Deciding who you are and who you want to be can be comforting and even beneficial, but sometimes, all that calculating and planning puts us in a box. Often times our idea of success changes as we grow, meaning our end goals are not what we thought they were. Here's why having a life-defining plan can be consequential:
This time 6 years ago, I was still a little girl in Vietnam daydreaming about moving abroad and especially who I would be, what I would do and where I would be the day I turned 22. The list I made that day included many life-defining things along the line of “graduating from a top university, living in a big city, earning big bucks, getting married by age 25”, etc.
And the reason why I had these goals was simple. At the time I had a big role model, my elder sister, who was praised by many and on track to achieve such a life and so I believed becoming someone like her would be success. It would make my parents proud and myself happy. Conveniently, it was also what was portrayed admirably in the media and by society which influenced my everyday thinking so heavily I didn’t even consider that those goals might not be what I personally wanted at 22.
But little did I know at 16. I made that goal list and called it a dream. I internalized that dream to my core belief system and as I grew up, I tried my best to turn it into my reality as if it was the only definition of success while struggling to understand why I wanted what I wanted. The worst part is that, because it was so deep-rooted, when I achieved something that was not exactly the same as what was on that list, I would think of myself as not good enough, or a failure.
Well, I’m 22 now and guess what? That list of goals is definitely NOT the ONLY definition of success — at least not for me now, no. That particular life the 16-year-old me naively set her mind on chasing after was all borrowed ideas — someone else’s dream and reality, not what I really wanted. As it turned out, even my sister didn’t become the person she thought she would be, and I, at 22, have arrived at a place that last year I didn’t know would be possible, let alone 6 years ago.
Undeniably this reality has deviated dramatically from my original plan but it doesn’t matter anymore. Today I feel more like myself than ever before because at some point in the past 6 years I have dropped all the unrealistic expectations of myself and let me be whoever I’m going to be.
The thing is, when I envisioned my path at 16, I knew very little about myself and what I was going to want in the future as I changed. I had ideals imposed on me by various sources but not real knowledge. Surprisingly, the real knowledge actually came later when my life took a turn away from the plan. It came from going out there exploring the world, taking unanticipated opportunities and making risky decisions, like attending university in a city I had never ever been to in my life, or taking an internship offer that I had completely forgotten about, or falling in love with all the wrong people and getting hurt repeatedly until I had to do something differently.
Inevitably, my insecurities and weaknesses were exposed, forcing me to face and deal with my problems while constantly giving me insight into my inner self. As a result, little by little, my thinking is shaped and my values are realized. They help me form and improvise my own definition of success — the definition that is most meaningful and authentic to me, that one that gives me the sense of me. And I’m comfortable and prepared that it may change with time instead of being wrapped up in one idea at one point in life and basically setting myself up to fail.
And I believe this is true for any stage of life, really. Not just at 16 or 22 but any year later. I don’t just know what I want in life by sitting there, following the stream like a dead fish or trying in vain to achieve other people’s definition of success which never rightly measures my abilities and brings me happiness. No. I know it by dropping all the unrealistic ideals and restricting labels of everything in my life, by getting rid of all the due dates before which I have to achieve such and such for all they do is limit and disappoint myself.
I know it by keeping my mind open and flexible and proactively doing things that bring out different sides of me and advance myself wherever it is possible. I expose myself to different environments, meet different types of people, get out of my comfort zone and test my own limit, and ultimately let myself be. I try different things to choose the ones that suit me best and stay positive along the way. And when something happens, I take the time to reflect, ask myself honest questions, challenge my own beliefs and look into my own feelings with care instead of belittling or dismissing them.
Through all this, I’m able to understand myself more deeply and thoroughly then gradually figure out NOT what I think I want, or what people want for me but what I truly, wholeheartedly want at each stage of life. In a way, all what I thrive towards is freeing myself from ideals and simply experiencing life for what it is, moment by moment, with gratitude and a positive outlook. To me, that’s the way to making better decisions and eventually living an authentic, happy and successful life.
See, you may have a list now of things you want to achieve and you may have an ideal of who you will become in 5 or 10 years’ time. And don’t get me wrong — it’s good to be focused and ambitious. However, keep in mind that many things in your life will change whether you want them to or not. Likewise, you will change and what is important to you will change too, and your reality may not match your list of goals and your ideal self 5 years ago. And it’s all okay. Don’t stress yourself out. You’re not failing. You’re just getting to know yourself better — your true self.
Let yourself be and live this life to the fullest by embracing every experience you’ve ever had with an open mind. Give yourself the credit for having gone this far and celebrate every achievement no matter how big or small. As long as you don’t lose sight on your values and haven’t given up on yourself, you’re doing fine. Then if you keep trying and moving forward, you will get better — maybe not the way you have imagined but you will.