Just as there are a million ways to drive from Los Angeles to New York, there are a million ways to get from where you are now in life to where you want to be. But, like the road trip, some ways are better than others. As I've tackled different problems in my life and watched others do the same, I've stumbled upon a sequence for progress through life that seems optimal to me.
Following is the sequence, with notes and thoughts on each step.
There's no point in investing in stocks if you're flailing in a quicksand pit of debt. No matter what your financial goals are, you have to get back to zero before you can start stacking that cheddar. No matter what your personal goals are, there are certain vices that we can probably all agree are bad, all of which will negatively impact your progress in other areas. Listed in the order I would tackle them:
-- Destructive gambling (rare, but I think if I don't mention it, others will bring it up)
-- Being way out of shape
-- Eating bad food
You can successfully argue that smoking a joint here and there is inconsequential enough that it doesn't impact your life. Same with a drink or two, a donut or two, or twenty extra pounds. Fine. The goal isn't to conform to my standards for each of these things, only to get to where you want to be with each. My suggestions is that if you have goals in these areas, tackle them first. Get the distractions out of the way.
Most people put becoming happy at the end of their lists, not as an actual process, but as a foggy consequence they hope to receive from whatever else they do. Bad idea. There's no surer way to be unhappy than to try to extract your happiness from some goal. You become happy by going through the process of becoming happy.
This is a topic I plan on writing more about in the future, so I'll condense my thoughts for now. Happiness is essentially the process of becoming honest with yourself and the world. You see yourself for who you are: good, but imperfect, and capable but not beyond error. You see that the world is a good place, but not a perfect place. You accept that billions of things will happen in your presence during your lifetime, and that not all of them will be exactly what you wanted them to be. You understand that your mood is the product of your reactions to external forces, not the forces themselves. With practice and will, you can ply those reactions to match your logical and honest view of the world.
Becoming happy comes so early in my list because I see it as the foundation of a good life, not the carrot dangling next to the grave. When you're already happy, you find it easier to prioritize in your life, devote energy to things that deserve it, and have a positive impact on people.
Become Self Sufficient
How common is it to see someone who wants to save the world, but can't save himself? How can someone who can't make a sandwich for themselves expect to feed a family? Upon the slab of happiness that we've poured, we can build a fortress of self-sufficiency. It's not selfish to focus on oneself first-- it ensures that we won't burden anyone else, and that our interactions with others can be focused on giving, not on taking.
Self sufficiency is a big topic, and I mean to encompass all of it in this stage: emotional independence, financial independence, and physical independence.
Emotional independence is listed for the sake of being thorough, but is actually mostly covered by the becoming happy phase. If you're happy, you don't look for relationships to bring make you happy, and you don't depend on others to keep a positive mood.
Financial independence doesn't mean being a billionaire. It means taking care of your finances to the level that you don't have to worry about the basics anymore. A good test might be to consider whether or not your freedom is impacted by your finances. If you can't direct your focus (80% of your time, say) to any project you choose, you might not be financially free. A few thousand dollars a month in reliable income that doesn't require much time (coupled with a dash of frugality), or two years of expenses saved up might qualify. Admitting that there are pros and cons to both approaches, I think that it's actually better to set this income-level as a primary goal before tackling something big.
Physical independence is more difficult to define, and may not even be the best phrase to sum up what I'm talking about. I mean to say that you should be able to take care of things in your life as they come up. If you make plans, you should be able to execute them without having to pay someone else to do it for you. That's not to say you shouldn't hire someone else, only that it shouldn't be necessary. I'm talking about things like swinging a hammer, getting around in other countries, cooking food, etc. It's not possible to be good at everything, but it's liberating to have enough ability in various fields that you can generally count on yourself to not just think of plans, but to execute them in various disciplines. The benefits of physical independence are probably even more psychic than practical -- they form the core of true confidence rooted in earned self-trust.
Social skills are so important that it's hard to find the right spot in the sequence to place them. They come after self sufficiency simply because self sufficiency is such an integral part of what a person has to offer others.
