When you narrow your path, you limit your chances of finding what will make you happiest.
That’s something I’ve learned personally — and witnessed happening to others—throughout my career. As we begin a new year and set new goals, it’s a lesson worth reflecting on.
We must make room for the unexpected. We must set goals but be completely comfortable abandoning them. We must accept that the greatest opportunities may be the ones we weren’t looking for, and maybe didn’t even know existed.
I’ll give you an example: This is the story of “Tom,” a real friend whose name I’m changing.
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Tom always wanted to work at one specific company. He set this goal at the beginning of his career because that company was full of widely recognized talented people, and it produced products he thought were genius. Joining that tribe became his definition of success. Every job he took was strategically selected to one day appeal to his dream job. He followed the company religiously; he got to know people who worked there.
One day, after many years of labor, his efforts paid off: He got the job.
And it was not what he expected.
It was gratifying in many ways, sure, but it was thankless in too many other ways. It paid poorly. The hours were awful. It was often creatively stifling. He stayed there for years, often deeply unhappy, because the idea of being there still gave him joy, even if the work did not. But eventually, he left. It was too much to take. He’s held a series of impressive jobs since then—the guy is talented, after all—but he’s been passionate about none of them. He still doesn’t really know what he wants, because he spent his entire career plotting one course.
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I meet a lot of people who are like this. I feel fortunate I’m not one of them, and I attribute that to what I did not know earlier in my career.
I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. I’d never heard of Entrepreneur magazine. I had no idea people got paid to speak onstage, and I was generally ignorant of all the other stuff I do now that brings me joy.
So how did I get here? By exploring. I took jobs solely for the skills they’d teach me, even if I didn’t really care about the companies. I went down many fruitless paths. I tried on a few identities. I started things that failed. I kept my options open. And that prepared me for the unexpected, which was the role I hold now and the career I’m building around it.
This doesn’t make me special, but it does make me part of a lucky club. I meet so many entrepreneurs who laugh — laugh! — at the reality of what they’re doing now. They say things like, “I never planned to run a soap company!” But that soap company pulls in millions and challenges them in all the right ways. They love that soap company. And they got there not through careful plotting but by indulging the unknown. (Ditto for many of my colleagues here at Entrepreneur, by the way. While delivering this magazine to you, many of them are also doing other wild and amazing projects.)
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This year, as you set goals, I encourage you to hold them loosely. I’ve always thought of goals as a useful thing to move toward, simply because movement itself is so important. A goal can light our path forward, and that’s useful for a while. But a goal is not a map. It cannot define your whole journey. If you chart your course too tightly, you’ll miss all the promising off-ramps in your periphery.
Prepare for what is ahead in 2022. It promises to be a big year. But as you do, prepare to indulge the unexpected as well. Because I promise you, the unexpected is where the payoff and the joy will really be.