How to Set Goals by Drawing a Map

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Focusing and narrowing down “my topic” or “my goals” has never been a strength of mine. In college I was always getting notes on my papers telling me to narrow down my topic. "Subject is too broad! Focus in a little more!"

For better and for worse I have a personality type that is able to see ALL THE OPTIONS...all the time...and I want to do all the things. It’s a big wide world full of so many possibilites! The world is my oyster, right?!  And sometimes thinking of all the possibilities is wonderful, but sometimes it is simply overwhelming.

This ability to see so many possbilites is both good and bad. This ability causes indecisiveness, over analyzation, and FOMO in all the corners of my life. It also fosters curiosity, creativity, thoughtfulness, inventiveness, and flexibility, which I would never want to give up. I think we all have double-edged qualities in our lives, but learning to take just the positive portions is a constant battle.

These latter qualities are what have allowed me to work in a variety of mediums (film, still photo, and writing, + having ton of hobbies that bring me creative inspiration). Flexibility and creativity is what allows me to shoot documentary style work, which often calls for going with the flow and thinking on your feet. But the former qualities of indecisiveness and FOMO have left me with a focus that is far too wide open. And, the lack of ability to narrow down my career intentions has held me back. Sure I can cobble together an array of clients, and I am proud of the work I do, but long term it’s not a sustainable model without a stronger focus. How do I pitch myself when have ambiguous goals and unclear boundaries? “Hey guys, I can do all the things! Wanna hire me?”

Add to that the fact that I recently moved across the country and have a new network to build, until recently I felt adrift and even more unfocused than usual. I fell into another one of my not so uncommon existential crises spirals and asked...

“What do I want to really do with my life? If I am reaching out to new work contacts, how do I REALLY want to sell myself? What do I TRULY want to offer my clients. What do they want? What is the point of it all?!?”

I would go over and over this every day. What was the next step beyond saying yes to whatever job came my way? How was I to take the reigns? I knew at my core that I had drive and a strong work ethic...but had there ever been a time in my life that I had had a laser focused goal? Ever? Was I destined to live in a world of muted grays forever because of my not-so-black-and-white disposition?

Of course there was a time where I was laser focused, when I had extremely clear cut goals. While preparing for and attempting to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and the Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT). (A thru-hike is hiking a long distance trail, from one end to the other within one hiking season. These are trails that require resupply stops along the way, cover hundred or thousands of miles, and take months to complete.)

But that was different. I’d had a map, a physical goal with a physical location that I could steadily walk towards...and a very clear time limit, because winter comes every year.

Really though, life is like a thru-hike. Well, if you love analogies and metaphors that is.

What I needed was a map for my life like I had for my thru-hikes! Looking at a physical place on a map was always such a comforting constant when everything felt out of control. And I LOVE maps! I love staring at them, looking at all the possible routes, utilizing them to safely navigate off-trail routes, and using them to dream up trips.

But life maps don’t exist. Or do they?

I decided to make one. But where to start?

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I started drawing a map. With “Julie, NYC, 34” at the bottom of the page and “MAP” at the top of the page. And then I stopped, because, that was the problem...what “goal” was I heading towards. What a sad map.

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In the midst of my focusing dilema my partner showed me the trailer for the upcoming Mr. Roger’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

And I cried...over a trailer!

I was overwhelmed and touched. That show had influenced many parts of my childhood in the most positive ways and Mr. Roger’s radical kindness still continued to inspire me as an adult. Over the course of this 2.5 minute trailer I felt myself saying, “THAT’S WHAT I WANT TO DO!” Well, not create a children’s TV show (right now at least)...but I wanted similar values to touch every part of my career and work: Connection, Empathy, Growth, etc.

For a week, I watched that trailer every morning at the start of my day. I would cry, feel inspired, and think about using values to guide work. I began to seriously explore the concept of using “why?” to help set and follow my goals––to use my values as the jumping off point. I asked myself, “What if, over time, instead of just saying yes to any job that comes my way, I begin to use my values more than ever before to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to work, to help me find and build client-relationships?” Certainly easier said the done, especially when there are monthly bills.

Still, the more I explored this concept, the more in focus some tangible career goals became. Mind you, this will be an ongoing process, but some clarity and some solid short term goals were excellent places to start.

The more I looked at my sad little blank goals map and compared it to my oh-so-clear thru-hiking finish line, the more I noticed that the process of thru-hiking really mirrors working towards life goals.

And (nerd alert) the more comparisons and analogies I made, the more fun I had.

But first, I went back to my map and realized I was doing myself a disservice by putting the starting point at “now.” Because I’ve had 34 years leading up to “now” and if I was going macro, trying to look for the big picture and goals big and small, I had to credit myself with my prior experience, trials, error, and victories.

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Yes, this map looked way less daunting than the first one. Even if “now” was me standing at the bottom of a valley with a big climb ahead of me, I could still use all my resources and lessons I’d gathered along the way to get me up to the next pass and to the next goal.

And this map was simple. I could have turned it into a whole art project, but, as I mentioned earlier, I have the problem of wanting to do all the things all the time. So I decided to keep it simple as I looked for what my next goal was. In fact, when thru-hiking I’ve never had the time to steady ALL the maps before heading out, I know the overarching plan, but I take it on section by section and then really zoom in day by day. I know where I’m headed, and I can make decisions about what side trails to take when I get to them.

With this simple map and my values in mind I started making more thru-hike to life comparisons.

