In 1984 I wrote an essay for my college applications that became for a long time the “example essay” for the various sessions my high school did on how to write a college application. I’m not actually sure it was all that great but it did hit an important topic: I wrote about my own experience of having thrown myself into achieving a goal in a very driven way, achieving it, and then discovering it had not in any way been worth the effort.
I was a total car nut when I was a boy, and my fantasy land about what kind of car I would drive was vivid and populated with all kinds of wonderful four-wheeled creatures. I think the common thread among all of them was a deep-seated longing for social acceptance, which I was certain would come because my ride was so bad-ass. Why? I was a not-wealthy kid in a private school full of rich kids that was still trying to maintain the illusion that it was a Quaker-leaning classless utopia. I think my classmates and I were all too naive to realize the status games we were playing with each other, but we certainly were playing them. Anyway I was sure, I think, that the awesome retro chariot I was going to restore with my own hands and no money would make me an instant hero. I was, of course, wrong…
Now in retrospect spending all that time working on that car was not a terrible idea, I learned a ton including a few things about what I am actually capable of doing if I put my mind to it. On the other hand I would have been much better served spending the time either studying or practicing. And the car itself, that I put all the effort into… well, it was simply the wrong car. A big, heavy ’53 Ford coupe with a weak straight-6 motor and a column shift is nobody’s idea of a bad-ass ride. Had I chosen, say, a ’60s VW Beetle as my platform, things could have been different.
So, I made two mistakes, really: I chose to put a bunch of effort towards a goal, having a restored car, that was not a great goal; and, having made that choice, I picked the wrong car to restore.
It occurs to me that these two mistakes are actually qualitatively different. You can make the mistake of choosing the wrong thing to shoot for, and I think that mistake is actually really common because we are really really bad at predicting the future. Then you can also make the mistake of choosing the wrong way to achieve your goal, which I think depends a lot more on your environment, the quality of the advice you have, and the resources you have on hand. Note that the more important choice — what to aim for — is not something you can get help with. Only your own experience and your own desires can tell you if it is worth putting the effort into raising a family, or learning a language, or changing careers. Once you’ve made that choice, however, you can get lots of help with the how if you have the good sense and humility to ask.
Here’s a thing, though. Sometimes I don’t think it matters where you aim. Take my college essay, for instance. If I hadn’t had the wrenching experience of putting a crapload of time into restoring something that, once restored, was entirely uninspiring, then I wouldn’t have been able to write about it, and I might well not have got into some of the colleges I got into. It was worth having had the experience, even though the result turned out to be not what I wanted. My attempt at a PhD in English falls into roughly the same category, I guess — I quit the program after two years and left with a Master’s, but I wouldn’t trade the experience of those two years for anything. Wrong goal, for sure, but major growth trying to get there.
I guess this means it is always better to be striving for something, even if you’re not sure it’s the right thing. Some faith that it will wind up being worth it is in order. This is a bit more difficult to swallow when you’re leading a whole group, of course. It’s probably better not to admit to them you’re not sure this is the right direction.