Competing Goals

It’s easiest to have clarity about decision making when we’re separated from the decision making process. We build rules to allow us to avoid making tough decisions in the moment. It’s hard when emotions can push us toward a particular desire and block out other important factors. That doesn’t protect emotions from misaligned feelings though, and it’s why we need habits of revisiting our actual desires.

I’m constantly amazed with my ability to want things in the moment that are in complete contrast to what I want when I have time to sit and think. More than that, my brain can switch between two polar opposite desires in a matter of seconds, and somehow struggle to appreciate how counterintuitive it is to want them both.

The last decade, two desires have influenced many of the decisions I’ve made. One one hand, I want to create value, primarily through software. I’ve invested in the skills and headed down the path to make it happen. It’s been a more serious endeavor than anything else in my life. During it all have been uncomfortable situations, reduced paychecks, and frustrating, endless nights of reading code.

But I’m not fully bought in. On the opposite end is a desire to live in the moment, appreciate the opportunity to be alive and avoid the rat race. Money could never buy what a long conversation or morning spent in the pages of a good book offers. Many of the best moments of my life have been spent in conversation.

Recently, I’ve caught myself envying those who have focused and (seemingly) succeeded in one aspect or the other. In a matter of moments, I’m jealous of each. I have friends that invested themselves in their careers and experienced success that I’ve only seen from a distance, though often a short, agonizing distance. They’ve made a trade off for societal impact, financial success, and long term security. Peace of mind and value for others are key goals, worth almost any short term cost.

I also have friends who have put their livelihood first. Money is only a means for acquiring few worthy possessions and enabling experiences. If what’s desired doesn’t have a price tag, why waste time to earn? Contributing mustn’t come through world changing, technological breakthroughs. Being present, building strong relationships, and supporting one another is more than enough.

I want them both. I want to work late into the evening, for weeks on end, to ship something useful to a customer, all while stopping to smell the flowers and calling a friend who’s lonely. And all at once, it seems, I manage to experience doubt that I’m succeeding at either.

That’s where our minds suck. I look at each of these friends, and in comparison I’m convinced that I’m lesser than each. Angrily, I tell myself that I’m more thoughtful than the worker, more productive than the lover. It’s a manic cycle.

It’s where perspective and goals are most necessary. Objectively, like most people, I know I’m doing well in each area. I work hard, put in extra hours when the job requires, and progress toward career goals that have allowed me to have an impact. I also manage to live outside my career, reading in the morning and having breakfast with my wife rather than demanding an always-on, always-working attitude.

In the moment, I can feel inferior to two completely opposed lifestyles, or flip the script and tell myself I’m better than each. In reality, when I step away, take a deep breath over a coffee on a Sunday morning, my goals are my own and all comparison is useless. 

Have I contributed and enjoyed life in the ways I know I can? 

In the moment, the answer gets drowned out by all the noise. Better step back and give myself the time and space to chime in. It’s the only opinion that really matters.

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