Life Goals: How To Let Go of Them and Why It’s OK

life goals

Letting go of life goals is a painful business but a natural part of maturation and becoming one’s true self.

We develop goals when we develop a sense of self; this is who I am, this is what I can do. Goals or dreams (a better word since they are a future vision of our self) are the best extension of our self, projected into the future.

The drive to establish out-sized dreams is two-fold: when we figure out who we are, our instinct is to expand – not contract – our self. Second, this is around the same time when we are subconsciously confronted with our limitations (namely, death. If I am – that means I can die) and thus we feel urgency to get started accomplishing our goals immediately.

As dreams move with us through time, however, they lose their flesh and form and they melt and morph. Am I today doing what my 5-year old (or 10, 15, 25 yr old self) wanted? No. Are most people? Likely not. Last time I checked there were dozens of astronauts, not millions. 

I have not yet accomplished the life goals I wanted to accomplish.

And I say that openly, proudly – especially to the eager young individuals who question how to figure out what to do in life. The ones who want to “figure out what to do” and think life is something we decide once and then pile into The Game of Life car and tick off Life’s successes per the roll of the Life’s die.

It’s fine to set goals, you should – but you also need to downsize, from time to time. Our current selves shouldn’t be hostage to our younger selves. We’re too dynamic and sophisticated to hold on to sunk costs. If we want to achieve self-awareness, self-actualization we must develop and mature and we can’t without changing – downsizing – our dreams.

But the process is very, very hard, fraught with anxiety and failure and fear.

It feels like sitting on top of a very tall bubble, 500 feet high. And it is leaking air, very slowly. You don’t know where the leak is coming from, but you know you are sinking, your whole body is sinking. You cannot do anything about it—you cannot get off without falling.

So you sink.

You adjust to your new height a few feet lower, a few feet lower still. You keep sinking, you keep adjusting.

You haven’t changed, you’re still on the bubble. But your view has changed, you cannot see the things you used to. You miss those things. You feel sad. You see new things, unknown things. You feel scared. You don’t know what to make of these new things.

Sometimes the bubble deflates faster, and you get sick and lose your orientation and sense of self. You panic, you think you are falling. But you are not.

You’re just sinking.

Then, finally, the bubble deflates entirely. You are on the ground. And for the first time, you can get up, step off the bubble, and walk around. You can walk away.

You have no idea what awaits. Perhaps another bubble, perhaps not. It is a brand-new world, one you always saw but never knew.

I just stepped off my bubble. I’ll tell you the story.

There is one thing I have wanted to be for as long as I can remember: an elected official. U.S. President, to be specific. I know, ridiculous, but that has been my dream.

I think it was the fourth grade when someone first said ”When can I vote for you for President?” Those early compliments stick. They nudge your identity as it shapes. Ideas become life goals.

I promoted myself in leadership roles, and they fit, they made sense. And I received positive recognition that reinforced these feelings. As I matured, I developed compassion and empathy, a deep desire to do good and help people. 

And I saw being an elected official as a way to use my skills and fulfill my desires. I know I’m not using the term “politician” I never thought of it as a politician, perhaps because of the negative connotation. To me it was always “elected official” so I use it here now.

I saw the job as someone who takes all of the pain —all of the misery, fighting, squabbling, insecurities—absorbs it, and leads people to become their best selves. I’m an empath, I can carry a lot of pain.

I saw the job as someone who makes decisions, someone who can bring calm to chaos and noise.

I saw the job as someone who can be the punching bag she needs to be to make the right choices.

I saw the job as not the smartest person in the room, but the most thoughtful.

I thought, ‘I can do all of those things.’ I had a healthy ego, no doubt about that. Check.

I saw an opportunity to test this theory a decade ago when a guy named Mitt Romney ran for Gov. of Massachusetts. I was in Massachusetts, having just graduated Harvard. What a guy: smart, talented, business-y, commonsense. I walked into the campaign.

“Hello, I’m Ellen. How can I help?” I started delivering yard signs, ended up managing the Latino outreach for the entire campaign.

I stayed with Romney for his entire term. I loved it. I loved government, I loved the politics. Seeing how things worked make me more eager, not less, to be involved. That being said, I did become a little less idealistic than I had been. That is politics.

So, then it became an question of where do I fit? Geographically, I mean. I’m a moderate Republican. There are only a few places I would fit and could get elected. I’m from Michigan, but did not want to move back.  I did not feel motivated to run in Massachusetts. New Hampshire? Possibly . . .

I received a lot of advice. Advice sticks to goals like flies to jam.

“Move here. Study this. Volunteer for this, donate to that.” But I never pulled the trigger to start that career. I convinced myself I would be better as a politician if I knew something of the private sector first. If I understood how it worked.  To be a good Republican who could create jobs.

So I went to business school. Getting there was a nightmare. I had to take the GMATs five times. I’m horrible at Math. Worse at timed test taking. But I had convinced myself that analysis and management skills would advantage me in my pursuit of elected office. Or at least it wouldn’t hurt.

I did not respect lifetime politicians; after all, what do they know? I talked about being Republican at Stanford, a compassionate Republican. A few people told me to “let them know when I ran.” I felt a rush again, support, energy.

