The Purpose of Purpose

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In business, career, and life plans, one common factor exists that determines whether such a plan is strategic or not. What is this X factor?

It is PURPOSE.

Most plans of any type lack purpose. Purpose is the end game you are trying to achieve. It is the “WHY” behind any plan — at least it should be.

The purpose of purpose is to provide direction.

How can you tell if you have a clear purpose or not?

Here’s a simple test:

If you struggle to make a decision between two well-understood options, then most likely your purpose is unclear.

If you can enter two different markets, but can’t decide between the two even after researching them thoroughly, most likely your purpose is unclear.

If you can’t decide between two job offers even after researching them thoroughly, then most likely your purpose is unclear.

If you can’t decide between living in two different cities, even after understanding both options, then most likely your purpose is not clear.

When you have purpose, decisions become surprisingly easy.

You pick the option that gets you closer to your end game. When your end game is clear (extremely clear), the decision is usually obvious.

In my work, I come across those just entering the work force, those in the work force for some time but who are unhappy, and veteran entrepreneurs in their 50s -- all of whom are “stuck” in their careers for one reason or another.

In my client work, I’ve told prospective clients for most of the last 10 years, "If you know what your goal is, I am quite good at helping you figure out an effective path to get there.

"But, if you don’t know what your goal is, I can’t help you." (Though I often refer such prospective clients to colleagues who can help them get clarity).

In other words, if you are starting at Point A and you want to get to Point Z, I can map out a strategic plan and course of action to get you there. But, if you are at Point A and have no idea where you want to end up, then my expertise is pretty useless until that has been defined.

Here’s another test to determine someone has a clearly defined purpose:

When someone states their goal, I ask them WHY that is their goal.

Regardless of the answer I get, I ask them WHY their answer to my question is important to them.

For example, someone might say, “I really want to work in management consulting.”

I say, “Okay. Why?”

They say, “Because it sounds like interesting work.”

I say, “Okay, why is that important to you?”

I will basically say "why" all day long to try to uncover someone’s underlying reasoning behind their reasons.

What happens quite frequently is at some point in the process, most people can’t answer the deceptively simply (but in reality, quite profound) question of “Why?”

I recently had a client tell me she had a goal of building a business with $X million in sales. I asked why?

She said, “Because it’s the next level.”

I said, “Why is achieving the next level important?”

“Because it is.”

“I understand it is, but WHY is it?”

Silence…

“Do you need the money to buy something?”

“No, I already earn enough to buy everything I need.”

“So WHY is $X million so important to you?

Silence…

“If you built a business that earned $(X - 1) Million, would you consider that a failure?”

She then responds, embarrassingly but honestly, “Yes…”

“Okay, why?”

More silence.

In this case, what I suspected was the purpose of her purpose was not one financial or strategic in nature, but largely emotionally symbolic. For some reason, not yet clear to me or her, the $X million had some symbolic meaning beyond its financial or strategic value.

A clear purpose helps enormously in identifying alternative and often unconventional ways to achieve your purpose.

I once remember Tony Robbins talking about one of his exclusive retreats in Fiji. Tony was taking a walk on a nearby beach when he ran into an old man who lived nearby all his life. The old man asked why all of these foreigners were in Fiji learning from Tony.

Tony responded that they were there to take control of their financial lives and to build wealth. And the local man asked, “Why?”

“So they can accumulate assets, to generate income without having to work.”

The old man responded, “And why do they want to do that?”

“So someday they can stop working entirely, and retire, and spend every day at the beach.”

In response, the old man said, “Well I’m not rich, I’ve worked all my life, and I've spent at least part of every day at the beach for my entire life.”

Isn’t that a thought provoking dialog?

When it comes to careers, most people are wedded to “The Path” — common popular career paths such as consulting, investment banking, law, medicine, etc.

There’s nothing fundamentally right or wrong with these paths. Whether these paths are good choices depends in large part on each individual’s purpose.

For some, management consulting is a phenomenal path. For others, it’s a completely disastrous idea. It all depends on your purpose.

I routinely get emails from readers looking for help in deciding between career path A vs. B, or job offer A vs. B. Invariably, I’m sure they are disappointed in my reply. In nearly every case, I ask, “What is your goal?”

