How to Lead an Interesting Life and Still Get Stuff Done

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.

Recurring Themes

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.

  • Stanley Lee

    I like how you quoted Cal Newport as “Newportian.” Ha

  • Momekh

    Like you also said, how you state a problem goes a long way in helping us find a solution.

    Adventure vs ambition? How about your ambition is to be more adventurous? Or your adventure is to have this or that ambition?

    And no, this is not semantics. I think we can do this, this congruency between desires and duties.

    And Life is a big adventure. Or nothing.

    Really liked your ‘missions not goals’. Rock on Scott. 🙂

  • Andrej

    I think these “unconventional lives” of experts in different fields are just hindsight glorifications and favourable portrayals. I’m sure Feynman was a cool guy and all, but then I’m also sure a lot of people do stuff that’s just as exciting as picking locks, painting and knowing how to speak one foreign language. It’s like taking pictures of relatively bland and small amounts of food with a professional camera versus taking pictures of better-tasting stuff with a crappy one. Everyone’s going to drool over the first ones, because they can better tickle your imagination of how they taste like even though the food in and of itself might not have been anything special.

    It’s all in presentation and the outlook on what you’re doing.

  • John Paton

    I think that the core of your day really needs to be centered around productive work if you want to accomplish anything at all. You must prioritize your learning, or writing, or programming, or business etc…

    Nevertheless, as you mentioned I still think this leaves plenty of room for adventuring, especially if you choose adventure prone environments.

    I know that Cal Newport has written about adventure studying– splitting up your learning by constantly changing location. This may not be exactly what you mean by adventuring, but it’s certainly a start.

  • Michael Filippone

    Great article, Scott! I’d like to hear more about the idea of missions vs. goals.

  • Matt

    I try to find adventurous things that directly or indirectly help with my ambitions. For instance, I want to have a family, so I will be taking ice skating lessons this winter. Don’t see how this helps? In addition to giving my more exercise and coordination, it also helps me meet more people and have a great future dating activity.

    What adventure helps your ambitions?

  • Reid

    Love the premise and the advice, but not sure Feynman is a fair role model since most of us aren’t nearly as brilliant as he was.

  • Khoi

    This post kind of sum up your various posts about life philosophy. I think this is the best post I’ve seen so far.

  • Rayson

    I all ways seem to hit the same wall “lack of hours in the day” and your work/blog has some great ideas. the Mission vs Goal thinking is some thing that I really like.

    have you thought about incorporating some Face book sharing functionality into your page as I would like to share a passage or to from your blog but wan to give you the credit to your site.

  • Rick Salmon

    Missions vs. Goals

    Do you remember in the movie The Blues Brothers where Dan Akroyd and John Belushi in fedora hats, dark suits and shades attended a southern black baptist church and found their calling? Belushi said “We’re on a MISSION from God. We are putting together the band”.


    Missions are monumental. Goals are a bit sterile.

    Thanks for a great distinction Scott.

    – Rick Salmon (Empowering European Entrepreneurs)

  • Bornagainscholar

    I like the idea behind this post. I do have to say that I find the conversation of “goals are bad” conversation a bit immature. I have had this discussion with Leo from Zen habits to often. The problem with goals, most people write, they are to rigid, not specific, to far off in the future, etc… Then they come up with another term they use to set goals (for lack of a better word) that they believe will yield better results. But isn’t it true that your life revolves around goals? Waking up at 5am to get to work on time, graduate from university, get in bed before sun up, etc… those are in fact goals.

    Almost all of the truly successful people I have met, read about, idolized, interviewed, and trust to really follow their advice (meaning they are old enough to have the opportunity to have been successful. Kids that have built enormous companies like Facebook or any other phenomena like that I can’t consider successful quite yet.), constantly talk about the importance of proper goal setting and the focus it takes to achieve those goals. I can respect the idea of calling the process something else if that works for you. But I don’t condone writing about it as a tool to simply be different than the “self help gurus” trying to gain readership with a new generation ( I am not suggesting that was Scott’s intention and I don’t believe it is.). I think that is lame and not helpful to the very people authors are supposedly trying to help get ahead in life. Instead I think the truth should be talked about, that is, what is needed to accomplish the very things in life that will make you feel like you have done what you have wanted with your life.

  • Amelia

    Missions, not goals, I like it. I enjoy crossfit because I’m the type of person that likes to go hard and fast for a short amount of time, as opposed to getting on the treadmill for an hour… *yawn*. Although I have a few nearly life-long passions (science, music & Seido karate), the rest of my life is all about the sequential, short-lived missions; dipping my toes into something new, finishing, and then moving on. I feel a little silly that I hadn’t noticed this before. Thanks Scott, your posts are always enlightening 😀

  • Belinda

    What an insightful post–a lot to chew on here.

    I’ve been trying to figure out how to cram several different non-related projects into the next 5 months…and the sequential vs parallel was the absolute genius perspective I needed. When I recall the most fun, fulfilling and adventurous times I’ve had, I’ve been working on projects sequentially. Also, I realized that there was a recurring theme that anchored my life, and the projects were able to grow out from that. Sort of like roots are to a tree.

    I’ve also been struggling with defining a couple of these projects because I didn’t see them as goals. But, when I view them as missions, they are much more clearly defined.

    Again, thanks for such a thoughtful post~

  • Anonymous

    Dear Scott, Why do you think about this? Its futile to think about thinking about philosophy. Just do your business work and you’ll be fine. But, that said, one thing I want you to know is that you can do what ever you set your mind to and you don’t have to forgo ambition to do it. Just go to your mirror and look yourself right in the right eye and visualize what you want in your life (a big yacht, perhaps) in your eyes in first person view. You won’t believe what you can do when you believe in yourself. Just don’t make a philosophy about this, okay? As my friend have been saying for a time now, shoot a pickle! and it takes two to tango! Have a nice day! and thanks for the article.

  • Michelle

    Yet again, your thought provoking post has sparked an A-Ha! moment; my themes jumped out at me instantly! This may provide the missing link in the next few months.

  • walking_dead_man

    I believe if you abandon all excess but maintain the strictest, most basic disciplines. Practice internal silence till you master it and hike 40 miles a day till you do. You will find everything you’ve been looking for. I’ve never been able to accomplish this myself… The world confused me and led me down the wrong path… now I’m just struggling to overcome the disaster I’ve become. All I can say is keep your mind open to guidance, but hold fear in your heart; never let it overcome you.

  • walking_dead_man

    forgot to say fear of the unknown

  • Oli

    I like the comment on sequential vs parallel doing, you got me convinced 😉 .
    Regarding the comment on changing activity/mission/goal each year or being a “sequential learner”, is that not something we could also call “Jack of all trades”, who in fact love most of all learning rather than anything else ? It seems to me a lot of people fall into that category. The process of learning makes us feel good, gives new perspectives and outlooks and that’s an end in itself. The next question is “is there a best way to learn” ? if yes, what do you all recommend ?