Live your life forward by working backwards

Source: Simon/Pixabay

How to live a meaningful and authentic existence when you don’t know where to start.

I LOVE documentaries. Especially “people overcoming adversity in nature”-type ones. From ultra-marathons through deserts to mountain climbing without safety harnesses, you name it, I’ve watched it.

People who throw themselves into these extreme situations fascinate me. How they challenge their physical and psychological limits. I sit in awe of their meticulous goal setting and planning for the unforeseen trials they will encounter. 

While I have no desire to become this type of intrepid explorer, (I’m all about my creature comforts after all!), I share a trait that seems to be hard-wired in many of these extreme travelers. I am a control freak.

Sprinting towards goals at full tilt.

I used to believe if I worked hard enough, success would surely follow. 

I would form specific and measurable time-bound goals, anticipate problems, and execute my plan to achieve said goals. This mindset served me well in school. 

I ticked off the boxes to each challenge that lay before me. Once completed, I sprinted towards the next.

In quick succession I graduated with honors from Penn State, received a one year Fulbright teaching assistantship in Germany then completed a Master of Arts in Teaching degree. 

Check. Check. And check.

Academic achievement seduced me into believing I could control circumstances outside of myself. 

I thought not only would I climb every metaphorical mountain, but I would move it through the sheer force of my will.

A baby changed everything.

And then in 2002, I got pregnant with Jack. Though I had the usual first time motherhood jitters, I also had a plan to achieve my goal of a healthy baby.

Of course I did!

I read every pregnancy book published and lived by their commandments. 

Eschewed caffeine. 

Suffered through every cold that came my way - not so much as a drop of Tylenol passed my lips. 

No haircolor came near my scalp in that first trimester. 

And I was young.

Statistically speaking, my pregnancy was theoretically safe from any genetic or developmental abnormalities. After all, “What To Expect When You’re Expecting” told me so. 

Sure, I played lip service to God being in control and all, but I was the one reading all those books and forgoing my Starbucks - not God.

First denial then shock.

Even when we received the call after the 19 week ultrasound to come in for additional testing for possible Dwarfism or Down Syndrome, part of me honestly believed this couldn’t happen to MY baby. MY life. 

I had society approved goals for my life, after all. 

Secretly though, deep down I believed Jack would be pronounced normal and healthy. 

Sure, I’d look back at this time as scary and intense, but ultimately, that things would work out and my life would continue on a traditional parenting path.

And so, when the tests for those genetic syndromes came back negative and doctors said Jack was fine, but just had a big head, my delusions about goals and success remained intact. 

I held this belief until Jack’s one year check-up. At that appointment, a different pediatrician in the practice (one who we’d never met before) dropped a bombshell on us. 

The doctor told my husband Mike and me that my son Jack had severe global developmental delays and most likely would need care his entire life. 

I wanted to burn those pregnancy books.

Not my child

After receiving the news about Jack, I struggled to process it all. 
Children having disabilities happened to other people, not me. 
Not my child. I did everything right, according to those pregnancy books. It just didn’t seem fair.

My initial arrogance blinded me to the real question - why NOT me? Why NOT my child? Are strangers in distant places the only ones who hard things should happen to?

It was Jack’s difficulties that highlighted the shortcomings of my high strung goal-driven ways. 

I realized I was strong at creating goals and plans. But what I was lacking was vision.

Source: SplitShire/Pixabay

If a man does not know what port he is steering for, no wind is favorable to him.  

Seneca The Elder

Vision provides your life’s direction.

While plans are the steps needed to achieve a particular goal, a vision is our North Star guiding the way. Otherwise you may flit from goal to goal like a bee pollinating some conveniently located flowers. Satisfaction in the moment, yet a letdown once achieved. 

Then you start another goal and hope this time you’ll find validation and meaning. Repeat again. And again. A series of goals without a unifying purpose. 

That was me.

Don’t get me wrong, goals are important in the sense they structure our lives. But if we’re not careful, they may take up time we can use towards other, more soul-affirming opportunities. 