What I find noteworthy is many people don’t know the answer to that question.

So what do you do when you don’t have a sense of purpose that is all your own? How do you figure out what you want out of your life?

Often this happens to people who have spent their whole lives based on what others (parents, siblings, peers) want for their lives.

If this describes you, here are a few tools you might find helpful.

1) If you don’t know what you want, then you damn well better know what you do not want (and at a minimum stop focusing there).

2) If you don’t know what you want, it helps enormously to invest time in exploring a wide range of options. Go visit people (alumni from your university are great for this) in different professions and see what a day in their lives looks like. You might not find out what you want, but you will most certainly figure out what you do not want.

3) Keep asking yourself what you want, even if each time you ask, you don’t get an answer.

I’m using this latter approach with one of my daughters. A year ago, I would ask her what she wanted to eat for dinner. She would never give me an answer and would just say, “whatever everyone else wants.”

When I would push her on the question, it eventually became clear to me that she literally had no idea what she wanted to eat for dinner.

When I saw this pattern repeat several times, I immediately linked this to readers who have written to me about their careers and were unable to respond to the question of "what’s your career goal?"

I extrapolated that if she couldn’t answer the question of “what do you want for dinner?” as a 6-year-old, as a 26-year-old she would probably have difficulty answering the question, “What do you want for your life or career?”

What I’ve found helpful with her is to do the following.

I would ask her what she wanted for dinner when everybody else in the family was not present. So when she would say, “whatever everyone else wants,” I’d say, “well nobody else is here, just you.”

“What do you want?”

The first 5 or 6 times I did this, all I ever got back in response was silence and a shrug of the shoulders.

Around the 6th or 7th time, I would (barely) get what I call a “non”-answer out of her. She would say, “I don’t know, but I do not want X.”

Progress!

"Okay, you do not want X. We’re not going to eat X tonight."

After many months of working with her on this, she now actually knows what she wants for dinner and can verbalize it.

The takeaway I got from this experience was that the act of asking the question, “What do you want?”, even when there was no immediate answer, prompted her (and others) to continually think about the question and build up the self-awareness needed to answer the question in the future.

Sometimes it takes weeks or months for someone unaccustomed to answering a particular question to develop their own thoughts and feelings about it.

(I personally think the human mind abhors a vacuum, and tries to fill it.)

I see this with my clients all the time. I will ask them a “why” question that they just can’t answer.

They will ponder the question, in some cases for months.

Their inability to answer a very simple question bugs them a lot.

So they start thinking about the question over several days, weeks, and months, until they eventually are able to answer it. (Though often the initial answers are “non”-answers -- e.g., they figure out what they do not want, before they figure out what they do want.)

If you sense the purpose of your career and life is unclear, I strongly urge you to not avoid the uncomfortable question.

By keeping the difficult-to-answer question present in your mind, your mind will dislike the discomfort it causes and do one of two things:

1) It will try to avoid the discomfort by avoiding the question.

or

2) Your mind will seek to resolve the discomfort by seeking an answer.

When you deliberately do not let yourself avoid the question, you force your mind to find the answer. You will definitely find the answer... eventually — though the path to do so might not be easily predictable in advance.

I’ll close today with a quote attributed to Socrates: “An unexamined life is one not worth living.”

I’ll add my corollary that, “an unexamined life is existing, but it is not living (your life).”

 

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35 comments… add one
  • Rob May 8, 2014, 4:16 pm

    Excellent post, as someone with a few years in strategy consultancy that is debating their options this is a timely article!

  • someone from Sweden May 8, 2014, 4:34 pm

    Dear Victor,
    Some of your articles are really insightful and a pleasure to read. This one was a terrible cliché.

    If were to talk about “purposes”, I think it would be better to share some interesting (not predictable) examples of how purpose has shaped decisions.

    • Honest Abe May 9, 2014, 1:12 am

      Someone from Sweden, please read the post again.

      Victor, your wisdom is astonishing and your effort to illuminate purpose is wonderful. The framework suggested here will help many. Your insights are helping many caught in conflict avoidance behavior. Thank you so much. Please continue to address these deep core issues that when resolved create substantial inner peace.

