Six years ago, I was a little girl in Vietnam, daydreaming about moving abroad and imagining who I would be, what I would do, and where I would live by the time I turned 22. The list I made for my 22-year-old self included things like “graduating from a top university, living in a big city, earning big bucks, getting married by age 25,” and so on. The reason why I had those goals was simple. As a young child, I had a big role model: my elder sister. She was praised by many and on track to achieve all the things on my list, so I believed becoming someone like her would make me a success. It would make my parents proud, and it would make me happy. Conveniently, my sister’s lifestyle and achievements aligned with everything that was portrayed in the media that influenced my everyday thinking so heavily that I didn’t even consider that her goals might not be what I personally wanted by the time I turned 22.
But I knew none of this at 16. I made my goal list and called it a dream. I internalized that dream and made it my core belief system. As I grew up, I tried my best to turn my dreams into my everyday reality, as if achieving my list was the only definition of success. I struggled to understand why I wanted what I wanted. The worst part is that, because my values were so deep-rooted, whenever I achieved something that was not exactly the same as what I’d put on my dream list, I would think of myself as a failure.
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 family and society, but not self-knowledge. My self-knowledge actually came later, when my life took a turn away from the plan: I explored the world, took risks and seized unanticipated opportunities, like attending a university in a city I had never ever been to in my life, accepting an internship offer that I felt under qualified for, falling in love with all the wrong people, and getting hurt repeatedly until I decided to live and love differently to protect myself.
Inevitably, my insecurities and weaknesses were exposed, forcing me to face my problems. By confronting my unrealistic goals, I gained insight into my inner life. Little by little, my thinking took a new shape and my values realigned themselves to match my actual wants and needs. I improvised my own definition of success. And most importantly, I’m comfortable with (and prepared for) the idea that my definition of success may change again. I won’t allow my values to stay chained to one idea I had, at one point in my life: I know, now, that such a fixed definition basically sets me up to fail. I know that you can’t just magically discover what you want in life by allowing yourself to be carried by the current of the stream like a dead fish. You can’t find happiness by trying in vain to achieve other people’s definitions of success. You discover your values by letting all your unrealistic ideals and restrictive labels fall away, by letting go of all the due dates and deadlines you imposed on yourself for those achievements.
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. The life that my 16-Year-Old Self naively fixated on was founded on borrowed ideas — on someone else’s dreams, not on what I really wanted. As it turns 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 think would be possible. Undeniably, my current reality is dramatically different from my original plan, but today I feel more like myself than ever before. Why? Because at some point in the past 6 years, I dropped all my unrealistic expectations and let myself focus on finding out my true values and how I want to spend my life.
You may have a list of things you want to achieve, or an idealized vision of who you will become in five or 10 years’ time. And don’t get me wrong — it’s good to be focused and ambitious. But it’s equally important to keep in mind that many things in your life (your values, your relationships, your self-esteem, your opportunities and surroundings) will change, whether you want them to or not, and you will change along with them. And it’s okay. Don’t stress yourself out by trying to squeeze into a shoe that no longer fits. You’re not failing. You’re just getting to know your true self better!
So, what you can you do to open yourself up to change while still living a goal-oriented, driven life?
1. Make that Future Self list: who you want to be (the degrees you want to earn, the place you want to live, the work you want to do) and the age you want to achieve each goal.
2. Then, make a list of daily tasks that will help you to build toward your goals.
3. Most importantly: write yourself reminders (or inspirational quotes, whatever works for you!) to give yourself time and accept whatever changes (mental, emotional, logistical) might happen along the way.
4. Embrace each experience with an open mind, and allow each experience to change your values and long-term plans.
5. Give yourself the credit for having gone this far.
6. Celebrate every achievement, no matter how big or small.
7. When an experience changes your mindset, values, or hopes for your Future Self, repeat Steps 1-3!
Remember: as long as you don’t give up on yourself, you’re doing fine. Keep moving forward with an open mind and deep attention to your true wants and needs. As long as you keep your heart and mind in dialogue with each other, you will come closer to finding purpose, fulfillment, and happiness in your work. Everything is going to work itself out: maybe not the way you imagined, but where’s the joy in life without a little surprise?
Ellen Nguyen is Vietnamese millennial girl currently residing in the UK. She writes honestly and openly about a variety of topics including love, sex, relationships and self-improvement at thetinglymind.com — you can also connect with her on Twitter.
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