How To Be Aimless
Throughout our lives, especially in early adulthood, we have periods when we don’t know where we’re going or what we should be doing with our lives. A bad breakup, job loss, death of a loved one or a change of heart can make once immutable goals seem irrelevant.
We become a bit lost but that lost feeling seems oddly right for the moment. We’re in downtime. Downtime is a period of regrouping, conserving energy and figuring things out. If downtime extends too long we get antsy and feel that we should be doing something more.
However, after having no direction for so long, it’s hard to figure out what we should be moving towards. The more we try to get ourselves moving, the less appealing our choices become. Nothing we do feels right.
Be The Right Person
In Good To Great, Jim Collins explains the idea of the Hedgehog Concept to help companies figure out what to do.
The step before the Hedgehog Concept for a company is to find the right people. Collins says that the right people as part of the company will do the right thing even if the company doesn’t have a clear direction. The right people don’t need to be managed. When the company does find it’s Hedgehog Concept, it’s the right people who will have the skills, attitude and motivation to move the company onto that new path.
Applied to an individual, “find the right people” equates to be the right person. If you’re the right person than you don’t need to manage yourself. You won’t need to manage self-defeating behavior or limiting beliefs. If we don’t know our Hedgehog Concept yet, being the right person keeps us growing until we do figure out what we should be doing.
This requires figuring out who we are now.
Who Are We Are Now
We are not one thing. Like a company, our lives are complex network of relationships. A company is not just the CEO. Similarly, no person is just an employee or just a parent.
An exercise I learned from E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber, is how to create an organization chart. Gerber’s book is about why businesses fail and what to do about it.
Gerber says that before anyone starts a business, they should write down the organization chart of the entire company from CEO all the way down. In each position in the organization chart, they write down specific responsibilities and tasks that will make that position successful. This way no responsibilities gets missed. At first, the small business owner writes his name in each of the position and must do all the tasks. As the company grows, the owner hires people to replace their name on the org chart.
I’ve applied this concept to my life my creating a Role Chart. Any life requires a set of Roles that need to be played. Those roles demand certain responsibilities and require tasks to be completed in order to be successful. For example, if Parent is one of the roles then one of the required tasks is spend time with our children. If we spend zero time with them then being successful in that Role is unlikely.
My main roles are Husband, Parent, Family Member, Provider, Writer, Lifelong Learner and Contributor
Everything I enjoy in life fits under one of these roles. Friend falls under the role of Contributor. I see Contributor as being someone who improves the lives of others. World traveler and computer geek falls under Life Long Learner. Cook falls under Husband and Parent.
Although our roles are not our Identity, the sum of our roles defines the life we live. Even if I don’t know what I should be doing with my life in a general sense, I know have chosen roles that are important with tasks that require doing to be successful.
What if what we want is more abstract like to be more outgoing or to be better at relationships? Being requires doing. We can’t be more outgoing without doing the things that make us more outgoing. We can’t be more outgoing, unless we do something besides stand in the corner. We can’t be better at relationships if we don’t do something like improve communication skills.
Also improving those things are role specific. Being more outgoing as a Parent requires different actions than being more outgoing as a Provider.
The Purpose of Roles
Roles fill personal needs. I write often about Tony Robbins’ 6 Human Needs: Certainty and Uncertainty, Significance and Connection, Growth and Contribution.
My role as Father meets my needs of Uncertainty, Significance, Connection, and Growth. My role as Provider meets my needs of Certainty and Growth.
Lives with the most stability have those needs met across many roles. When we put all our needs into a single basket like the role of Spouse or Parent, our lives fall apart should something happen to that role. If that single basket is dropped, all our needs are now completely unmet.
As we grow and our lives evolve, we have roles that no longer meet any of needs. Provider might have met the need of Significance before the kids graduated college and got high-paying jobs. Roles that don’t meet needs have to be re-evaluated so we can stop doing tasks which no longer contribute to our lives.
Idealism and Roles
Ideal roles don’t exist because even the best roles like Parent often suck in the day-to-day reality. Although ideal roles don’t exist, there are ideal ways to play a role. Those ideal ways are different for everyone. For some, world famous movie star or successful entrepreneur is a better way to play the role of Provider than as a McJob employee.
Often “reality” doesn’t accommodate us. We want to play a role one way, but we’ve either repeatedly failed or don’t know how. Instead we do something else, something less ideal for that role to meet our needs. This is especially true with careers and relationships. We stick with bad relationships and terrible jobs.
Improving our situation requires identifying which needs those roles are meeting and figuring out if those needs can be filled by another role. For example, maybe you’re in a terrible relationships, but your role of Spouse is providing Certainty of a home and regular meals. If you end the relationship then Certainty no longer gets met, unless another role can provide it. Maybe your role as Son/Daughter can provide Certainty by asking your parents for help as you transition out of the role of Spouse.
Being Better at Your Roles
Being better at a role doesn’t mean creating a checklist to cross off. Yes, roles have responsibilities with tasks associated. However, a checklist of To-Dos for that role focuses on the tasks and not the intent of the role.
If taking the kids to Disney World is on the checklist in your role as Parent, the intent is not to cross off an item and then move onto the next item. Maybe you have a Bucket List for your Role as parent – this year Disney World, next year the Yellowstone, etc. Crossing more items off the bucket list doesn’t make you better at your roles.
Roles meet needs. So what need does that role satisfy? Maybe Parent provides Uncertainty, Significance, Connection and Growth. Being better at those roles means doing actions that will meet those needs in a meaningful way.