  • Pius May 8, 2014, 5:47 pm

    Thank you for the invaluable article.
    Embarassly, whenever I am stuck in some difficult situation or trouble, your precious and advisable articles come in my inbox, and then surprisingly it leads me to an end (action).

    I am really happy of subscribing your newsletter!

  • L C May 8, 2014, 6:49 pm

    The 5 Whys you have borrowed in this article is a very useful technique that should be in everyone’s toolkit.

  • Andrew G May 8, 2014, 7:17 pm

    Hi Victor,

    This is a fantastic email, and has come at such a timely moment in my life. Last week, I read an article by an ex Blackstone analyst imploring us to examine the question of “what is the true purpose of my life”, and when I finished that article (at 3am), I spent the next 3 hours asking myself this question over and over until I got an answer that resonated with me. This 3-6am period has been the best use of any block of my time this year, and the answer has driven my day to day decision making and gave everything clarity.

    It’s also important to emphasise broadening one’s experience to clarify purpose I think. It’s a shame “someone from Sweden” (the above comment) does not appreciate the value of this post. However, had I not thought long and hard about my purpose last week, I will very likely have also dismissed this post as cliche.

    Thanks and keep the good stuff coming!

    Andrew G

  • Jane May 8, 2014, 8:26 pm

    I enjoyed the article but I’m wondering why an “emotionally symbolic” reason for pursuing something cannot be a purpose. I’ve read many articles that have stated something similar but I am not sure I understand what the flaw is here. Aren’t all purposes emotionally symbolic? Can you please clarify?

    • Victor Cheng May 9, 2014, 1:37 pm

      Jane,

      An emotionally symbolic reason for pursuing something can be a valid purpose provided the person understands it’s an emotionally symbolic reason.

      It is when an emotionally symbolic reason is disguised as something else or when its status is unknown that it is a problem.

      Also, I have found that many emotionally symbolic purposes are illusory — meaning when you achieve it, you aren’t actually happy with it.

      For example, you’ll see this in Silicon Valley a lot. I want to start a company and sell it for $100 million to prove I am important. Then once that happens, I still feel inadequate because other people I know sold their company for $1 billion.

      So I set out to build a $1 billion company, and do it. Then critics say it was just luck, and I didn’t do it twice. So I STILL feel unimportant, and aim to do it again.

      This pattern has more similarities to an addiction than to say a calling, ones core values or some functional purpose.

      -Victor

  • Guilherme May 8, 2014, 8:35 pm

    Dear Victor, as the reader from Sweden said, I might have read about this topic sometimes before. But the way you approach is aweesome.

    I started reading you when I was applying for management consulting firms. I did get an offer and started as an intern, being hired 4 months later… And fired 3 months after. At that time it was the biggest fall I’d ever had and it seemed as my career was over when it was about to start.

    Today, 3 years later I’m enough mature to understand that it was one of the best things that happened to me. I wanted to be in management consulting because others had told me it was the best career path to follow and not because a purpose of mine. Today I still think I must find some purposes in order to continue to develop myself. But the good thing is that I finally feel as I’ve found my career path. And it’s completely aligned with one of my life’s purposes. And I think all this “bad” experience hepeld me a lot in reflect about what I really want. At least I’m usually the one to decide the restaurant and what to eat among my friends 🙂

    Thanks again for one more useful reflection.

    • Victor Cheng May 9, 2014, 1:39 pm

      Guilherme,

      I’m glad you found your path. Sometimes the so called “failures” are simply feedback to consider another approach or direction. Although I have never enjoyed any of my failures, they have all served me in the end in some beneficial way.

      -Victor

  • Puja May 8, 2014, 9:34 pm

    Thanks for another brilliant article, Victor! It sounds so simple and should be so obvious, but I’m continually surprised at how many times we miss it. As an aspiring consultant heading to B school next year, I’ve started saying “My passion is purpose” – it explains a career in strategy consulting so well. Thanks again for great career advice!

