a place where they couldn't be gone for six months.
I remember thinking how pointless it would be to spend a year saving every cent and forsaking every party when I didn't even have someone to go with.
Secretly, I envied one of my buddies who were just about to depart for Thailand with another guy, the first stop of many on a long trip to Asia.
Then I heard that they had had a fallout. The other guy, already a renowned bullshitter, hadn't even bought flight tickets. Too ashamed and scared of conflict, he had played along in the planning until he had no choice but to come clean.
I felt so sorry for my buddy—the level of betrayal: being stood up just a couple of days before departure. A dream shattered into pieces.
What happened next really opened my eyes. Instead of canceling the journey altogether, my buddy took off alone. To me, that was an incredibly brave thing to do. I was so insecure and dependent upon others that a move like that wasn't even on the map.
For the first time, it really dawned on me how limiting it is to let your dreams depend on others.
When he got back six months later, he told me it was the best thing he had ever experienced. Not only had he made a bunch of new friends and gotten a new girlfriend—but he had also learned a ton about himself.
Today, 25 years later, I proudly follow my own path without caring too much about others' opinions. And I am the first to admit that I am one of the biggest nerds of my peer group. And probably always have been.
What I couldn't see in my early twenties was just how much of an insecure man-boy I was back then. Desperately wanting to fit in and come off as being cool. And, above all else, driven by FOMO—fear of missing out.
In my defense, I had a rough time in school. If you're stuck in an environment where more or less everyone resents you and tell you how ugly, gross, and nerdy you are, it doesn't take that long until you believe it yourself. Endure it for nine years, and it makes a dent in your personality. Forever.
That said, I had a strong desire to make a comeback. The problem was that when I finally found friends that liked me for who I was, I still didn't like myself.
While it was great to have friends to trust and rely on, I was subconsciously terrified that they would stop liking me.
To cope with this, I relied on external gratification. I adapted, like clay. Whatever my friends thought was cool, I picked up. Whatever they considered uncool, I shed.
This behavior might be commonplace among teenagers, but I did it on a 10x level. With time, this led to a lot of inner confusion.
I had a hard time distinguishing my personal desires and goals from those of my peer group.
Even still, as an adult, it can be tricky to differentiate between the two. Being in my situation back then, it was virtually impossible.
So how can you tell the difference? To answer that, dig deeper into the motivation behind the desire.
For example, when someone suggested it would be cool to spend a year learning karate in Japan, I didn't picture the daily life in a dojo in Okinawa. I saw myself swagger down the street, knowing that anyone trying to kick my ass would bite the dust hard.
Which leads us to my first rule:
While both perspectives describe different aspects of studying karate in Japan, there's a world of difference between them in terms of motivation.
My buddy probably envisioned the learning process and what the training would be like.
I, on the other hand, only focused on the outcome.
My buy-in only went so far that I wanted to have the skill already. I had no desire to do any of the work required to get there.
Would you enjoy climbing the mountain, or would you rather be the one that has climbed it already?
If your answer is the latter, chances are that the goal isn't genuinely yours. But if you desire the process involved as much as the goal itself, you know you're on to something.
While many of the so-called goals I had back then were mere daydreams at best, there were a lot of true intentions as well. The motives behind them ranged from avoidance goals like learning karate to self-fulfillment goals like becoming a diver.
The motivation that comes from wanting something tends to be stronger than the one coming from avoidance.
The odds that you will persist are simply higher if your motivation is a deep interest in martial arts, versus a desire to learn enough to avoid getting beat up.
That said, while knowing what you want is essential, you also need execution.
Which brings us to the next rule:
While I sure enjoyed the training in the dojo back home and later on the feeling of weightlessness when diving, none of them could measure up to the kicks I got from going out with my friends.
Getting looks from girls or just coming off as the cool guy was my heroin back then.
Aside from the fact that this made me an egotistical douchebag, it also affected my ability to make any progress with anything except my alcohol tolerance.
When pursuing a goal, you must question everything that negatively impacts the execution towards that goal. And when several goals clash or contradict, you will be sometimes be forced to make some tough decisions.
To illustrate: during the last seven years, I have worked on a side business that definitely has impacted how much time I have to spend with my wife and kids.
It goes without saying that my family is more important than the project. However, I still want to pursue it for the opportunity of financial independence further down the road.
So, I try to find balance by eliminating non-essential stuff like binging Netflix series. I think it works, and hopefully, my wife agrees. At least I'm still married.
But back in my early twenties, there were no such trade-offs to be made.
My addiction to social kicks and general FOMO thinking had a negative impact of paramount proportions on anything I tried to accomplish.
Add copious amounts of booze and late-night clubbing to the mix, and no wonder I couldn't move the needle.
Something had to be done.
To paraphrase Skunk Anansie's song Hedonism:
Just because you feel good
Doesn't make you right, oh no
Just because you feel good
Still want you here tonight
The sooner you realize that nothing comes for free, the better. If you pursue something, you usually have to give up or do less of something else.
Not to mention your relationships with friends and family.
In general, people tend to strive to preserve the status quo. And if your goal affects that delicate balance, you might get pushback from unexpected directions.
Which brings us to rule number three:
Don't get me wrong. Encouragement is great, and no man's an island. Except for Hugh Grant in About a Boy.
I am an island. I am bloody Ibiza!
Hugh Grant in About a Boy
If you rely on the validation and gratification of others, you can never be better than what others think.
And by doing so, you are not only limiting yourself. You put the power to become more confident and develop your self-esteem in the hands of other people.
Instead, measure your actions against your own standards, or the standards agreed upon in the field you are exploring.
People will often pull you back, both subconsciously and consciously. Sometimes because they feel diminished by what you are becoming, and sometimes as benevolence in disguise.
For example, when I started following the ketogenic diet, many people got provoked when I didn't eat a slice when someone brought a homemade cake to the office.
The typical pretense is that "you have to indulge from time to time. Don't be so hard on yourself." Whereas the real rationale is, "join us eating sugar, so we don't have to feel bad about it."
And if you want to try the next level, quit drinking alcohol for a while. Some people literally cannot accept that decision. Probably because now you deny them something they used to enjoy: hanging out with the drunk, rollicking version of you.
Come to terms with who you are, and build a sound sense of self-acceptance.
Listen more to your whispering inner voice, and less to the opinions of the people around you.
Which brings us to the final rule:
For all practical purposes, this rule is just about another roadblock. But if I had to pick the one thing that held me back the most while growing up, this is it.
It is tough to admit, but I just wasn't that independent.
Again, it is common among kids to prefer starting new activities with a friend by their side as support. But when that inability to fly solo inhibits your life way up in your twenties, you need to let go and grow some independence.
My mom died when I was 19. A few years later, when the dust had settled, I inherited a substantial amount of money—definitely more than enough to realize that old backpacking dream.
And for all practical purposes, nothing kept me from going.
But although I had talked so much about traveling the world, it never came about.
Because, once again, I didn't have anyone to go with.
Don’t make the same mistake. Instead, take a moment to reflect over these wise words by Norman Cousins:
Death is not the greatest loss in life.
The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.
These days, I have made more solo trips than I can remember. When I discovered snowboarding at 26, it didn't take long before I realized that none of my friends were as hooked as I was.
This was something I had to pursue alone, or it would wither away.
Over the years, I have reached a point where I almost prefer to travel alone. Sure, a vacation with friends or family tops everything, but self-selected solitude is not far behind.
Above all else, it is a great place to sense inwards. To sort your thoughts and reason with yourself.
And to decide which goals or desires that are truly worthy of being pursued.
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