On Goals and Purpose
One of the great benefits of being a writer and a homeschooling mom is that I have a lot of control over our family’s schedule. This means the boys and I get to take a bunch of time off around the holidays every year to enjoy some time together while we recharge our batteries and prepare for the year to come. And, as we headed back to work and back to school a couple of weeks ago, we decided it would be a good idea to spend some time thinking and talking about our goals and plans for 2017.
It turns out that Hunter S. Thompson was able to provide some helpful ideas that guided us through our discussions. Early in January I re-read the widely-shared letter that he wrote to his friend, Hume Logan, in 1958, and found that Thompson’s wise advice about choosing goals that “conform to the individual” rather than making “the individual conform to the goal” was a useful guidepost, one I thought would be especially relevant for my high schooler. With college (probably) on the horizon for him within the next few years, I’ve noticed that it’s easy to get caught up in the same sort of high-stress planning and goal setting that traditional high school students face when thinking about college: Which classes? How many science labs? How many AP classes? SAT or ACT? What type of extra-curriculars? The hoops are many, and these questions swirl and swirl each time we consider and reconsider, each time getting lost in trying to “conform to the goal.”
Here’s the thing about my family, though: we don’t like to conform.
We have tried, many times, relearning each time that trying to meet others’ expectations makes us stressed and unhappy. And yet, as my boys’ primary teacher and (now) college advisor, I still unexpectedly fall into the trap of trying to follow a narrow set of standard timelines, courses, sequences, and testing schedules, all with the hope that people we don’t even know will someday approve of and validate my boys and their accomplishments, allowing them to pass through to the next set of hoops. But here’s the problem with this kind of thinking: it emphasizes the ideas that what others think is more important than being self-reliant and exercising your own judgment, that being “good” and following all the rules is more important than being independent and authentic. Most of all, it sends the message that personal goals should come from some external source rather than from your own understanding of your unique set of abilities, desires, and goals.
In our culture, it’s easy to grow up believing that there are certain standards we need to measure up to if we want to prove that we are “worthy” or “valuable”, whether these are grades, test scores, athletic accomplishments, acceptance to prestigious universities… the list goes on and on. These standards usually prioritize certain types of intelligence (logical, linguistic, and physical) and ignore other types (artistic, intrapersonal, and existential). As a result, our individual values tend to be based on these external standards, and we get caught in a narrow definition of what success looks like, often at the expense of ignoring what is inherently and authentically true and valuable within each of us, what Thomas Merton would call the “secret beauty of their hearts.” It’s heartbreaking, really. How many people today, right this moment, are suffering because they chose a path that was deemed “acceptable”? How many will never find their true purpose?
If I were to write a job description for myself, at the top of the list of responsibilities would be this: helping my boys recognize and express their “secret beauty” by identifying their particular abilities and desires, all while being guided by compassion, curiosity, and a search for meaning (instead of approval). Or maybe, more simply and as Hunter S. advised, encouraging them not to “dedicate their lives to reach a pre-defined goal”, but rather to “choose a way of life they know they will enjoy”. But this leads to an important question: Am I qualified to do this job?
As the product of twelve years of public education, plus six more years of higher education beyond that, maybe not. It certainly isn’t easy for me. Checklists and schedules, indeed all things measurable, make sense to me, and I find that going back to them when I’m feeling uncertain helps relieve the anxiety that comes with navigating ambiguity (which I’ve written about here). However, when I’m able to remind myself that I’m trying to give my boys a compass, not a map, my job becomes clearer. And, at the very least, I’m willing to be a student right along with them since these are lessons that I’m learning and trying to apply in my own life, too. So, my primary qualification might be that I’ve made the mistake of “conforming to the goal” (and have written about here), and trust that there’s a better way.
As for the specifics of our plans and goals for 2017, I’ll share more about those in an upcoming post, along with some other guideposts we’re using to help us navigate through this year. And a bonus — I’ve finished the final edits on my book about college admissions for homeschoolers, so look for more information on publication dates, plus some excerpts, coming soon!
“Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living within that way of life.
The goal is absolutely secondary; it is the functioning toward the goal which is important.”
-Hunter S. Thompson