Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
May 22, 2019

Which Way Should I Go?

by Kennon Sheldon
Figure walking into horizon

In this post, I talk about the importance of pursuing “self-concordant goals” in one’s life.  Self-concordant goals are goals that fit who you are – they express talents, interests, values, and potentials residing deep within your personality.  Self-concordant goals help you to channel those potentials and turn them into actualities.  The human mind is a goal-pursuing engine -- our intentions pull us through time, towards future destinations.  When our goals are self-concordant we are enabled to arrive at our “best possible futures,” with fulfilling lives we could barely have imagined back at the beginning. 

What’s more, the process of getting to such futures is fun!  Since self-concordant goals express our deeper talents and interests, they tend to remain enjoyable and relevant over the long term.  We want to keep putting effort into them because that is who we are and what we do.  

Given their many advantages, why wouldn’t people set and pursue self-concordant goals?  There are several reasons. 

One is that some people get turned off to goals together. They come to feel that goals are threats, obligations, or burdens, and they choose to “drift” instead of trying to make anything in particular happen.  Of course, even without a steady hand at the helm, people do take action, and they do arrive at future places.  Drifters simply follow the path of least resistance. 

But most of us are trying to make things happen; we are trying to decide what to do with ourselves.  Yet, we may find that when we achieve our goals, we still feel empty – like somehow, it wasn’t worth it.  A young woman graduates from medical school, though she hates the sight of blood; a middle-aged man finally buys the sports car he wanted, but its appeal quickly fades; a student comes to hate the academic major that his father insisted upon. 

As the latter example illustrates, a big part of the problem can be that social forces and pressures distract us or lead us away from our talents and potentials.  After all, we don’t choose just for ourselves.  Important others (like parents, friends, or mentors) have their own opinions about what we should do, and they may try to push us in directions that are not concordant with who we are.

Another part of the problem is that “knowing oneself” is hard, as hard as diamond or steel, said Benjamin Franklin.  We live in an inner world of conscious thoughts and narratives that is really just the tip of an iceberg, an iceberg that is mostly underwater.  It takes practice, and considerable effort, to learn to hear what our deeper selves are trying to tell us.  And even when we know, it may still take considerable courage to follow through and make the life-changes suggested by those inner voices. 

How can we know if our goals are self-concordant?  My research shows that self-concordant goals are the ones that we pursue because we enjoy, believe in, and identify with them.   Our method for identifying self-concordant goals is based on the idea that, although people may not know directly what to want, they can know how they feel about what they think they want.  Our reactions to the various possibilities in front of us are telling.  Feelings of interest and identification regarding a candidate goal are prime symptoms of “fit” between that goal and our deeper personalities. 

In contrast, if we feel that we are pursuing a goal because we have to – because other people, societal expectations, financial pressures, or our own guilt seem to dictate those goals – then this may be a sign that we have chosen wrongly and that we should perhaps reconsider our choices.  Do we really “have” to?

How can we learn to hear our “deeper selves” more clearly?  This is a hot research area.  Mindfulness meditation can quiet our conscious minds, so we can hear subtler voices in ourselves.  Going with one’s gut or intuitions can also help get around the conscious mind’s self-delusions.  Sometimes people who are close to us know us better than we know ourselves; consider asking them for advice. 

Even our own stray thoughts might actually represent profound growth impulses emerging from our subconscious. One highly-paid but miserable young lawyer wanted to retire as soon as possible.  One morning she “randomly” googled an old friend, discovering that the friend was still an activist who worked for a cause she herself once valued.  This woman had the courage to follow the trail by contacting the old friend and renewing the friendship.  Eventually this led to a new career, paying only half as much – but now, she never wants to retire!   

In short, it is worthwhile to try to discover what we “really want” and to go after it.  This doesn’t mean it will easy – there can be many failures and heart-aches along the way.  But at least we are living our own story, instead of somebody else’s!


For Further Reading:

Sheldon, K. M. (2014).  Becoming oneself:  The central role of self-concordant goal selection.  Personality and Social Psychology Review, 18, 349-365.

Sheldon, K. M., Gunz, A., & Schachtman, T. (2012).  What does it mean to be in touch with oneself?  Testing a social character model of self-congruence.  Self and Identity, 11, 51-70. 

Kennon Sheldon is Professor of Psychology at the University of Missouri and author of Optimal Human Being: An Integrated Multi-level Perspective.

About our Blog

Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

Get Email Updates from the Blog