Structuring Goals and Priorities

Latest Update: 27 January 2019. Note to reader: this page is a work in progress.

How one chooses to spend their brief time on Earth is perhaps the most important decision of one’s life. The degree to which our species’ intelligence and consciousness diverges from other animals provides us with an unprecedented latitude with which to shape our existence.

Unfettered by instinctual drives, or at least markedly less so, we are able to chart long-term plans, account for the well-being of others in our actions, and chase after approximations of the relatively new phenomenon of “happiness.”

The exact constituents of the “good life” is a topic long-ruminated by ancient and contemporary philosophers alike. Doubtless oceans of ink have been spilt assessing the moral capacity of humanity and the nature of our consciousness.

My own values, which are fundamentally nihilistic and humanistic, emerge as an amalgam of ideas from two German philosophers: Friedrich Nietzsche, the provocative critic and scholar, and Albert Schweitzer, a humanitarian physician.

The phrase most associated with Nietzsche, apart from “that which does not kill you makes you stronger” is “god is dead.”

Behind its shock value lay an important metaphor and critique of deontological ethics. Religious doctrine need not be the domineering force over human virtues. The physical reality of perception and experience can supplant the metaphysical realm of gods.

Humans are thus released from the edicts of scripture, able to turn their attention towards aims they find meaningful and towards the seemingly endless capabilities of our species. In other words, nothing explicitly matters, so everything can therefore matter.

Schweitzer was nearly diametrically opposed to Nietzsche. He was a Christian theologian whose faith led him to serve as a medical missionary for decades in western Africa. (He is a fascinating polymath to boot. His Wikipedia page provides an excellent synopsis of his life’s many projects.)

Schweitzer’s guiding philosophy, termed “Reverence for Life,” held that for a set of principles to be deemed ethical, they must fundamental be life-affirming. In his words,

“Ethics is nothing other than Reverence for Life. Reverence for Life affords me my fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil.”

For his work in forming this wide-reaching philosophy, Schweitzer was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952.

Inevitably, there is a certain amount of reductionism present in these two ideologies.

Can any one action be deemed “moral” if there no longer exist any standards for morality? How does one consider reproductive rights, in which an individual gains the ability to terminate potential life? Are such actions automatically called “evil”?

These issues notwithstanding, the thoughts of these philosophers, among others, bring inspiration to my life goals as well as the hierarchy of priorities around which I aim to shape my life

Below, I offer some helpful insights I’ve gleaned from my life thus far. I publish these thoughts with a tremendous grain of salt. A quote from François de La Rochefoucauld instantly comes to mind:

“The surest way to be deceived is to think oneself more knowing than others.”

I make no claims to have found a panacea that guarantees clarity amidst the complexity and chaos of life. Take from my ideas whatever piques your interest and discard the rest.

A Hierarchy

I structure my life around a hierarchy of priorities, which provide a sense of meaning and purpose to my waking hours.

My life goals provide a 50,000-foot view of the course of my life, detailing the overarching themes I want to dominate the sparse time I have available.

New Year’s resolutions, meanwhile, can be thought of as providing a 10,000-foot view. These aims are much more related to the activities that comprise one’s day-to-day experience, but still possess a distanced perspective.

To continue this analogy, resolutions can then be broken down and adapted to monthly and weekly goals, which offer a 1,000-foot and 100-foot view, respectively. Daily routines and tasks then make up the most immediate view.

To provide a concrete example, one of my resolutions for 2019, is to become fluent in conversational Spanish, in preparation for providing care to patients as a medical student and later, as a physician.

In planning out the months and weeks that comprise 2019, I will schedule daily practice in vocabulary-building, listening, and holding conversations. (A coming post will explore the materials I’ll utilize.)

Making fluency in conversational Spanish one of my overarching goals for 2019—as well as announcing it on a public forum—creates both an accountability mechanism to strength my motivation and gives direction to how I will structure the coming year.