The Right Side of the List

When I turned 30, I jotted down a set of goals listing things I wanted to do by the time I turned forty.

On the left side, I made a list of personal accomplishments. If life was a vapor, these were the things I wanted to do when I still had the chance. They were things like, “be debt-free” and “run a marathon” “complete a master’s degree” and “write a novel.” My moon-shot goal was to become a professor.

This last Friday, I turned 37. I have already accomplished everything on the left side of the list. It happened slowly and subtly, in little iterations — like starting from 1 mile a day to eventually running 26.2 miles or by writing 400 words per day and then suddenly realizing you have a novel finished.

But back to the list . . .

On the right side, I had deeply personal character goals. These were things like, “spend my evenings with my family and learn how to be truly present” or “grow in empathy toward others” or “figure out how to live a less busy life” or “be ridiculously goofy with my kids and sing at the top of my lungs and dance like you just don’t care.” They were not SMART goals by any means — in fact, that were vague and immeasurable and timeless.

achievements and goals

So, it’s Friday night on my birthday. I’m having dinner with my family at this total dive bar with amazing burgers and the perfect atmosphere. I’m sitting next to my daughter who is pretending to be a reporter, asking me tons of questions about my life story and pretending to be writing it down on an invisible sketch pad.

“Tell me about your pets growing up,” she says.

I answer her question.

“Tell me the first time you cried when a pet died,” she says as a follow-up question. Then, just to clarify, “It can’t be a goldfish because those are supposed to die.”

I answer her question again.

“When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?”

“I think an architect and a baseball player. What do you want to be?”

“I’m the one asking the questions,” she corrects me.

I glance over at my wife. She’s teaching my sons how to play pool with a couple of other random kids they’ve made friends with. Our eyes meet and she smiles. I’m reminded, yet again, that I am the luckiest man in the world.

So, here I am now, sitting in our quiet living room thinking about the goals I made at thirty. When I wrote those goals, I believed they were a balance between who I wanted to be and what I wanted to accomplish. I thought the good life was a happy medium between the two. But seven years later, I realize that I have slowly gravitated to the right side of the list.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s fun to play the game. I still have things I want to accomplish. It’s part of what makes life fun. But that’s never been where life is found. Life is found on the right side of the list.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

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