Your Life is Not a Checklist

…or, “How we’ve got this whole ‘goal’ thing backwards”

…or, “How to avoid a mid-life crisis”

First, let’s talk about checklists.  Most of us have one, many of us were given one and expected to live by it.  At first glance, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it… but, I maintain that most life-checklists play a big part in creating unhappy people.

Let’s take a look at the basic, western, life-checklist.  It goes a little something like this (some variations may apply):

  • Get a car
  • Have an extra-curricular activity
  • Graduate High School
  • Graduate College
  • Get a ‘good job’
  • Get married
  • Get a pet
  • Have kids
  • Retire

 Looks familiar, right?

Let’s explore what we’re really being told to do with a list like this:

  • Acquire a car (learning optional; this is about having)
  • Have a hobby (you will be judged by this hobby, and it will be your only hobby, so pick one that other people like)
  • Graduate High School (the piece of paper is the prize; survive, period)
  • Graduate College (the piece of paper is the prize; survive, period)
  • Get a ‘good job’ (this is a resume builder; whatever looks good on paper, take it; this is not about substance or life-experience)
  • Get married (seriously… you have a degree and a ‘good job’… why are you single?  As long as they won’t embarrass your family, you should marry at your earliest opportunity)
  • Get a pet (this is your pseudo-family; take lots of pictures and show how you are going to be an awesome parent)
  • Have kids (…that’s what married people do, right?  Why else would you get married?)
  • … (um… there’s nothing really important in the middle… you’ve met all your major accomplishments, so now you’re just working toward…)
  • Retirement (yeah, we don’t really know what to do here, either… make sure you have grand-kids?)

Is it any wonder why people get half-to-two-thirds the way through the life-checklist and feel… unfulfilled?  Like they don’t really know who they are and are just going through the motions?


Just breathing isn’t living.  ~Eleanor H. Porter


It would appear that in an effort to simplify our lives, we’ve narrowed our ‘goals’ to merely the beginning or the end of an event, and left out the events in and of themselves.  For example, graduate college (the end) vs. learn more about something that truly interests you (the event), or have kids (the beginning) vs. dedicate your life to guiding, loving, teaching and helping shape brand new, functional adults (the event).  An unnerving number of new parents, within a week or two of having a child, will ask “now what?” not realizing that they hadn’t yet accomplished much, but that the event had just begun.

Our current life-checklist is not a list of goals, and should largely be discarded.

To illustrate how we’ve got this whole “goal” thing backwards, compare the original list to a similar list of actual goals and/or decisions:

  • Learn to drive a car, including parallel parking, emergency stopping, obstacle avoidance, and spatial awareness.
  • Explore many different types of hobbies, including learning from older people, physical activities, cognitive challenges, learning life skills, creating and exploring – learn to recognize what you really enjoy.
  • Pay attention and learn as much as you can in High School – it will help you throughout the rest of your life.  Don’t pay too much attention to cliques, though… who people are in High School bares little resemblance to who they become as adults.
  • If what you want to work toward is a career in an area that requires a degree, or if you have a real passion for learning more about an area of study, by all means: go to college, and soak-up/learn everything you went there to learn – you may have very few opportunities to really indulge your curiosity once you leave this environment.  If what you have a passion for does not require a college degree, consider whether or not the investment is worth it to you.  If yes, you’ll have more options should you find you need to do something else in the future; if no, you may not want to spend the next 4-6 years accumulating debt and delaying embracing your passion.
  • Find a job that will teach you something, one that you can contribute to given your decades of learning and growing, and one that you look forward to being a part of.
  • If you meet someone with the same values that you have, is moving in a similar direction as you, is someone you trust, respect, can learn from, and with whom there is a mutual commitment to contribute to each other’s lives in positive ways, you may want to consider marrying this person.  Until that time, focus on becoming someone with values that someone else could trust, respect, learn from, etc.
  • Learn to care for, set boundaries for, discipline, train, and love a pet – try to choose one that you’ll have the time to interact with, and the need to take care of… fish don’t count.  This will teach you more than it teaches the pet.
  • If you’ve met a good partner and companion (mentioned above), have taken the time to live and understand yourselves as a ‘couple’,  have complementary values as far as familial ideas and child rearing (also above), and are both healthy enough to safely do so (for both parents and offspring), you may want to consider having children together.  If all of the above apply except for the ‘health’ part, you may want to consider adopting children together.  Raising a person is more important than birthing one.  Take the time to ensure that you both share the same parenting values and goals.
  • Never stop learning and trying new things.  If you have a partner or children, include them in these endeavors.  These are the things you’ll remember, and they also strengthen relationships.
  • Do not assume you will only have one career.  Things change.  Economies change.  New industries emerge.  Be flexible and keep learning – you can do just about anything.
  • Plan for retirement, but don’t look forward to it as a starting point.  You are living your life right now.

With an approach more like this one, it would be difficult to be a boring person, to not really know who you are, to find yourself married to someone who doesn’t share your values, to have kids you don’t know well, or a partner you haven’t been a ‘couple’ with in years.  Goals should have meat to them.  Goals should include experiences.  Goals can also be associated with decisions.  Goals are events, not milestones.


Life is a great big canvas, and you should throw all the paint on it you can.  ~Danny Kaye


How to avoid a mid-life crisis: be an active part of your life – don’t wait until you’ve gotten most of the way through your life-checklist before you realize you neglected all of the real activity while you were busy checking things off the list, mistaking those milestones for events.


The tragedy of life is not so much what men suffer, but rather what they miss.  ~Thomas Carlyle


I don’t know anyone who climbed a mountain in their 20’s, brewed their own beer in their 30’s, and still needed a mid-life crisis in their 40’s.  Think about it…

Life is now.  Be a part of it.  And make sure that the people in your life are a part of it, too.


Life loves to be taken by the lapel and told:  “I am with you kid.  Let’s go.”  ~Maya Angelou


Go forth and live, fully and intentionally.

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