My Turn: Reaching My Goal of Having No Life Plan

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?" The woman inquiring was beautiful, interesting and ambitious. We were on a blind date, and this was her 20th such question (I suspect she had memorized the list from a women's magazine). Still, it wasn't the interrogation that left me speechless. It was that one question.

"Ten years?" I pondered, poking at a wayward carrot with my fork. "I sort of like the idea of living on an abandoned farm in North Carolina, maybe."

I could tell from her expression I didn't score any points. No solid goals. He's a loser, her magazine would proclaim. I suspect much of society would agree. The funny part is, I once was a goals junkie who could have written those same questions.

My romance with goalmaking began in high school when I read an article claiming the real key to success was detailed goals. I embraced the concept. By the time I graduated, I had very specific plans for my future (few of which happened). When I entered college, my first essay for freshman composition was about my goals for, yes, the next 10 years.

Later, when I became a teacher (which was never my plan), I preached goalmaking to anyone who would listen: friends, students, colleagues and a stranger on a plane. Twice I was even paid to speak on the serious business of goals.

I pontificated on the value of goals as the strongest force for motivation. I lectured on the finer points of establishing short-, medium- and long-term goals to help stay on track. I exalted the virtues of quarterly goals checkups. At the peak of my infatuation with targeting the future, I began taking notes to write the definitive book on goals.

It was about then I got a wake-up call. Several, actually. There was the divorce, the lousy job market in my field and the stress-related health problems. The very ideology I was forcing on others wasn't working in my own life. I finally understood what John Lennon meant when he said, "Life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans." Goalmaking is an exercise in futility.

The world of goals is about fast-tracking your life. It's about getting from point A to Z, ASAP. Do not linger over a cup of J. There is no time to smell the R. Just go! Go! Go! Multitask to early retirement.

In my own quest I earned two degrees in music and a Ph.D. in literature. I won several grants and fellowships, and I published a few articles and a book. But as I accomplished those things, I never fully enjoyed them. I constantly felt behind, and I was unhappy with the quality of my work.

I also harbored a secret fear: if I wrote my book on goals, might I become one of those people whose greatest success would be making lots of money telling others how to be successful? In the end, I realized my relationship with goals was unhealthy.

When I tell people I no longer make long-term plans, more than a few hint that I am a slacker or even a failure. I think it depends on how you define success. Am I rich? Hardly. Famous? Nope. Climbing the professional ladder? I'm not even sure where it is anymore.

Am I happy? Yes.

Since ditching my detailed plans for the future, I've come to believe we'd all be more receptive to life's opportunities if we weren't trying to look so far ahead. A while ago I was working on a novel when an idea for a collection of short stories popped up. The old me would have taken a few notes and continued hammering away at the novel, forcing myself to finish by some arbitrary deadline. But the new me followed the stories where they wanted to go. The experience was liberating and creatively thrilling, and now that I have returned to the novel, I see its potential more clearly.

Life may be a highway, but I've tossed my maps and GPS. If something neat turns up along the way, I'm stopping to take pictures.

And the blind date? My answers did not impress her (no second date), but they were truthful. Just as 10 years ago I would never have imagined I'd be on my first blind date at the age of 43, I have no clue where I'll be 10 years from now. I could be writing novels in a London apartment. Or playing in a rock band in San Diego. Or on another blind date in the same restaurant. I am open to all those possibilities. In the meantime, I am content to worry about the task at hand and save tomorrow for tomorrow.

And, hey, I still managed to finish this essay.