I've met thousands of pickup students, and a certain subsection of them illustrates well what happens when one hasn't yet attained a degree of self-sufficiency: he becomes a burden. Some burdens are heavy, and others are light, but wherever he may fall on that scale, he is still sucking value out of his interactions. Not some of them-- all of them. When two self sufficient people meet, they truly become larger than the sum of their parts, and both benefit. When only one self sufficient person is at the table, the non self sufficient person is at his mercy. One person needs the other. A better situation is when neither needs the other, and both are there honestly and voluntarily.
Social skills encompass dating, making friends, networking, and even managing employees. Each person will necessarily focus on different areas within this spectrum. No matter the area of his focus, as he moves from caring for himself to caring for others, he needs to learn the nuance of social interaction. Self sufficiency allows a person the breathing room to look beyond himself and focus energy and time on how he will interact with the rest of the world in a meaningful way.
Our social skills are the window through which others see us. By becoming good conversationalists, storytellers, empathizers, listeners, writers, and flirts, we can polish that window until it nearly disappears, leaving nothing between us and others. Only then can our our unadulterated influence be received clearly.
Become Group Sufficient
At this point, I shift from talking from experience to sharing observation. I wouldn't rate myself a ten out of ten on all the prior steps, but I've executed them to a level I'm happy with, and have found my thoughts shifting beyond. While my previous goals have always centered (and often ended with) myself, I find that a lot of what I hope for now involves giving to other people.
If I had a million dollars, I wouldn't buy anything for myself that I don't already have. But I would take my friends and family around the world with me. I'm not financially (or maybe emotionally) ready to have children, but I find myself thinking a lot about the type of parent I'll be, and things I'd like to be able to do for the children I'll have some day. In the past when I'd think of the kind of girl I'd want to date, I'd primarily think about how I would benefit from the relationship. Now I find my aspirations circling around the experience I could provide and build with her.
I'm not advocating being wholly selfish in the beginning, and then eventually switching to pure altruism, of course. I think and hope that I've been a good friend, family member, and boyfriend my entire life. You probably have been, too. I mean that once the previous stages of life are relatively complete, the luxury of providing for others can get the spotlight.
For example, I'm working on a new startup with a close friend. The scope of it is big. Huge, maybe. It's not the easiest idea I had to execute, but when I thought about what would come next in my life-- like raising a family-- I realized that I needed to set sights high. I also realized that I've already taken care of my needs and wants. Failing to look beyond those needs and wants could only result in stagnation.
Taking care of your group extends beyond material help, as well. When you don't have to worry about yourself anymore, you have the freedom to help your brother with his crazy film project or spend two weeks driving with your niece to help her move to Colorado. I haven't found a tremendous amount of opportunities to do things like this, but I have noticed that my thoughts more frequently cluster around ways I can help my family and friends.
Give back to the world
I genuinely believe that most people have a significant impact on the world. When look at the influences in my life, some of whom have no idea they had any real importance, I can extrapolate and see that any given individual's reach is farther than they know. What I'm talking about in this stage is different: I'm talking about dedicating your life to helping others.
Once you've sculpted a proud self and sketched out a good life for those in your circle of influence, you have the freedom to look at the world as a whole and paint broad strokes across it. You can, like Bill Gates is trying to do, eliminate diseases from entire continents. When Premal Shah cashed out of Paypal, he started Kiva, an awesome charity that loans money to micro-entrepreneurs across the world, lifting them out of poverty. Al Gore uses his time to spread his 'inconvenient truth'.
We can all make a difference in our own ways, but if we want to maximize the impact we can make, we might follow these steps to arrive in the best position to do so. Each step provides a level of satisfaction commensurate with one's position in life, and simultaneously offers a strong starting point for the next chapter. When our ultimate life goals seem a bit out of reach, we can refer back to a step by step blueprint for working towards them.
Thanks to Todd and Brian for giving me feedback on this post before posting it.
Thanks to everyone for voting for my SXSW2k12 talk! I can't see how many votes I have, but with 27 (and counting) comments left, I can only assume I have enough votes to be on the map. Thank you!