What happens to a #goal deferred?
Does it dry out
Like avocado toast left on the brunch table too long?
like cheap internet?
Or breaks into a million tiny pieces
like your iPhone screen against the concrete?
Maybe it just saves in your drafts
untagged and unposted.
Or does it delete?
I like to mess with the classics, leave me alone.
When I first started thinking about career choices at the ripe young age of 5, I had one singular goal: to blow something up. Seriously. I wanted an explosion to be the hallmark of a career well done, preferably an explosion that took place in dramatic fashion. Eventually, my parents coaxed out of me that what I REALLY wanted was to be a chemist/scientist and that creating explosions, while happenstance, wasn’t my specific target. Still, you gotta respect a kid with a goal.
I must’ve asked my parents for a chemistry set on thirty different occasions and while they were happy to acquiesce to a great number of other educational toys (RIP Zany Brainy!) a chem set just wasn’t one of them. I’m sure leading with my desire to blow something up didn’t help. But nevertheless, I persisted, making dreadful “chemical” concoctions of spices, sauces, and liquids in my family’s kitchen and conducting “experiments” on my friends, family, and dog. I wrote e=mc2 on all of my notebooks, word to Einstein, and watched Dexter’s Laboratory faithfully. I committed, fully undertaking my first ever goal to become a mastermind scientist and have legal permission to create explosions cause that’s how it worked. I was going to be great.
Then math happened. Oh, did math happen.
All of my high school math classes and most of my middle school ones kicked the crap out of me. Ever have a teacher correct a mistake on your test post-grading and have your score go DOWN!? Yeah, that was me all through Algebra 1 all the way through Statistics. I Grade-A sucked at math. While The Mythbusters would continue to inspire my deep curiosity about science and I’ll still happily spend a day at anyone’s natural history museum, my goal of becoming the world’s greatest scientist died every time I had to expand an equation or do a proof. Wasn’t. Gonna. Happen.
Along the way, however, I discovered that my mother’s deep love of books and my dad’s deep love of history had transferred onto me. I excelled in social studies, history, and English classes and, certainly by the sixth grade, I also realized that I could be pretty persuasive. Earlier in my kindergarten days, I had already won a mock-trial on behalf of the (Not-so!) Big Bad Wolf against those greedy and selfish pigs, and by grade 3 I could talk myself out of (or into) anything. So by the time I entered high school, I started setting my sights on the law, leaving behind the idea of dramatic explosions in favor of Supreme Court cases, landmark victories, and elegant professionalism. By the time I graduated, I could see it clearly: I was going to be the first Black woman to sit on the Supreme Court. I was going to meet Barack and Michelle, tell Clarence Thomas to STFU, word to Anita Hill, and influence history for generations to come.
Then George Zimmerman was found not guilty.
I had been at Columbia for two years when the verdict came out. That year, I had accepted membership in a pre-doctoral fellowship program at the urging of my favorite professors, but I still claimed an interest in taking the LSAT and pursuing law school upon graduation. That night, though, as CNN informed us that Zimmerman had been found not-guilty in a court of law and that law enforcement officials were preparing to shut down inevitable protests, the very word law seemed so so dirty and so unlike my vision of it when I set my goal. As I sat listening to the news, I wondered what the first Black woman to sit on the Supreme Court would think of this case? I wondered what would she say to this verdict? All night, I thought she’d just be too sad to speak, too afraid for the safety of her friends, family, and children to put on her robes because I definitely felt that way. I always maintained that that night did two things for Black pre-laws; it either encouraged them to go harder or forced them to give up. So in a New York walk-up I sat and waited for my partner to come home safely and let that goal slip away. I could not participate in that which I no longer believed.
But I still believed in the classroom, or at least the power of it. I believed in the chalkboards and the passionate debate. I believed in transformation and epistemologies of progress. Alma Mater taught me to view the light of the world through the lens of knowledge and while I wasn’t always cooped up in the library and only ever pulled a handful of all-nighters, I began to believe in my ideas and my writing. So I majored in African-American Studies, word to IRAAS, and went to talks and studied, studied, studied every line of seminal and not-so-seminal texts. I set a goal to become a professor and go in the way of Melissa Harris-Perry, my idol at the time. I wanted to take over Nerdland and influence debate on your TV screens. I wanted to have a classroom on Saturday and talk about race and gender and sexuality and pop culture. I wanted to move between Beyoncé and Adiche, between Kendrick and Fanon. I could see it clearly…
And then nothing too dramatic happened. I suppose I simply changed my mind.
I still plan to teach, but it’s no longer my goal to be a professor. I still love the humanities and social justice but it’s no longer my lot in life to be a lawyer. And while you can most certainly catch me at the American Museum of Natural History, it’s no longer my goal to be a scientist. In true Carrie Bradshaw fashion, as I was recounting my own goals deferred, I got to thinking about goals, the nature of them once you’ve grown up, and what happens when everyone is expected to not only always have very clearly defined ones but to always, unequivocally reach them.
And so I think that maybe we do ourselves a bit of a disservice in pressuring ourselves to make our goals so painfully concrete. I think we don’t give ourselves enough credit to our own living and malleability when we ask at every step of our being “what are your goals?” The pressure we put on ourselves, sometimes as small children, doesn’t give us space or time to pick through the manufactured nature of the beasts: to see that the house, six-figure career, car, and 2.5 kid predictability of goals in a capitalist, heteropatriarchal society might not be us talking but rather the consumer culture telling us what’s valuable. And if we only define ourselves and our value based on the goals we have and achieve, then maybe, perhaps even too often, our goals just become another distraction from discovering and enacting the values and lives we actually want and become a means we use to hold ourselves in, limiting ourselves from the possibility and potential of our dreams.
Yeah, it got really deep there for a minute. Let’s detox with a gif.
And we’re back.
So moving forward, at this point in my life, I’m unsure about the primacy of goals in determining my next steps. And I’m not shitting on goals! They can be great motivators, and if you have one or a few that you love and that bring you joy, go forth and prosper. But now with three “failed” goals under my belt, I’m just starting to question the weight we put on ourselves and others when all we use to understand ourselves is our goals and our distance between one and the other. The culture that encourages us to become perpetual #Goaldiggers instead of simply pursuing the things that make us our most authentic, fulfilled selves feels a little shady and feels like a set-up for a lot of Sissyphian tasks. Sure, a little goal-setting here and there doesn’t hurt but to make it the framework we use to measure our success? Our worth?!
I decided that for the time being, I’m gonna let the type-A, check the box robot in me rest while I let my dreamer speak for a while. I want to move forward into this new process, not full of new goals with new deadlines and new pressures, but with dreams, aspirations, and love at the root. In the meantime, if I find something that really sets my spirit on fire like that chemistry set once did, then I’ll throw it up in my planner and start setting a S.M.A.R.T plan. But until then, I’m just going to trust the proverbial process and allow it to stay a while. The “hit-or-bust” destination of #Goaldigging can wait…
Especially if all you’re chasing is fools goals…