Goals formulated to inflate our egos or gain approval can distract us from discovering our authentic self and following our life’s vision. 

I’m sure those people in the extreme documentaries are following their own visions. You don’t dangle off the side of Mount Everest after spending a chunk of change to get there without a good reason.

Living your best life in 3 easy steps.

I suggest starting first with defining your vision as best you can. What would you like your life to look like a year from now? 10 years? Even 25 years from now?

Next, work backwards from your vision. Set goals you feel can best support this future. For example, let’s say your vision is to make sure your child with special needs is financially protected as an adult. So maybe one goal in the next year could be to meet with a financial planner and lawyer who specialize in supporting parents of the developmentally disabled. 

Once you determine your goals, you are able to make plans to achieve them. Maybe you give yourself a month researching financial planners and lawyers, then calling and making the appointments. The steps leading to your goal is your plan.

This strategy radically simplifies your life, in my experience. Having a clear vision allows you to be choosy in what you select as your goals. You cannot do it all, so now it’s much easier to determine whether or not it’s worth it to even try and tackle the goal in the first place!

So, in a nutshell:

  1. Define your vision.
  2. Set goals that support your vision.
  3. Make plans to achieve those goals.

That’s it!

And remember, just because you can commit to a goal, doesn’t mean you should. 

We only have so many hours in a day.

Your life. Your rules.

The vision provides us with guidance but our goals don’t have to be set in stone. We can create new and ever evolving goals in service to our own personal visions. That promotes a feeling of living authentically and meaningfully in all aspects of our lives.

And maybe something happens and your vision doesn’t speak to you anymore. Just change it. Your life, your rules. But you have to start somewhere.

I present to you a real life example of working backwards from a vision. Mike’s and my vision for Jack and his typically developing sister Megan is to raise them to be loving, kind people. We want them to know themselves well enough to discover their purpose in order to live a meaningful life. From there, we can recognize which goals and subsequent plans support this vision for our family.

Now does having a vision guarantee that my kids will turn out to be loving and kind people? Of course not. (Though I desperately hope so!) We can only control our own individual actions.

However, having an idea of what characteristics I view as important can inform my personal parenting goals, such as how I interact with them, and the behaviors I can make sure to model. 

Additionally, we are always searching for concrete opportunities to practice acts of love and kindness, such as volunteering. And even Jack has the opportunity to contribute despite his cognitive and physical disabilities. 

Two weeks ago for example, he attended a fundraising meal for our local food pantry. He was able to show up, slurp down some soup and participate in the event giving back to our community. 

From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. 

Karl Marx

Source: skeeze/Pixabay

Having a vision helps me get a grip.

And me personally? I am less inclined nowadays to bludgeon myself with goals that simply look good on paper, but don’t speak to my soul or my own personal vision. 

Besides, having a vision provides me with the passion to live my best life – just like my athletic heroes on those documentaries, only in the comfort of my own home and with more sanitary conditions.

Our life with Jack has given us some twists that I never would’ve known to plan for, even if I could. Yet my vision allows me to relax a little and loosen my grip on control. 

I never thought when Jack was a baby that he’d eventually get a diagnosis of Smith-Kingsmore syndrome 15 years later. 

Or that my husband, with no programming background would research and create a website to support families having children with Jack’s rare genetic disorder. 

Heck, I never imagined I’d even write a blog on this website.

My goals look different than my purely achievement oriented goals of years ago. 

I’m open to seeing where life leads us, but I don’t try to forcibly control a particular outcome or goal as I might have in the past. I just act in accordance to my personal vision.

I don’t need to spend a ton of money or require Sherpas to lug my supplies throughout an unfamiliar mountainous terrain like in those documentaries. My goals now are in service to my vision of my life, not a means to an end themselves. 

And the worthiness of my goals and plans do not come from their success or failure. 

My advice to you? Just “be brave in the attempt,” as they say over at Special Olympics. Attempt and fail. Pick yourself up. Triumph over adversity. Over and over. Follow your own North Star. 

Just like those documentaries.

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