This is part of a series of articles, which may be found at the following links, and should be read in numerical sequence:
Yesterday we examined the purpose of an organization. Today I’d like to go into more detail about defining, refining and stating our purpose as individuals and families. It’s critical to get this right, because it’s the single most important reference point in the entire planning process. Anyone, at any time, should be able to stop and ask him- or herself: “Is the work I’m doing right now directly contributing to my/our purpose?” If it is, great. If not, why are you doing it? Why not do something more important, more productive and more relevant to the plan?
First off, our purpose has to be something concrete and measurable. As a pastor, I used to ask couples preparing for marriage what their aims and objectives were. I never ceased to be frustrated by the number who replied airily, “Oh, to be happy together!” or “To raise a family.” There’s a whole lot more to marriage than that . . . and couples who don’t understand that face a greatly increased risk of ending in divorce, or (at the very least) enduring more problems than they need to. The same goes for individuals. “What do you want to do with your life?” is a very important question. Too few of us are prepared or equipped to answer it, particularly when we’re young and living for the moment. That’s what this series is all about.
In defining a concrete, measurable purpose, we have to remember that it’s no good if it’s so grandiloquent, so all-encompassing, that it can never be measured or achieved at all. For example, if a couple sets their purpose as being “To be a happy, productive family,” how is that to be measured? Against what yardsticks? When can or will it be accomplished – in five years? Ten? Twenty? What does ‘productive’ mean in terms of the different stages of family life? Does it mean lots of children, or kids growing up with good grades at school, or starting successful careers? Does it mean financial success, or domestic tranquility, or both?
There’s also the problem of wrong-headed expectations. Think of the ‘flower power‘ culture of the 1960’s. “Everybody’s got to be free!” was the refrain – but free from what? Debt? Worries? Chores? Expectations? How was/is that freedom to be achieved? If you’re free from obligations (e.g. the need to work or earn a living), does that mean that others have to take on the obligation to support you? This has practical implications – for example, many young couples today are burdened with study loans and other debt even before they marry, so that their credit scores are insufficient to afford to buy a home of their own. How do they propose to deal with the problem? Have they even thought about it? If not, why not? (No, voting for a politician won’t do it!)
All these questions demonstrate clearly how important it is to take a clear, unsentimental, objective look at where we are now. From that foundation, we can set a goal (or goals) of where we want to be within a reasonable timeline from today. That statement of “where we want to be” is our purpose.
It’s often easier to start by defining a number of ‘subsidiary’ purposes – things we want to achieve in specific areas, but any one of which isn’t sufficient to justify committing all our energies and resources to it, to the exclusion of other things. For example, what might a young college graduate want to achieve? A ‘wish list’ might include:
- Buying the ‘dream car’ I’ve always wanted;
- Being debt free by the age of 25;
- Saving $100,000 by the age of 30;
- Meeting and marrying a suitable partner;
- Making enough money to live independently, without being a ‘wage slave’;
and so on. Some of them may be mutually exclusive (see, for example, 1 and 2 above!). We’ll have to first list everything that comes to mind, then winnow it in the light of reality. (For example, if we’re starting at the age of 23 with no job, a degree in underwater basket-weaving, and $100,000 in student debt, the odds of us being debt free by the age of 25 are slim to none. We should probably alter or discard that objective. On the other hand, if we’re starting at the age of 23 as a trained welder [i.e. having completed a technical education and practical training], with minimal student debt and six welding shops competing to hire us, our financial prospects are a whole lot brighter!)
