Life itself is a process of navigation. Sometimes we successfully navigate the beacons, sometimes we don’t. Thankfully, in most of life’s endeavors there’s a pretty significant fudge factor. Imagine if life were strictly a journey from place to place: in order to get to where you’re going you have to be exactly on point and the slightest deviation will put you a significant distance away. If you have a 1-degree variance from your intended destination, over 500 miles you’d be more than 8-miles off track. 1-degree! And that’s if you know where you’re going. If you don’t have a goal, and just roll with whichever way the wind blows, you’re liable to wake up someday wondering where all the time went and why you haven’t accomplished anything you expected to.
Oftentimes though, the carefully planned path is overly rigid. Sometimes you want to take a detour and see what else might lie beyond. Plan that path too carefully, you’re liable to wake up someday and wonder about the path not taken. If your path requires 100% accuracy – perhaps your assumptions are a little too exact, or require full control over extraneous variables for which there is no way you could possibly account – you’re likely to be very disappointed.
And then there’s all the in-between. All the space between drifting without a goal and being overly structured. That’s where I’m thinking about when I say it’s a process of navigation. It’s the voyage toward the ideal goal along the charted path there. My life has taken some twists I hadn’t planned for, but sometimes resiliency is the better navigator. It’s getting by the obstacles that get in your way. It’s about having a destination in mind, but being flexible enough that one, or two, or more roadblocks won’t drive you off course. It’s about paying attention to how much variance is acceptable and how firm your end goal is: maybe you’re 5-degrees off course but you realize that you’re enjoying where you’re going and decide the heading you’re on is better than the one on which you had planned. Without that reality check, you wind up somewhere completely different than your expectations.
An article in The Atlantic suggests that the conventional wisdom that with age comes increasing happiness, is changing. The author posits a couple of different potential reasons for this; the rise of individualism, an absence of emotional bonds. I’m going to posit my own. We spend an inordinate amount of time planning and setting expectations. The generations coming to middle age and beyond now were raised with the expectation that they would do better economically than their parents; and it turns out this may not be so. It’s about navigating the definition of happiness. We spend a lot of time alone, but very little time in introspection. We know what we want to do, but we’re planning to get there instead of enjoying the here and now. We have more capacity to touch more people, but less capacity for those meaningful relationships. We have the knowledge of the entirety of human history at our fingertips, yet our work often needs little more information than how to press a button. We give ourselves little wiggle room, and in our highly structured lives, we forget that resiliency matters.
I’m gettin’ paid by the hour, an’ older by the minute.
My boss just pushed me over the limit.
I’d like to call him somethin’,
I think I’ll just call it a day.
That said, the substantive body of generational and of “happiness” research suggests we do become happier as we get older. The dawning of middle age was difficult for me. I took a hard correction in course, really thought about what I wasn’t getting out of life, and reset what those expectations were. What I didn’t do was decide it was all crap and throw it in the trash.
I started this post literally more than 4 years ago. I have little doubt the direction it would have taken then would be substantially different than where I am today. I cannot remember a time when I have felt more empowered by having a goal, having built a plan with a significant fudge factor in it, and working that plan. I’m happy with my work; I have a meaningful career I worked hard to cultivate and got lucky to have been in a few right places when it mattered. I never grew up with a plan of what I wanted to do, I was however one of the lucky ones who found something I was interested in early and followed that path.
So how does one keep it between the navigational beacons? By keeping the channel wide, by paying attention to the general direction, knowing what the journey generally should look like, and keeping tabs on where we are along the journey. By finding meaning in what we do every day, instead of finding meaning in the ultimate goal. The goal isn’t worth getting to if the journey isn’t worth having.