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Inking a Top-Level Goal for Your Career

By Dave Stuart Jr.

The more I teach and think and write, the closer I get to organizing my work around a central, abiding outcome for all of it — a top-level professional goal.

Angela Duckworth provides insight on this topic in her book. From Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance:

…[D]ogged perseverance toward a top-level goal requires, paradoxically perhaps, some flexibility at lower levels in the goal hierarchy. It’s as if the highest-level goal gets written in ink, once you’ve done enough living and reflecting to know what that goal is, and the lower-level goals get written in pencil, so you can revise them and sometimes erase them altogether, and then figure out new ones to take their place.

This is the point of the Mount Everest exercise I’ve written about. For years, my workshops and keynotes have invariably begun with some treatment of the Everest concept because our highest-level goals make all the lower-level, day-to-day decisions easier. As Duckworth says, these top-level objectives “get written in ink,” and then the lower-level stuff gets penciled in. And it just so happens that this is a great time of year to ponder our ink-worthy goals.

Let’s look at how this works using a top-level goal from my life that you might be familiar with. As a teacher, my top-level goal is to promote the long-term flourishing of my students through constantly aiming to teach them how to be better thinkers, readers, writers, speakers, and people. (That list of five things at the end is the Non-Freaked Out Framework, which is the diagram inside of Figure 1, below.)

Figure 1: Ink and Pencil Goals.

Figure 1: Ink and Pencil Goals. The top circle has been the same, word-for-word, for the past three years. It doesn’t change with the courses I’m assigned, the modifications I make to curricula, or the idiosyncrasies of the kids I teach.

Once you have your top-level goal, you plan down from there as far as need be. (See Figure 2.)

Top-Level Goals, Zoomed Out

Figure 2: And on and on.

What are the top-level goals of your life?

It’s useful to have these for your teaching career, but I think it’s even more useful to have these defined for all of your life. The clearer you can be on all of the top-level goals that animate you, the better you can make hard decisions about how to spend your time and efforts each day.

So for me, there are a few other ink-level goals that demand my time.

  • At the broadest, “Dave Stuart as a man” level, I want to be a good, faithful, and wise steward of the great hoard of treasure I feel I’ve been given in the form of my relationship with Crystal, my precious children, my work as a teacher, my work as a writer, and my wealth as a middle-class American.
    • The lower-level goals here would answer questions like, “How, Dave, do you invest your wealth? How do you bless Crystal and get to know her better and better? How do you draw the gifts from your children, develop their character, and send them into the world as capable, caring adults? How do you make the most of your lifetime earnings?” And so on.
  • As a writer, I want to create an enduring improvement in the rate that humans flourish, and I do that through helping teachers think more clearly and stay in teaching until the effort starts paying off.
    • Teaching gives me a chance to do this, but not at the scale that I think is needed. If the best people become and remain teachers, and if those of us older folks can help guide them to think in a disciplined, focused manner about what it is we’re doing here in the first place, then long-term flourishing will increase.

Now, go to it — what are the top-level, ink-worthy goals of your life?

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