How Finding Your Meaning Will Help You Set Your Goals
It seems to be an irrefutable fact of life that one of the most important things that mature, successful, happy people need to do is to set goals. Depending on whom you ask, it ranks right up there with exercising, flossing, and calling your mom on Mother’s Day. We are starting to be taught earlier and earlier in life that we need to set goals. I recently did a search for “setting goals for kindergarten students” and was surprised to find everything from tips, to instructions, to actual worksheets. There is even an entire section on Pinterest dedicated to it. I am not sure when this happened, but something that used to be taught to high school and college students is now being introduced to 4 and 5 year olds.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against goals. I do believe that it is very important to set and track them. Goals have many merits. They help to give you motivation and focus. They put you in the driver’s seat of your future. They let you know when and if you are moving in the direction that you want to go in life. They give you a way to measure and track progress. They give you the opportunity to enjoy and celebrate successes and achievements. And they let you know when you have been slacking and need to start doing better.
But there is something that is more important and needs to be done before you start setting your goals. You have to first and foremost understand what is the “why” in your life. You have to know what gives your life meaning. Without that, how do you know that you are choosing the correct goals for yourself? Determining the meaning in your life is the first step to finding your life’s purpose and subsequently setting the goals that will help you to achieve and maintain that purpose.
The Importance of Meaning
One of the greatest books I have ever read, and which I recommend to anyone who asks, is Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” In the book, Frankl describes how he developed his form of psychotherapy. It is based on the belief that finding a meaning that gives us something to live for is our best source of happiness and longevity. According to Frankl, meaning provides us with:
- A sense of purpose in our lives
- A set of values by which we can evaluate our actions
- A sense of control over the events in our lives
- A sense of value and self-worth
While Frankl developed his theory based on his own personal observations during the years he spent in a Nazi concentration camp, his belief is supported by Friedrich Nietzsche who has been quoted as stating: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” What exactly does this statement mean?
According to Nietzsche, you need to first find something that is essential in your life, something that sustains you emotionally, in order to know without a doubt that your life is valuable. Once you have this belief in your own undeniable value, you will be able to overcome any challenge or difficulty that you may encounter because you know that there is something critical that you absolutely must accomplish in your lifetime. And not only will you be able to overcome those challenges and difficulties, but you will in fact still be able to find happiness in spite of them.
Why must you find this meaning, this “why” to your life, before you start to set your goals? Because your meaning is your ultimate goal. Once it has been found, everything else will fall more easily into place, and you will have no reason to ever debate or question another goal again. All your goals will be aligned because they will all be there to support the “why” of your existence. So how do you go about discovering your “why?”
Discovering Your Meaning
Some people have the good fortune to already know that they have something to live for everyday. If you are a parent, it is very likely that your children are the source of meaning in your daily life. Or perhaps your career is so rewarding that it provides you with personal meaning. Or maybe you have a cause that is so close to your heart, that it is what gives special meaning to your life. But if you haven’t yet determined what the meaning is in your life, you may be living without a true sense of purpose that makes your life worthwhile and makes you know that you have value.
Your meaning is unique to you. That may make it difficult to discover sometimes; you can’t just ask someone to help you find your meaning, or use another’s meaning as your own. Also, depending on what it is, your meaning may change as you go through different stages of your life. For example, I hadn’t realized how much of the meaning in my own life was tied to raising my son until he graduated from college. When he finally struck out on his own, I felt a huge void. It took me months to realize what was causing that void, and during that time I felt inexplicably lost and depressed. I found myself in a position where I had to discover a new meaning to replace the one that was now gone. So just as my meaning had to change as my circumstances changed, so likely will yours.
So how do you go about discovering your meaning? If you find yourself feeling lost like I did, start by asking yourself these questions:
- At what points in your life have you been the happiest?
- What were you doing at that time that contributed to your happiness?
- What events, people or activities get you the most excited, or give you the most anticipation?
- What subjects are you able to discuss for hours on end, with genuine enthusiasm, without ever getting bored or tired?
- When do you feel the best about yourself, your talents and your contributions?
- What are you doing when you feel the most useful? The most appreciated? The most needed?
It may not be easy to answer all these questions. It may take some time and some really careful analysis. But once you have figured it out, your “why” will become clear to you. And once that has happened, not only will it be easier to set your goals, but you will know with certainty that these goals will take you exactly where you want to go. That type of certainty will give you the ability to weather any storm that comes along the way because you will know without a doubt that the destination is more important than the journey. You will be able to stay the course and still remain happy and fulfilled. Everything will fall into place and there will be no reason to question your decisions. So long as your choices and actions are made within the framework of the “why” of your life, you will know that you are constantly moving in the right direction.
Have you discovered your “why” yet? If so, what is it? And if not, then what are you waiting for?