Writing about finishing my dissertation got me thinking about goals in general: why we set them, how we go about achieving them, and what happens when we do. It’s generally accepted that setting goals is positive and useful. Indeed, it was the idea behind this blog. Goals give us a purpose, something to look forward to and move towards.
And when we achieve them? That must be the best feeling ever. Only… it isn’t always. I know I’m not the only person who felt a little bit lost after finishing university for the first time. Unless you know exactly what you want your career to be, and are immediately starting a job relating to the field, the culmination of seventeen years or more of education can leave you incredibly lost. Despite the achievement, I was left back at home, with a part-time job, and unsure of what to do next.
Achieving a big goal does not always leave us as happy as we might expect. Why?
It was a couple weeks ago, at around 9.30 a.m. on a Sunday morning. I was at work, clearing the courtyard and gutters outside the building. It’s never a fun task, but I was extra grumpy. It could have been the fact that it was raining. It could have been because I had already swept the streets, and apparently missing those miniscule crumbs meant I didn’t do it well enough the first time. Either way, I got to thinking that, despite five years of further education and two degrees to my name, I’m still getting paid little more than minimum wage to sweep streets.
This post is not about the merits or faults of further education, but this story does serve to illustrate my point: at the age of 24, I just don’t feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be.
If you had asked me when I was younger where I saw myself by this age, I would have painted a very different picture of my life. On that checklist of common life goals, I am, so far, lacking severely in achievement.
‘What is this checklist?’ you might challenge. It is bound to vary according to age and culture, but when I was younger I thought being a grown-up with everything meant having all of these things:
6. Children/your own family
How am I doing so far? Well, in reverse order…
Holidays. The last time I had a one-week holiday was seven years ago, paid for by my parents. The last two-week holiday? I was twelve. However, I recently had a brilliant two and a half days in London, and city breaks are more my thing anyway. So although the last time I lay on the beach was eight years ago, I have since visited Toronto, Madrid, Paris, Lyon, Salamanca, Marseille, Belfast, Bath and London. Some people might think, ‘So what?’ but I don’t need to spend two weeks doing nothing in the sunshine to have a holiday.
Car. This isn’t even on my wish list. A car is a massive expense that I could not possibly afford. Luckily I live near the train station and there are plenty of buses in Edinburgh, so I don’t need one.
House. Don’t make me laugh! If I were to be honest with myself, this is an important one, linked inextricably with the realisation that I might never have the security that my parents do. For some reason owning my own home had become the symbol of personal success, because it’s all wrapped up with…
Children/your own family/love/relationship/partner. Barring a lottery win, I won’t be able to afford a house on my own, particularly as I want to work in London. I wouldn’t want to raise children in the city though, hence my little daydream about a house in the suburbs with my husband and little twin girls. Right now, I’m not thinking about children, but I also don’t have a boyfriend, which turns owning my own home into a distant possibility.
Career. I know what I want to do, which is half the battle, but it’s a double-edged sword. It means other jobs, which might be better paid or offer more material benefits, hold no appeal. Book publishing is a fiercely competitive field, and I’ve yet to take the first step on the career ladder. Furthermore, my current job is only part-time, like many workers in the UK at the moment. However, I know my situation won’t be this way forever. This isn’t me being naïve; I just won’t stop until I have a full-time, permanent publishing job. I’m lucky compared to many people who have no choice but to stick with it; I don’t have a family to support or ridiculous rent to pay.
Health. I am fortunate. I really want to treat my body better, because despite a questionable diet I am OK. (Touch wood!)
Friends. I do wish I got to spend more time with my friends, but I know that this time will become even rarer the older we get, so for just now I am happy to be able to fill my evenings and days off with seeing lots of people who are fun, caring, and reliable.
Family. My sister and I can say the worst possible things to each other and be fine ten minutes later. I know so many siblings who aren’t very close, so I’m grateful for this. My parents are, quite simply, the best. They let me move back in, my mum determinedly brings home clothes from shopping trips to try and improve my wardrobe, and my dad has driven all the way to Bathgate (twice) to pick me up when I got on the wrong train. (A mere blink of an eye in comparison to when he drove to France for me – four times.) Above and beyond the call of duty!
When it comes to ticking off the big life checklist, I only get three out of nine. However, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Firstly, I have three of the most important things. Secondly, I don’t necessarily need some of the others right now.
The downside of striving for these things is the risk of wishing your days away and not appreciating the present. As Edith Wharton said, ‘If only we’d stop trying to be happy, we could have a pretty good time.’ Are these really my goals or is it the pressure of society to conform to a certain stereotype that makes us believe we need these things? In all honesty, I would like to check them all off someday. However, this is another slight disadvantage if you are a goal-setting person: once you’ve achieved your goals, you feel the need to come up with more. When are you ever finished? Do you even want to be?
We might never achieve some of our goals, and that can be alright, as I discussed in this earlier post. We might start comparing ourselves with others and find we’re in a different place, seemingly behind everybody else. However, perhaps we genuinely enjoy that part-time job, and having silly crushes on colleagues or the waiter in our favourite restaurant, and dreaming about all the places still left to see. We might not have that feeling of general contentment, but we can anticipate a lot, which is exciting.
Just turn the attention back to yourself. Despite worrying about the big things, you can always find little moments of happiness that have nothing to do with achievements. It could be relaxing with a good book, visiting a new place, catching up with friends… moments you probably already have.