And then, love dawdled along. I was tethered to someone, in a good way, in a new way that compelled me to make sacrifices. He didn’t ask for them but was willing to do the same for me, so it seemed fair. And was it really a sacrifice if I didn’t know the next step to take? So I got a job in consulting—It’s a little bit of everything. Easy, right?

No, not easy. McKinsey was not easy. People say it’s like drinking from a firehose, appropriate if that firehouse has burning acid coming out of it’s ruptured nozzle. But it was so much learning and growing so fast. I didn’t love it, I knew it wasn’t me. I don’t love solving problems. I love people. I wanted to stay until I was promoted, and promoted I was. I thought sure, this is part of my dream.

Then, having done well, I quit. It was time. I was available, free, top of my game. Husband in New York but he was a banker so even that was great, he made money that I couldn’t.

But, still . . . I wasn’t ready to pull the trigger. To commit. What was it that prevented me? I thought it was fear. I hated myself for being so afraid. I felt lost and directionless. But I didn’t want to stop – life is short, time is wasting, other Harvard students are more accomplished than I am by the minute. I had to keep moving!

So I did just that, kept moving. I hiked 2,300 miles on the Appalachian Trail. People tell me how hard this must have been, how brave it was. Somewhere along the way I became immune to compliments. My husband, who knows me best, and I know the truth: hiking alone in the woods, day in, day out, is easier for me than pursuing a dream that I think I won’t achieve. I cannot explain it, but that is the truth.

I finished. I was available again, and even more confident in myself. But I needed a few weeks to process what I had been through, and the great loss of it.

And all of a sudden, from my new perspective, my dream didn’t seem as clear. Politics (I started calling it ‘politics’) seemed dirtier, heavier. I didn’t know if I could be who I needed to be to do it.

And then, a life decision was made by someone other than me. It was made by us, this new us that I was part of. My husband got his dream job in London. So we moved to London. And he is doing something that is the best of the best in the world. And I couldn’t be prouder. But here I sit, cultivating a cheddar addiction, scattering words onto internet, wondering what’s next. Knowing full well that I had always dreamed of living in London but never had the guts. Why vote for her, she lived in London for five years.

And now I was here, living. So was I stronger? Or just throwing it all away?

Throughout my life, I have always asked myself, “Could I do that and still become President?” If the answer was no, I wouldn’t do it, wouldn’t say it. Simple as that. It was a principle, it was what governed me.

Recently, however, I have asked myself that, said no, and then . . . still did it. Writing has helped I’ve talked about things that Presidents don’t talk about. I’ve opened up about being things Presidents don’t open up about. I’m vastly imperfect in ways Presidents “aren’t.” (Although that continues to be tested, lately).

And goddamn it if I don’t feel like I’m screaming “I’m as scared as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” And now honesty just pours out left and right. It feet feels true, it feels me.

I realize I might be the only person in the world who attended a top college, business school, applied and worked at a top consulting firm, walked 2,000 miles and moved to a new country—all to avoid a crippling, debilitating, almost-certain (yet quite paranoid) possibility of failure.

I couldn’t kill my dream but couldn’t pursue it either. I was trapped. Trapped on the bubble.

But along the way, the things that happened had a way of changing me.

Letting go of this dream is no longer about failure, it is about what is right for me. 

Being President (or attempting to be such, since, Lord knows, I would never actually get the job) isn’t right for me. To do that job—and to do it well—I would have to make sacrifices I am not willing to make. I cannot lie, I cannot cover things up about myself, I cannot compromise, I cannot suffer fools, and I cannot subject people I love to scrutiny they did not ask for. Watching my old boss – a man I respect –  go through that when he ran for President was pretty seminal.

It is so much more than that, however. The things I wanted – to help people, to shoulder their pain, to listen, to lead, to inspire – those aspects of one’s life isn’t limited to the President of the United States.

As I was figuring out what to do, I stumbled into this writing thing. And funny enough, what I do every day, write and publish my thoughts about humans, how our spirit struggles and survive, what we have in common, how to love each other and ourselves – well that seems to be helping people.

Is this the best way to incorporate the best parts of myself into a life? Don’t know. It’s just what I’m doing now.

Yes, I just stepped off the bubble. And as I did, I made a very important discovery, perhaps the most important one. I opened my hand. Inside, I found something that changed everything.

I found a pin.

  • Erik Ding

    Thanks for the inspiring words. I do also have a childhood dream as a scientist, as we were educated to have. Today I become a scientist in chemistry out of my surprise. Maybe it is as you said others expectation has shaped who I am today. I am enjoying learning updating knowledge everyday, teaching juniors and receiving positive feedbacks. But it seems to me that I was looking for something behind this job or this dream. I have raised people’s expectation too high. Maybe it’s time to gradually deflate the bubble and walk around 🙂

    • Thank you for the thoughtful comment, Erik. What you’ve done has certainly been impressive and you should be proud! It’s never too late to revisit thoughts and goals – walk around as you say – even if it’s not professionally. Good luck!

  • Michael Nguyen

    Thanks for writing this Ellen. I’m trying to reconcile my idealistic ambitions with my … I guess, happiness, as well.

    ‘People say it’s like drinking from a firehose, but only if that firehouse has burning acid coming out of it.’ – this made me laugh out loud hahaha.

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