  • sumeet May 8, 2014, 11:29 pm

    well articulated and very thought provoking write up victor!
    intact for me it also triangulates with ” Stephen covey ‘s” habit of ” keep the end in mind ”

    keep up the good work !!

    best regards,

    • Victor Cheng May 9, 2014, 1:40 pm

      Sumeet,

      Yes, I first read Covey’s 7 Habits book when I was 16 years old. It was as brilliant then as it is now. Beginning with the end in mind IS being strategic.

      It’s hard to do, but quite worthwhile to do so.

      -Victor

  • VV May 8, 2014, 11:39 pm

    Dear Victor,

    Great article once again ! And something that I have spent countless hours thinking (being a very analytical/logical person myself)

    A few thoughts that came to my mind following your article…

    1. While it is indeed very useful to keep asking the “Why” behind the actions you perform and filtering out what you don’t want, it is important to note that for many of us purpose itself is a moving target and one has to be okay with choices you made 4-5 years earlier since I know that at least for me some of my priorities have changed in life.

    2. It is also interesting to hear your views on how you go about making your choices rationally and logically (by a process of logical thinking and elimination). Contrast this with say someone like Steve Jobs who takes a different approach asking you to “follow your heart” (rather than your mind). Do you think you might sometimes end up unhappy if you leave your decision making to your mind ? (successful and miserable 🙂 )

    3. Sometimes when I have resorted to thinking too much about the choices I have to take, I do not “take action” (as mentioned in your previous article). I would love to hear your views on whether we as human beings “find our true identity” through a process of logical thinking or “create our own destiny” through the process of taking action.

    • Victor Cheng May 9, 2014, 1:45 pm

      VV,

      1) Sometimes the only way to find your purpose is to pursue what you THINK is your purpose. In many cases a fast wrong decision is better than no decision, because often the wrongness of the bad decision becomes apparently more quickly through action that the lack of insight that comes from inaction.

      And yes, priorities change through life. My purpose today is quite different than what it was when I was 20 years old. That’s natural.

      2) I personally like to make decisions where both my head and my heart are in agreement and alignment. Or stated differently, when my head and heart disagree I definitely take a time out to reflect on why the discrepancy exists.

      I think holistic decision making should incorporate both. I personally use my heart to figure out the spirit of my purpose and goals, and my head to figure out the practical, tactical and scheduling aspects of it.

      If you only follow your heart, it’s very exciting but the heart isn’t always great at solving problems, laying out a schedule, making short and long term tradeoff decisions.

      If you only follow your head, it’s logically sound but may not be at all inspiring. The head is great at preventing “dying”, the heart is more geared towards “living”.

      -Victor

      3)

  • megha May 9, 2014, 12:37 am

    Interesting but far too long!

  • Rishit Kar May 9, 2014, 1:39 am

    Bhagad Gita -As it is states : vyavasāyātmikā buddhir
    ekeha kuru-nandana
    bahu-śākhā hy anantāś ca
    buddhayo ’vyavasāyinām

    translation for this verse is :- Those who are on this path are resolute in purpose, and their aim is one. O beloved child of the Kurus, the intelligence of those who are irresolute is many-branched.

    Faith means unflinching trust in something sublime.The resolute purpose of a person in Kṛṣṇa consciousness is based on knowledge.If Kṛṣṇa is satisfied by one’s actions, then everyone will be satisfied.

  • Joel D May 9, 2014, 4:45 am

    Hi Victor,

    Just Fantastic! I read a book by Simon Sinek called ‘Start with WHY’ where he says, “People don’t buy What you do, they buy WHY you do it.” His TED talk is quite famous. He goes on to illustrate something which he calls the Golden Circle: Start with WHY then HOW and lastly WHAT.

    Gradually, you should write about these topics on Linkedin blog publishing so that you can reach out to an even wider audience. #JustASuggestion

  • Jumoke May 9, 2014, 10:04 am

    Hi Victor,
    I have always enjoyed and have been thoroughly enlightened by your write-ups. This Purpose of purpose has touched a part of me i have refused to really look at. I know the purpose i am a researcher is because i love to take on sociopolitical challenges and attempt to proffer solutions by studying extensively, through critical reasoning and peer deliberations. but i also want to earn the kind of money the lady you talked about earns ‘that can buy her everything she needs’ which is not the case with me right now. i have often wandered if there are other choices that can afford me the same sense of fulfillment with that kind of income. could it be i don’t know my the purpose of my purpose or i desire the impossible?
    Thanks
    Jumoke

    • Victor Cheng May 9, 2014, 7:38 pm

      Jumoke,

      You have asked me great questions. This is the entire point of figuring out your purpose… to prompt questions… that ideally drive you to find answers.