Say you plan the Disney trip the last detail. You made a checklist, did the checklist, you got the Fast Pass and the time schedule, you got to the rides on time, no one had to wait, you rode all the rides and the plan goes flawlessly and everyone has a great time. Your kids thank you get Significance, what about the other needs.
How could you have more Uncertainty? Maybe you give up trying to get to every ride. You give your youngest who always wants to be in charge the map and say, get us to this place, we’ll follow. Maybe your youngest gets you there on time and maybe they won’t. You get your Uncertainty but you also get Connection. The kid might not remember all the rides but maybe they’ll remember that story about how you we’re trying to get to the roller coaster but you ended up finding that really cool giant Lego statue. Maybe your kid loses their favorite stuffed toy and you have to spend time looking for it. This could be where Connection and Growth comes into your role as Parent when you have to comfort your child and help them work through this process of possibly never finding their toy.
As a Parent, sometimes I have no clue what I’m supposed to be doing. I feel that way in my other roles as well. However, if I focus on the intent – what needs does this role meet — then I have a guide to figuring out what tasks need to done.
At 20, I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing with my life. I wanted to be published writer but who knew if that would ever happen. Meanwhile, I served popcorn at a movie theater and hung out with friends.
So how can someone have no direction and still improve their life?
Being aimless doesn’t mean doing nothing. We are always doing something. The question is whether that something contributes to our ideal life.
1. Put your goals on pause.
Our values change so our priorities change. Maybe making that first million was really important until you held your newborn for the first time. Items put on a list five or ten years ago may no longer make sense. When climbing the ladder of our own personal success, that ladder needs to lean against the right wall.
2. Define and improve your skills in your current Roles
My roles at 20 were Writer, Employee and Friend.
Writers who make a living at writing learn to overcome procrastination. They write a certain number of words daily even when they aren’t inspired. They know how to compose query letters and approach publishers. Being better at the role of Writer meant I had to learn the habits of writers who actually made a living at it. I studied the Writer’s Handbook. I read what I could on the business of writing.
By focusing at being a little bit better at each Role every month, we improve our lives without focusing on goals that we currently are unsure of and may turn out to be meaningless later.
Being aimless and moving our lives forward, means improving habits and skills while keeping an eye out for opportunities to improve the way we do that Role. Doing this leads to possibilities we never considered before. It’s those new possibilities that often spark an idea or inspiration helps us find our passions and purpose.
Revised: May 22, 2018
Reasoning: Because the original version sucked. It was one of the worse articles I’ve written. The last two sections meandered and had no point. The sections, Being Better at Your Roles and Being Aimless, were revised to contain actionable content.
Jan 5, 2011
Jan 5, 2011
I’ve gone through a lot of what you’ve wrote, and it is very helpful.
Thanks. I enjoyed this post.
Jan 5, 2011
On the one hand you criticies bucket lists for being static and on the other hand you praise roles for being dynamic.
But aren’t bucket lists also dynamic and consecutive? If you go to Disney World with your children and you cross that item off of your list, does that also mean you can not add a new item to your list, say going to “Lego land”?
And also: Why does crossing off an item from your list, hinder you to care for your children? A bucket list consist of things you especially want to do or don’t want to do.
If I don’t write “I want to care for my children”, that doesn’t mean I really won’t care for them. You also wouldn’t write “I have to eat”, “I have to sleep”, “I have to breath”, would you?
I don’t want to even begin with arguing, that roles also can be static (and hindering).
With kind regards,
January 5th, 2011 at 1:10 pm
I think Bucket Lists are helpful if the right items are on the list. That’s the context of my post, goal completion while being unsure of your long term aims. When you are lost, is continuing to complete goals the best course of action? What should a person be doing while goals are being re-evaluated? If you don’t know what you should be doing, is making up new goals like going to “Lego Land” moving you forward in your life or is it just another item on a list?
I believe Roles are static. For example, my Role as income earner isn’t going change. The main responsibility of the role is to earn an income in order to maintain my lifestyle. I don’t see that responsibility going away unless I move to a different society which will allow me to bum around all day. Or if I end up hating my lifestyle and decide to become a professional derelict.
Which Roles I have changes. One of my Roles is son. When my parents pass away. I will no longer have that Role.
Just because the Roles are static doesn’t mean how they are played are static. Currently, I have 3 ways I play the Role of income earner: employee (70%), freelancer (10%), investor (20%). Eventually, I would like to shift those percentages to 100% investor which will take some ingenuity and creative problem solving.
I guess I don’t understand what you mean by a Role being hindering. A Role is just a set of responsibilities and tasks that must be completed in order to be successful. The ideal life is a bunch of roles an the ideal way we want to accomplish those roles. We pick our Roles based on how we want to meet our needs.
Some Roles we don’t get to choose. I don’t get to choose whether I’m a son or not. I only get to choose how well I want to play that Role for the time I have left in it.
Jan 15, 2011
I really enjoyed this post! It has helped me make better sense out of some confusion in my life right now. I am Robyn and I am currently AIMLESS…. and thanks to your post, I can accept this without guilt, fear, or insecurity. Thank you!
Dec 6, 2014
I really love the hedgehog concept. Only, it doesn’t fit me. And whenever I try to apply the concept, I always end up abandoning the idea after a day or so. But I love it, just me getting negative. Lol
Jun 8, 2020
Thanks so much for maintaining this site and writing these articles. As an INFP it can be so hard to maintain satisfaction and direction within our lifestyles in our uncommon ways while meeting our priorities for meaning and self actualization. I’ve found your articles to be immensely helpful in helping inform and advance my own approach. Thanks again!