The Year of Living Aimlessly on Purpose

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Reading time: 5 minutes

Well this feels weird…
Here I was at the start of a new year, doing what I’ve been doing religiously for over half a decade: setting SMART goals for the year ahead. This method helped me fulfill my childhood dreams, achieve professional accolades, and grow a loving family. But for some reason, this year it felt off.

Thousands of people around the world use SMART goals. And for good reason — IT WORKS! The acronym stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. It’s an incredibly powerful framework that will help you define and achieve your goals. It works fabulously well once you lock your aim on a clear target. It’s like drawing a map that will guide you to a place under a palm tree, where you measure 7 steps east and 12 steps north, dig 2 meters deep, and find the treasure.

But what if the reward you seek isn’t the treasure, but the journey to it? And what if the path only reveals itself once you begin the journey? Then, my dear reader, you have to depart from the safe and predictable ways of SMART goals.
Welcome to the real life.

As I was staring into the white abyss that only a blank sheet of paper can provide, one part of me stubbornly wanted to stick to SMART goals. Why change a winning formula? It worked for 5+ years and I was pretty sure it would work this time too. But every time I came up with a target for the year ahead, it felt bland, predictable, with no spice to fire me up. To put it in technical terms, it all felt meh.

That’s when I decided it was time for a new experiment in life optimization. What would the next year look like if I didn’t focus on achieving goals? What if I did the opposite? That’s when I decided to switch from SMART goals to DUMB goals.

My course is set for an uncharted sea.

Dante Alighieri

Introducing DUMB goals

With an acronym like that, DUMB goals won’t be taking over the business world anytime soon. But they might drastically improve your life.
Before I tell you what it’s about, let me make some things clear. This method is not for people who are looking for a job or just starting their career. If that’s you, focus on developing a solid work ethic, accumulate knowledge and experience, expand your network, set SMART goals and work on achieving them. If you are just starting your independent life journey, this method will not be the best way to go.
But if you have successfully passed through those stages and now find yourself contemplating, What next? or Is there more to life than this?, then I have some news for you.

The good news: you have successfully leveled up at the game of life. Not many people get to the stage of asking existential questions. For most of human history, people were busy ascending the first layers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. You, my friend, are now officially tackling the top level of the pyramid. But you know what that means, right?

The bad news: there is no map! At the end level you are facing the final boss. And he is immune to all the magic spells (i.e. money and status), potions (drugs, alcohol, comfort food), and power-ups (networking and relationships) you have gathered and used up to this point. What’s even worse, there are no cheat codes and no walkthroughs for this level.
Great. Now what?

As you start to walk on the way, the way appears.


You and I aren’t the first to face this dilemma. One of the oldest and most practical accounts of such problems comes from a guy who lived almost 2000 years ago. Despite being the most powerful man in the world, he shared the same struggles. And after many attempts, he found a way to conquer the final level. Lucky for us, he wrote a walkthrough.

Marcus Aurelius obviously had no notion of video games or Maslow’s pyramid. But if you read his Meditations, it’s clear he was facing the same questions. Here is Marcus in his own words:
Epithets for yourself: Upright. Modest. Straightforward. Sane. Cooperative. Disinterested. Try not to exchange them for others. And if you should forfeit them, set about getting them back.
Combine the wise words of a late Roman emperor with the modern version of goal-setting, add a pinch of irony, and you get DUMB goals.

Putting it all into practice

Now that you know the genesis and purpose of DUMB goals, let me help you define your own so you can conquer the top of Maslow’s pyramid and dominate the game of life. To live in a way that is fulfilling and meaningful under any circumstances, set your DUMB goals by following the acronym.

D for Descriptive
Focus on how instead of what. Stop thinking of what you want (e.g. a house, a title, an achievement, a promotion). Instead focus on how you want to live, how you want to behave and feel, irrespective of your circumstances.
Think like a Roman emperor. Choose epithets for yourself. Try not to exchange for others. Here are mine: Healthy. Resilient. Mindful. Caring. Creative.

U for Unbounded
To find long-term fulfillment, you have to switch from finite to infinite games. Finite games are time-bound: you get to play for a limited time, until you achieve the goal. This limits the fulfillment you can get out of it.
In contrast, infinite games are unbounded, there is no end-game. Think of things like being a good parent or mentor, being healthy, or being wise. There is no upper limit to these games. They never end. And they offer a lifetime of fulfillment.

M for Manageable
If you choose epithets that are not under your control, it will lead to frustration instead of fulfillment. You may wish to be happy or motivated all the time, but that is not realistic. So pick ones that you can manage. Like Viktor Frankl said: Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

B for Boring
B also stands for basics. And the basics are boring. Being healthy and honest, being mindful and caring and just, being grounded and disciplined — such things will never make the headlines. Yet, they are the foundation on which anything great is built. Become excellent at the basics.

98% of success is consistently doing boring things that no one sees. 2% is visible and exciting, so that’s all everyone talks about.

Shane Parish

Now grab a sheet of paper and choose epithets for yourself. Select ones that are Descriptive, Unbounded, Manageable, and Boring. Try not to exchange them for others, and you will live a completely new and fulfilled life.

* * *

PS: over six months have passed since I started this experiment. And I’m now at the high-water mark of my life. Physically, mentally, financially, and family-wise I have never felt better. So give DUMB goals a try. I just might stick to them indefinitely.

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