      Is there a third option that combines what you like + a more attractive financial opportunity?

      I have no idea.

      But I do “know” this. If such an opportunity exists, it is unlikely to just fall out of the sky and land in your lap. If it exists, you will need to seek it out looking into any option that SEEMS like it might be a closer fit to your purpose.

      When I left McKinsey, I left the whole industry because I got tired of the travel and how slowly big companies implement change. It never occurred to me that I could do similar kinds of problem solving work, without the travel, and with companies that implement within hours of a recommendation not years.

      This is the kind of consulting work I do now. It took me a detour into industry, high tech, and elsewhere to basically end up where I started — in consulting — minus the travel and slow moving clients.

      At the time, my thoughts were not as clear as they are now. I presumed the only options available were the most obvious ones – consulting, investment banking, startups — not really appreciating that those 3 fields encompass at most 1-5% of the global economy.

      I never bothered to look for my ideal option. I just assumed it didn’t exist. That was an assumption, not a conclusion based in fact.

      -Victor

  • C May 10, 2014, 8:08 am

    Dear Victor,

    I am a reader of yours since a year. Your sharp reasoning always enthralls me, and triggers questions for self-reflection. This is however the first time that I engage in a replay, sharing my thoughts about your post.

    “When you have purpose, decisions become easy”.
    I totally agree with that. But how to maximize the chances that decisions and plans you map out will brings you as close as possible to the purpose you’re trying to achieve?

    One can predict only till a certain extent the result of plans and actions: there are so many variables that can change during implementation, and so many new or current factoring elements, which cannot be controlled, nor negotiated.
    For example, when you knew what you “didn’t want” in your consulting job – the travel and slow moving clients, in terms of change-implementation in their big companies – you was at Point A. To go to Point Z, you planed out several course of actions to get there, but not all worked out in bringing you to Z. I think it can take a few test of the plan implementation, a feedback cycle to review the plans, and eventually if one persists despite setback, learning from it, eventually one arrives to Z, as you did.

    In my case, I am stocked at Point A, mapping out plans to go to Z. In 4 years, none worked out! So I wonder if it’s only a matter of “keep trying”, or if I am repeating some overlooked mistake, so that I get the same result: not arriving.
    I have re-analyzed and re-structured my plans several times, re-planed course of action to achieve the same purpose through new routes, but I am far from Point Z!

    I wonder if you could maybe help me, sharing your thoughts about how to get from A to Z?

    I give you a bit of background. I am a professional in my early 30s. In my 20s I worked in London for a few years, enjoying a satisfactory job and a rich social life, which gave me access to meeting constantly new people, earn and save enough. Then I decided to invest all my savings in education, to enhance self-development and explore new career paths. I did a second master’s at Harvard, and discovered a big passion for business. But my degree is not an MBA, so I lack credentials. I ended up jobless for 2 years: I lost access to meeting many people and I spend 50-60 hours per week on job hunting, surviving on benefits, family help, menial work. I am happy, active and serene. But I aspire to use my 50-60 working hours in a meaningful way!

    So here my Point Z/purpose: entering a career where I can fulfill the following goals

    SOCIAL: Meet/interact/discuss, at similar level, with many like-minded individuals
    DEVELOPMENT: Evolve the status quo, developing myself, other-people/business
    SOCIO-ECONOMIC: Gain financial independence and get rid of the jobless stigmata

    Of course I can fulfill the first two objectives outside work too. But work takes about 70% of our time, so if I could align those hours to my life purpose, it would be stellar. Also, I have endured financial austerity since 4 years now, and I’d welcome a change.

