Is it possible to spend your life having adventures, but still make meaningful accomplishments? The answer to this question matters to me because, like many of you, I’d like to have both.
The challenge is that most advice-givers put the two in either-or categories. Being good requires focus, perhaps decades of it. The world tends to rewards people with painstakingly developed talent, not perpetual dabblers.
But while I’d like to sustain such a Newportian focus in my life, I crave variety. Psychological time depends on it, so living adventurously may be the secret to compressing the most life into the brief time we have.
Is it possible to have both adventure and accomplishment?
Lessons from Unconventional Lives
Most people tend to fall into one category. There are hard-focusing achievement-oriented people. The kind who studied hard all through school but rarely went to parties. And then there are novelty-seeking adventurers who are a lot of fun but often lag years behind their more ambitious peers.
One way to explain this clustering is that the two life approaches really are mutually exclusive. The traits and beliefs to fulfill one naturally omit the other. Like being a jockey or a basketball player, the attributes to be good at one contradict the other.
However looking deeper, I’ve managed to find many people who don’t fit the pattern. People who seem to possess both in great enough quantities that the two philosophies may not contradict.
Richard Feynman is a perfect example. He was a Nobel-laureate and physicist on the Manhattan project. But he was also a painter, lock-picker and bongo player, fluent in Portuguese. I highly recommend his autobiography.
This leads me to another explanation for the clustering. People tend to be either ambitious or adventurous, not because those philosophies contradict, but because the attributes you need to be good at one are different.
Instead of a jockey or basketball player, it may be closer to being a basketball player and a pianist. It’s not that one skill hurts the other, but simply that the two are orthogonal.
Sequential Versus Parallel Variety
One trait common to many people who embrace both ambition and adventure is that they take on variety sequentially, not in parallel. This allows for great long-term variety without the seeming pains of distraction that thwart ambition.
Sequential variety means that you do many interesting things, you just don’t try to do them all at the same time. Returning to my favorite physicist, his life had many interesting adventures, but they rarely had significant overlap.
A friend of mine lives by the maxim, “Every year, something different.” Meaning each year he disrupts his life in some fairly significant way. The price of this on your efficiency isn’t too great since it usually only takes a few weeks to adjust to a new routine or mission.
How you phrase a problem makes a difference in how you try to solve it. As a result, I think the common advice to find your purpose or passion is a misguided one. Both of these phrasings make it a hard question to answer, perhaps impossible for many people.
I prefer to think of life as recurring themes. Passions and purposes aren’t things to be found, but things to be constructed and sculpted over many years. If you try to find the themes in your life, you can build on those and create a focus.
In my life, recurring themes are entrepreneurship, writing and learning. As I continue to build on these, perhaps there specificity will grow. But I certainly don’t need a 12-page mission statement.
Recurring themes also help retain the balance between ambition and adventure. If you keep in mind the themes running through your life, you’ll know where to return to after making brief departures into unknown territories.
Have Missions, Not Goals
I learned this advice from Benny Lewis, that you should set missions, not goals. A mission is a short-term project that focuses you on taking action. A goal, in contrast, tends to focus on a faraway outcome or object of your desire. The difference is subtle, but once again, subtle differences in phrasing can have major ramifications in practice.
Missions also work because they allow you to pursue variety in a controlled way. My current MIT Challenge perfectly encapsulates what I want to get from an MIT education, without forcing me to change the rest of my life. I felt similarly about living in France, which allowed me to learn a new language and culture without giving up all my plans for the future.
A mission also encourages you to pursue your variety sequentially, which can help reduce the cost of distractions to the major themes in your life.
Adventure or Ambition?
If tradeoffs didn’t exist, life would be easy. Sometimes they’re inevitable, and perhaps for both extremes of these two philosophies they are as well. However, sometimes tradeoffs appear to exist simply because you haven’t seen an example that violates your assumptions.