Families can begin the process, too. A family might set goals like these:
- Pay off all our credit cards within five years;
- Build up reserves of food and other necessities sufficient to last our entire family for three months in the event of emergency;
- Build up a $5,000 reserve fund to pay for any sudden crisis (e.g. a car repair, a medical emergency, whatever) without taking on additional debt;
- Provide a quality education to our children;
- Buy our own home within five years;
and so on. Again, some of these expectations may be mutually exclusive (e.g. 1, 2 and 3 may conflict with 5, which will need a fair amount of money as a down payment and to pay for moving costs). Others need to be more carefully defined. For example, what do we mean by a ‘quality education’? If our local public schools are of poor quality, achieving that may require us to home-school our kids (which will affect at least one adult’s earning ability because of the time he or she must devote to that task), or put them into private schools that charge a much higher tuition. Can we afford to do that without adversely affecting our other objectives? Again, desires must be adjusted to take account of reality.
Note that we haven’t defined a single thing to actually do at this point. We’re still focusing on what we want to achieve rather than how we’re going to achieve it. There’s no point in addressing the latter unless we’ve come up with practical, realistic, achievable goals for ourselves.
I’d like to suggest that we begin the planning process by making a list of the things that must be addressed. This will necessarily vary widely from person to person, and from family to family. For example, one objective everyone should have is to prepare for emergencies that might confront us. That will depend very heavily on where we live and the hazards to be found there.
- Someone in an inner-city urban ghetto will face a much higher likelihood of crime and violence than someone in a quiet suburb of a smaller town. The former will have to give a much higher priority to preparing for that risk than the latter – but the latter can’t ignore it completely.
- Someone living in an earthquake zone, or a flood plain, or in ‘Tornado Alley‘, will have to give a much higher priority to dealing with those risks than someone who lives in a safer area.
- On the other hand, everyone should have enough emergency supplies to cope for a limited period if the shops are closed, or if resupply is restricted for some reason. It doesn’t matter where we live – those risks are much the same for all of us.
Having defined what must be addressed, we can expand the list to include what we want to address. It can include ambitions, desires, objectives – everything the person or family wants to achieve. In the case of a family, it will be necessary to balance individual objectives against those of the group. One teenager with musical talent and a dream might want to study at Julliard, but the family’s finances may make that impossible from their own resources – or, if they do address that dream, it might mean other children have to give up their desires to make it possible. On the other hand, that’s no reason to shoot down those dreams. Instead, focus them on working towards a scholarship, or earning enough money through other means to save up for future studies. It can be done, as we saw earlier this month. That kid had a plan, and implemented it. Good for him!
When all (or most of) the important objectives have been listed, and weighed in the balance against reality, and adjusted accordingly, we can start to figure out how to measure each one. Remember, if an objective can’t be measured, it can’t be evaluated – and if we can’t evaluate it, how will we know we’ve achieved it? It’s easy to evaluate an objective such as “Buy my dream car.” To know whether or not you’ve achieved it, look in the driveway! Others, such as “Be happy,” are less quantifiable and less easily measured. We’ll need to refine them and make them measurable. When we’ve done that – when we can measure each objective and report on the progress we’ve made towards achieving it – then we’ll also be able to say what progress we’re making towards achieving our overall purpose, encompassing all our objectives.
Tomorrow we’ll examine refining and nailing down our purpose. That done, we can move on to the next stage in the planning process.
My wife and I have been working through some issues that were tabled when we began having kids. Now, after the youngsters have started their own families, these things are coming up again. I do think this is for the best…. HOWEVER…. This creeping ambiguity that you bring up is there.
I couldn't really put my finger on what was irritating about our discussions, but the undefinable "better" or "worse" was eating my lunch. The only view point that matters when subjective, amorphous ideas are in play is the one making it. I need a yardstick, or a micrometer, but not some vacuous "it could be better" without the how. I can't stand when I do that. It's marginally easier to tolerate when someone else does. But now I know what to aim for.
(I always appreciate your take on life, even if I don't entirely agree. Clarity of another's view always helps bring my views into sharper focus. I desire to be wise and apply what you 'teach'. And, brother, this will get application: Defining a concrete, measurable goal or purpose.)
That kid. 52 days a year for five years? That's 260 days total. How much does college cost? $50,000? So he earned a little under $200 per day. That's pretty good going for selling newspapers. And demonstrates how the money adds up over time.