    I also list what “I DON’T like”, and doesn’t suit me personality (ENTJ) and strengths:

    ENVIRONMENT: sloppy offices, aesthetic-driven/artistic-minded decision makers
    STYLE: routine, task-oriented jobs, minutia, not having control or input on choices
    REWARDS: no mentoring, career ceilings, overtime given for free and no bonus

    I tried to enter a career in consulting: in 2 years, only 3 companies let me compete for a vacancy/graduate scheme, and I didn’t make it. I am willing to keep trying and I am exploring alternatives. Over the past 2 years I’ve also tried in parallel to re-enter my background career. No results either.

    As a curious last fact: I grew up in a small town and environment where “consulting, investment banking, startups” were unknown or unmentioned at least! My first exposure to these options has been in London, then pursuing the US studies.

    Do you have any suggestion about how to go from A to Z, maximizing chances to arrive? If this doesn’t elude the scope of the comments to your posts, I am open to advice!

    C.

    • Victor Cheng May 10, 2014, 11:53 am

      C,

      Since your Z is quite broad (e.g., many potential career paths could satisfy the objectives), it is useful to narrow down a more specific definition of Z to provide greater focus.

      A few things to consider:

      1) What are your strengths and competitive advantages?

      2) What are your weaknesses?

      3) What feedback has the marketplace given you? What have you learned? Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently if you started all over again? (A really important question)

      4) What assets, resources, contacts, etc… do you have to work with?

      5) What are ALL the opportunities that would conceivably meet your point Z objective? Evaluate each along the criteria above to see which would be easiest / most effective / lowest risk.

      6) Pursue the single best opportunity until you encounter new information that prompts you to re-evaluate.

      There’s a BIG difference between being blindly stubborn vs adapting to the situation. I have no idea which one applies to you but would caution you against the former.

      -Victor

      PS. My overall philosophy is be stubborn on the goal, be flexible on the path to the goal. Just make sure your goal is your REAL goal (i.e., ask why a few times to make sure)

      • C May 10, 2014, 3:14 pm

        Dear Victor, Thanks so much for your replay.

        I have tried to launch myself in the job-market as if I had to launch a start-up, evaluating opportunities along the criteria and questions you listed above. [*]

        What I haven’t tried yet, is point 6): re-define the SINGLE BEST opportunity and pursue ONLY that. So far I tried in parallel several options, dedicating shares of time proportionally to interest. (While also doing voluntary small jobs to fill the CV gap).
        Working a bit on each fallback plan didn’t work. Now I will focus on SINGLE BEST.

        [1) Strengths: analytic, logical, numeric reasoning. Soft and selling skills. Visionary
        2) Weakness: typos. Not native English speaker. Bored by repetitive or mindless tasks
        3) Usual feedback from the marketplace: “you’ve been unlucky”/“it’s the economy”
        About jobs in my background career: “no need of your skills”/”low industry demand”
        About a case study: I have been told I could have been more structured and concise
        If I could do it again: I would practice more than 1 case study (shame on me, I know)
        4) Zero assets and finances. I should leverage more contacts, worrying less to bother
        5) I am trying to expand my list of ALL opportunities that would meet Z. (Until now I only evaluated 1. Strategy and Operations in Management Consulting 2. Real Estate Development 3. Project Management 4. Urbanism/Masterplanning: my background)]

        Thanks again for your insightful suggestions. I will also re-evaluate 1 to 5, to adapt
        C.

        PS. My REAL goal is to do something meaningful with my life, to improve other people lives, while at the same time enjoying my 50-60 working hours per week: by interacting with many people and been exposed to a variety of intellectually challenging work. (I’d also prefer not living anymore under austerity measures!)

  • Sean Smith May 10, 2014, 10:42 am

    Hi Victor,

    Thank you for everything. I completely agree that people have unclarity in their life choices due to surrounding social pressures.

    It happens with my clients all of the time. I ask them “If you could do anything in this world and not fail what would it be?” Most of my clients and friends do not know how to answer the question, or when they do it is not big enough for what they truly want.

    This is because societies train people to follow set ‘pathes’ like robots, and this is probably why most of your clients cannot answer the question ‘why’. Robots cannot process ‘why’.

    I also enjoyed your quote by Socrates. I first read it in the “4 Hour Work Week” by Tim Ferriss. This quote and the many others in his book have forced me to examine my life and what I want in the future. To do this I close my eyes and say “if everything in this world was gone, my family, friends, people, what would I want to do?”