  • End Destination = Goal (career, life, relationship, etc.) Note: While “try to live my best life” or “become a successful businessperson” might be goals, they are way too vague. That is like saying “I want to thru-hike!” Well, which trail? What end are you going to start at? When are you going to start?
  • Preparing for a thru-hike: Some people can start a hike with a week’s notice, other people need years. Sometimes we can go all in towards our goals immediately and sometimes it takes thought and easing in. Baby steps or leaps...what counts is eventually getting on trail!
  • The map = the plan.
  • The trail = the process.
  • Compass = Your intuition. Use it, along with common sense. Let it guide you in partnership with your values.
  • Hiking = doing the work it takes to get to the goal. You have to put in the miles, you’re going to sweat! It doesn’t mean there won’t be lovely view or that it won’t be a mix of fun and tough, but you’ve gotta do the work.
  • Food = What gives you energy and the ability to move forward, what fuels you, you will wither away without it. In life I feel like this takes on the form of self-care, eating healthy food, positive self affirmation, therapy/talking to friends, exercise, coaching, creative inspiration, meditation. It is essential to for me to do these things in life in order to stay productive, creative, and sane...yet sometimes I deprive myself of these things! And unsurprisingly things go downhill fast. WHAT?!? I would NEVER go without food on the trail. If you’ve ever hiked with me you know I’ve got fancy bars of dark chocolate, a snack for every occasion, and home-made dehydrated dinners. I eat well on the trail. Why would I treat myself any different in the rest of my life!
  • Sleep = Sleep = Sleep = It’s how you recover! Gimme at least 8 hours, on trail or in town!
  • Beta or Trail Condition Reports = Essential information to help guide you towards your goal. You have to seek this out. On the trail it might be, “Where is my next water source.” In life this could be, “How do I brand my company?” Rather than just thinking about how you might figure it out, look it up, get books, find online resources, talk to people, etc.
  • Shelter/Tent = support system. Your community, friends, family, your cheerleaders. You can’t do it alone. Sometimes you can camp outside, under the starts, without a tent...but not every night.
  • Resupply = Paid jobs. At least this is what it is for me right now. Some of my goals don’t currently include revenue streams, but I’ve gotta get the bills paid. So even if every job doesn’t directly take me to my goal, it might be indirectly assisting me in allowing me to work towards that goal over time. Because if I don’t resupply, how can I get food, and if I don’t get food, HOW WILL I SURVIVE!?!?
  • Hitchhiking to town = asking for help. We all need it sometimes. And it can be quite symbiotic, people like to help.
  • Zero day/Town day (when you hike no miles in a day) = Vacation. You’re still headed towards your goal. But give yourself a break every once in awhile!
  • Blisters = Little setbacks along the way, but they’re nothing you can’t clean and tape up to keep going. This could be a rejection letter or a job that doesn’t pan out. It can sting a little but the more it happens, the more skilled you become in learning to take care of those blisters, handle those rejections and move forward.
  • Injury = A big setback, maybe something that is out of your control, it causes you to get off the trail, but the trail will always be there, and as soon as you are healed you can get back on.
  • Forest Fire = Something that causes you to re-route, shift gears, or deviate from the planned path. However, it doesn’t mean you can’t hike a different part of the trail first and come back to finish when the fires die down. When following life goals it’s important to be aware and flexible, so if a roadblock to your goal presents itself, see if you can change the order in which you are checking off the tasks to complete that goal. Be creative.
  • Bad Weather = Depression, burn-out, etc. Sometimes you have to get in your tent, eat some food, sleep and ride out the storm. But sometimes you just have to drudge through the cold and wet to get to your next resupply. But we all hit bad weather at some point! You aren’t alone!
  • The Hiking Window (season) = accountability. There’s nothing like the threat of winter coming to keep you motivated and moving. Unfortunately it’s not usually so clear cut in life. Maybe there will be a hard deadline like a contest entry deadline, but a lot of working towards goals comes down to self-motivation. So finding an accountability partner, telling people, or working in real deadlines can be massively helpful. And if you don’t make it before winter comes, the trail will be there next season...get back on!
  • Too much weight in your pack = Fear. This applies to being on and off the trail. I have noticed over and over again when I go into the woods with waaaaay too much food or a bunch of crap that I don’t need (I’m not talking about a luxury item like a camera or a book) that’s it’s because I’m afraid. But if I carry so much weight that I can’t even have a good time, what is that point. In learning to let go there is so much more freedom.
  • Huckleberries = being aware. Don’t pass up opportunity. Keep your head up for pleasant surprises.

You might say, “Wait Julie, you’ve never done a purist thru-hike. You failed to complete the PCT in one season and you had to go back three years later to finish your final chunk. On the PNT you flip flopped and did it out of order because of a broken pinky toe and forest fire.”

To that I will say, goals can shift. It might have taken me longer to complete my goals, but I kept moving forward, and what I received along the way by failing and getting back up was far better than any perfect route I could have planned. The ups and downs I experienced in completing these trails are truly lessons I can apply to all the parts of my life.

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And with all this in mind I drew one last simple map which included a very clear cut short term yet big goal that I’ve had on the backburner and not taken very seriously for a while... because it’s big and scary and I am afraid of skepticism (just like when told people I was going to thru-hike the PCT). Maybe my entire career isn’t mapped out right now, but carving out the space to head towards this goal and others is a start, and this map is just one of the tools I’ve been using to help focus. Reflecting on past challenges and applying what I learned to current focusing challenges has been immensely helpful. If you are struggling to set goals or are currently re-routing or finding your way, may you know you are not alone. May you also be encouraged to keep working to find some clarity. 

I’ll be sharing some more tools and resources that have been helping me focus in the very near future.

- Julie