Wednesday 9 September 2009

The Importance of Goals

Michael L. Davenport Editor in Chief at Imprint had this fantastic Column last week. reposted here with permission.

The Importance of Goals

Welcome to the University of Waterloo. Now, why are you here? Really, why are you here?

I'm asking because there are several, several bad reasons to come to UW. Because you didn't know what to do after high school, and everyone else was going to university. Because your parents wanted you to major in CS.

To put my question into context, let me tell you a little bit about myself. I am Michael L. Davenport, and I am the editor-in-chief of this newspaper. Seven years ago I was a froshling, just like many of you. Larvae of a university student. I was coming out of high school with a 94 per cent average. On top of school, I did pretty much every extra-curricular activity under the sun: band, yearbook, students council, sports teams here and there — the works. That, and I had worked a part time job for the last three years.

I'm not telling you this to brag. I'm telling you this so you fully understand what I am about to say.

Fast forward six years, to the fall of 2008. I was in a strange state of limbo — I hadn't quite failed out of school, but I hadn't graduated yet either, despite my starting class being long gone. I was taking time off from studies to work, build my finances back up. I managed to get a job at a local factory which assembles smartphones. I would sit in a room for 12 hours a day, and inspect little bits of plastic in silence. In silence.

Sitting in silence gave me a lot of uncomfortable time with myself. Though my hands and eyes were occupied, my mind was free. And, as I sat in that room inspecting bits of plastic, my mind was overwhelmingly occupied with one thought: "How the hell did I end up here?"

Working three or four 12 hour shifts every week, I had more than enough time to meticulously examine the possibilities. It wasn't because I hadn't yet graduated, because (take note!) several peers who had actually graduated ended up in the exact same spot. It crossed my mind that I might be stupid, or unlikable, or incompetent, but I dismissed those theories because I had more evidence against them than for them. Eventually, I realized what the problem was. Goals are very important, and I hadn't realized that.

High school is like a game on rails, or a choose your own adventure novel: there are a finite number of choices to be made. All I had done was choose what I liked doing best for each moment, for every opportunity that presented itself. Did I prefer music class to French? Yes. Did I want to learn AutoCAD, or take a spare? AutoCAD. That was the extent of the choices I had to make. Worse yet, I didn't even choose any extracurriculars because, as I've already said, I did them all.

University is nothing like high school. There are opportunities in university far beyond your ability to "do it all" as before. But opportunities will go un-sought, or underutilized without goals to guide you. And even if you do make it through and out of university withoutany goals, what then?

This is a cheesy way to say it, but it's true: I ended up in that terrible job, that terrible place because I hadn't decided to go anywhere else. Why did I come here to UW so many years earlier? Because this was the geekiest university around, and I think that's awesome. Why did I pick physics? Because that's the closest I could find to majoring in omniscience. Not the worst rationale, certainly better than majoring in something that parents want you to do (seriously, if you're in that situation, start acting for yourself, and now). But the problem was my outlook only got me to frosh week, and didn't give me any direction any longer. I had no university exit strategy. I took a long time meander my way into fourth year, and didn't really go anywhere. (It was physics, so it was a very difficult meandering. "Meander" is meant to indicate my lack of direction more than my lack of effort. Oh, I was quite stubborn about continuing in physics, despite no clear end-game. A friend called it my own personal war in Iraq. But I digress.)

I was in that factory for six months, and before things got unbearable, I was prepared to be there for a lot longer. I nearly metaphorically died in there. Nearly. Others aren't so lucky to escape — it is too easy to drift through life, get caught in a mediocre job, and realize too soon you've spent the majority of your life doing nothing of importance to you whatsoever.

To recap: I went from being popular and successful and "going somewhere" in high school to a nobody working for close to minimum wage. All because I hadn't thought about my goals.

This is my editorial. While it's not an advice column, advice will nonetheless sometimes spill out. Here is an important piece of advice I’ll give you: have goals. Have all sorts of wonderful goals. Think about what you want to do today before you sleep. Think about what you want to do before you die. And everything in between. Make a goal of reading assignments the day you get them. Make a goal of writing a book, or having your own practice, or having a physical constant named after you. Make a goal of having a drink with someone beautiful this month.

Sometimes you will fail. Sometimes you will change your mind. Both of these are okay, so long as you continue to create goals, and make sure you're always going somewhere you want to be.

(I had two immediate responses to this column, the first was that this is the best column Michael has written as EIC, the second was a reminder of a couple of my favorite quotes, the third was a piece from a conference I worked on a few years back on the difference between a Learner and a Student. Both are posted here as a partial response.)

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