Under the Curve: creating sustainable life goals

Icons representing home, money, collaboration, recognition intellectual stimulation, impact, health, communication
The icons I made to keep track of my sustainable life goals l-r home, money, collaboration, recognition intellectual stimulation, impact, health, communication

In my last post I posed the question of what success looked like. Was it a single high point, like getting to a certain weight, winning a medal, getting a promotion? Or was it more complicated, more like finding a way of being?

I ant to look a little at what it means if we see success as a way of being that lasts a lifetime. Because that’s the thing I come back to again and again. Whenever I see adverts for tools to improve yourself, the goal seems to be very immediate or very one-dimensional. But while I understand the pull of Olympic gold that I looked at yesterday, that’s not a goal I could imagine shaping my life.

To pursue such a singular goal, you need to sacrifice everything else. But for me, being human is about the balancing of “everything else”. And while there are some things I enjoy pursuing at a high level, I couldn’t imagine seeking such a high level of performance that I reduced other areas of my life to zero.

So for me, pursuing success is more like maximising the area under a curve, where the line on top of that curve is made up by all kinds of different things. It’s very like being a decathlete in athletics. You have to be good at javelin, running over hurdles, and long jumping. But if you get as good as you possibly can at hurdling, you will be a less good decathlete than if you keep your training tuned to balance all 10 events, even though you’re not as good at any one of them as you would be if you ignored the others.

And I don’t see goals as being points in time either. Again, for me, that just doesn’t feel like what it means to be human. And it reminds me of sitting final exams, or even competing at a World Championship, winning a gold medal, and within 30 minutes wondering “what now?”

And the thing is that if that IS your goal, there is nothing to come next. Which is why so may people driven to this kind of target struggle with what comes next.

If your goal is achievable in a single moment in time, not only will you be lost once you’ve achieved it, but to achieve it you will, necessarily, have sacrificed all the things that would have helped you build what comes after.

As I approach 50, I am REALLY interested in seeing what the 50 year-old body and mind might be capable of. But that’s not my goal. My goal is a distant horizon that also encompasses finding out what a human body and mind can do at 60, 70, 80 — I figure if I set out from here to be the best 80 year-old I can, 50 will get taken care of on the way.

And just as “success” stretches out in time, so it stretches wide, and encompasses many things, all of them not single points. It’s less about maximising the area under the curve, more about maximising the volume of a 4-dimensional shape! And I find it helpful to think about the complex balancing act that involves as being something like the cosmological constant that keeps the universe expanding without collapsing or flying apart.

I have found it helpful to break this idea of “success” down into what I call sustainable life goals. Yes, I did get the idea from the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The sustainable bit simply refers to the fact that these are all horizons that stretch into the distance, that continue, ways of being or environments in which I operate.

And they have been designed to include as many areas of being human as are of real interest to me:

  1. Home and relationships

I have set boundaries for each of them within which I would like to operate (maybe I’ll take a deep dive into them here at some point) — levels below which I’d like never to fall, and while many trade offs are not direct — it will be a long time before I have anything approaching financial security, and not going for an extra run this week isn’t going to make a significant dent in that — they do exist — pursuing some things to a point where I have no mental resources or time left to pursue a side hustle almost certainly will damage my long-term hopes. It’s all about balance. And balance is hard, and we get it wrong a lot. But it’s human.

A final point to make here about how to keep track of success. If you’ve read much of what I say about leadership or creativity, you will know I don’t like metrics. I am not a believer in SMART targets. Thinking about goals as we have done here might help explain something about why that is. If you measure one thing, and use that measurement to gauge your success, you will find yourself, for understandable reasons, ignoring everything else. And that’s great if you want to win the Olympic 100 metres.

But we do ourselves, and our humanity, a disservice when we assume that what works (I’m not even convinced of that)within the incredibly tight parameters of a single sporting target is something that will work for “life”.

To acknowledge that measuring something will lead us astray from meaningful goals is not the same as saying we can never know if we’re on the right track. It’s just an acknowledgement that keeping tabs of the track we’re on is a complicated thing, more akin to reading a story and detecting whether something feels “off” about it.

CEO & founder of Rogue Interrobang, University of Oxford spinout using creativity to solve wicked problems. 2016, 17 & 19 Creative Thinking World Champion.