What is my aim in life? What do I want to have done by the time I’m 70? And what are the checkpoints along the way that will tell me I’m on track? Stars & Steppingstones is the title of an article written by Jeff Sandefer, and it speaks to this idea of looking ahead to the future and plotting a course to where you want to be.
The idea isn’t new to me. Stephen R. Covey teaches a similar principle in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The idea is to begin with the end in mind and have a vision of where I want to be. Once I have a vision, I can derive the values and goals that will guide me in my day-to-day decision making.
Sandefer’s article presents a very thorough process for finding that vision (my “star”) and plotting a step-by-step course (my “stepping stones”) over decades to reach that destination. Some of the ideas that really resonated with me are:
- Asking myself, “what needs to be done in the world?” Sandefer shared a story of Buckminster Fuller trying to help one of his students figure out what to do after he graduated. He suggested the student should look for what needs to be done in the world, and then – once that’s been found – go out and do it. I think it’s a useful question because it gets a person thinking critically about the impact they’re going to have. The idea needs to be tempered by the person’s values, desires, and limitations, but the point is clear: we don’t work just to work; we work for a purpose.
- Asking, “how should the world change, and what is my role in changing it?” I think this adapts the first question to bring in personal values. How many times have I complained about this problem or that in the world? In doing so, I’m applying the lens of my values to the world around me. The trick is to take it the next step. Instead of saying, “this should happen,” and then leaving it to someone else to do, I should ask, “what’s my role in making it happen?” There’s another clue about my purpose in life, my star.
- Recognizing I can’t do it all. This is a big one. Both Covey and Sandefer point out that we each have many roles in life. For me, some of the roles are husband, father, employee, church member, stake technology specialist, son, and brother. With a little more effort, I could list many more. But Sandefer makes the point that we can seldom be very successful in more than two or three roles at a time. I think this is important to remember. I can’t do it all, and I need to choose the roles that are most important to me and focus on those.
- Working backward from the future to the present. Once I’ve identified my star, then it’s time to work backward from there. For every decade between now and then, I should envision fully what my life will be like then. Where will I be and what will I be doing? How will I be positioned to continue moving toward my star? As I get closer to the present, I’ll begin to see concrete goals and tasks that I need to do today to reach the next stepping stone. The stepping stones become checkpoints to help me ensure I’m on the right course throughout my life.
- Reevaluating regularly. This is important. The plan isn’t frozen in time. Life happens and situations change. I need to reevaluate my plan as life progresses and account for those changes. Sometimes that may mean changing one of my stepping stones; other times, it may simply confirm a choice I’ve already made. The point is that this is a living plan. Part of reevaluating is having ethical guardrails: boundaries I will not cross. When I run up against or even pass one of these guardrails, that’s a signal that I need to reevaluate.
There’s a lot of meat in the article; I’ve only hit some of the points that stuck out to me. In summary, I need to begin with a clear vision of where I want to be in the end, and work back from there to develop a solid path and principles that will take me to that vision.