    Asking this has made my decision clear and I am pursuing my dream at the moment.

    You are one of my role model entrepreneurs. Thank you so much for your wisdom. I would say you, Tim Ferris, and Richard Branson have changed my life forever. I love entrepreneurship and I will pursue it for the rest of my life.

    Regards,

    Sean Smith

    • Victor Cheng May 10, 2014, 11:59 am

      Sean,

      I agree most people don’t know what they would do with their lives if they had no constraints. They let the constraints dictate their goal, rather than their own sense of self and values.

      Now it may be that the constraints DO dictate decisions for the short-term, but there’s a big difference between doing something no on focus (TEMPORARILY) due to short-term constraints while buying yourself time or resources to pursue the longer term goal.

      But if there is no longer term goal, then meeting the constraint somehow becomes the inadvertent goal for some people. I personally think this is where “mid life crises” come from — a realization that the life you’re existing in is not the life that you actually wanted. When you realize you have less time on earth than the time you’ve already spent, it can be a wake up call.

      I’ve met Tim Ferriss on multiple occasions and of anyone I’ve met, he is probably (at least by outside appearances) the least societally constrained people I’ve ever met. His instinctive sense of what is possible is far greater than most people I know.

      He completely ignores conventional wisdom unless he gets first hand data to confirm its accuracy… and the vast majority of the time conventional wisdom is wrong. Really a fascinating guy, also quite sincere in his desire to be helpful to others.

      -Victor

  • Vebjørn Tveiterås May 10, 2014, 11:05 am

    Hi,

    I really agree that people (including myself) should spend more time and energy TRYING THINGS OUT, to figure out what their purpose is. We so easily settle for average.

    This subject is also closely related to “the new rich”, i.e. not working 9-5. When you earn enough, why not cut back on standard work, and do more of whatever you want to? (which could of course be other kinds of work, such as volunteer work)

    • Victor Cheng May 10, 2014, 12:02 pm

      Vebjorn,

      Nice to see you on the blog as well. The point you’ve identified is sometimes referred to “maximization” vs “Satisficing”.

      An example of this financially is the difference between earning the most you possible can (maximizing) vs earning the LEAST amount possible that’s still able to meet your goals (satisficing) — the pursuit of the satisfactory as opposed to the maximum.

      -Victor

  • Hung Vu May 10, 2014, 7:07 pm

    Love it Victor. I always use your insightful article for my short weekend reflection. Thank you for making positive changes to my life.

    Hung

  • Volha May 11, 2014, 1:24 am

    My husband never knows what he wants to eat for dinner. I used to keep asking – and this made me entirely nuts. As his answers would be – oh, lets order something.
    At the moment, you are not particularly hungry, it is very difficult to decide what you want for dinner. However, when you are ALREADY very hungry – it is too late to cook what you want.
    I simply cook and apply ‘you eat what you get’ approach. When it comes to children – similar to men, they never know what they want, unless they are really hungry and only options is – sweets or chips.
    It is too harsh in my view – to get the child verbalize what she wants for dinner. She might know exactly what she wants in life, like being a princess, etc, but not dinner.
    In my view, it is okay not to know what you want.
    Dear Victor, I read all your posts and pretty much understand your personality after so many years. Among so many bright things, the main thing I noticed – you are being too hard on yourself. This enabled you to achieve. However, the side effect – is being hard on others and especially – your children. I would like to dare and ask you not to be so harsh on your children, though I complete understand you want them to be successful.
    I believe there are other types of success apart from ‘try-hard’ option. The American philosophy ‘work hard and be happy’ has so many flip sides and in many cases – destructive for individuals.
    I suggest to read – Selfish capitalism by James Oliver.

    • Victor Cheng May 11, 2014, 2:31 am

      Volha,

      I appreciate you taking the time to write and offering your thoughts. You’ve made a number of inferences and assumptions about how I relate to my children, based on the partial information I’ve shared in my writings. The information I shared is limited due to space, reader interest, and personal preference, and as a result only paints an incomplete picture.

      Since responding fully to your request would require me to share publicly more information about my kids than I am comfortable, I unfortunately won’t be able to respond. But I did want to acknowledge both your positive intentions which I did received, and also to explain my lack of a more through response.

      Victor

  • Volha May 11, 2014, 3:55 am

    Dear Victor,

    I completely understand your response.
    I was not expecting a serious answer. I did not mean to make big statements and conclusions.
    My writing was based rather on emotional than logical framework, i.e. data 1+…+data N — > conclusion + recommendation.
    So, I am really sorry if I made you feel like I am interfering without even knowing the facts.
    I just wanted to give you a little cue – about the overall impression I have received over the past almost 4 years of reading your various posts ( I guess I am registered since 2010).
    My suggestion is also based on little bit of emotion and rest of it – gut feeling.
    Since I am being hard on myself too, and almost all the time, I simply assume I know how it feels – one achievement after the other, and its never enough. However, since I cannot change ‘being hard on myself’, I compensate it with little bit of self-irony and humor, which works very well.
    I might be terribly wrong with all of that. I am still learning to operate with emotions, as I recently realized, they are the key in business and life decisions.
    Being illogical is also hard, but as soon as it gets us to point Z faster, then why not considering it. )))
    Have a great day!

    • Victor Cheng May 13, 2014, 10:36 am

      Volha,

      Thank you for taking the time to explain, and best wishes!

      Victor

  • Ana May 13, 2014, 2:42 am

    Dear Victor,

    Thank you for an amazingly insightful article!

    I have long been aware that still, at 33 years, I remain completely floating and directionless in my career. I have spent my years in investment banking, in management consulting, in starting my own company, in starting to write a book, and in getting several academic degrees. After all this, I still have no clue as to what to do when I grow up.

    At the moment I find myself on an academic leave from McKinsey and with an interesting job offer from the CEO of a “normal” company. The job would combine work in an industry that has always interested me with consulting-level salaries and good work-life balance. My colleagues and friends congratulate me, saying “jobs that awesome don’t even exist!”

    And I say: “I don’t know…”

    And I explain to myself: “Perhaps I’ll just do this for a couple of years and then, when I once again get too bored or too burnt out or both, I’ll switch to something else. Or perhaps I won’t take this offer and just continue downshifting for a while longer and then see what fate (i.e. some headhunter) puts in front of me. No use planning life too much anyways, as you never know what happens and life rarely works out the way you planned in any case.”

    Now your post made me realize that perhaps it’s NOT allright to keep on floating indefinitely, that perhaps I SHOULD start forcing the (hypothetical) purpose out of its hiding place. Easier said than done, of course. If only I could afford it, I would hire you to ask me those WHYs all day long. 🙂

    Warmest regards,

    Ana

    • Victor Cheng May 13, 2014, 10:34 am

      Ana,

      I would encourage you to be introspective. It is a slow process, but you’d be surprised how asking yourself questions you can’t currently answer can tease an answer out of yourself.

      The first exercise I would suggest is to list every activity you’ve done in your life since you were 5 years old – every sport, major school subject areas, every extra curricular activity, every hobby, everything.

      The write down whether you like it or not. If you liked it, list what you liked about it. If you didn’t like it, list what you didn’t like about it.

      It is important to do this in writing, because you get more in depth answers when you are forced to write it down (or to say it outloud to somebody else who is in turn writing it down for you) than to ask and answer the question solely in your own head.

      Then walk away from the list for a few days and look for patterns. Give it to a trusted friend and ask them to look for patterns.

      It’s okay to not know what you want to do when you grow up. At your stage of career and given the great variety of things you’ve done, I suspect there is enough data to at a minimum to determine what you do NOT want to be when you grow up.

      You get not yet be able to determine your purpose, but you probably have enough information (if you are introspective) to deter me a general direction. (E.g., I want to go West, definitely not East, as opposed I want to taking a heading of 276.3 degrees West.)

      If you keep this up, you will eventually keeping narrowing down your answer into increasingly precise ranges.

      Good luck!
      Victor

  • Tamer Jamil Jun 16, 2014, 9:55 am

    Victor, again a very useful and valuable article. This is one point that comes out time and time again from every successful person around, set goals. You have hit it on the head.

    Thanks

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