In 1979, Evan Wolfson told me he was committing his life to legalizing same sex marriage. In 2015, he was one of a handful of people credited with accomplishing this goal. But his work on same-sex marriage – incredible as it is – isn’t why I call him out. I call him out because he is a great example of someone who set himself a difficult life goal and reached it.
Differences in the way people set their life goals intrigue me. I’ve asked hundreds of people about it and their responses form a pattern. People comfortably self-identify as being members of one of three groups. The first group contains people like Evan, who set life goals they eventually achieve. The second group is made up of those who set life goals that remain persistently out of reach. The third is populated by people who say they set no life goals at all. They are content following the path life presents them.
In this context, Evan is a member of the first group, but with a notable distinction. Evan’s goal – legalizing same-sex marriage – was a monumental stretch. Evan is a person who set out to do the impossible – and accomplished it. Think about that for a second. Think about a person who set out to be the US President. Or down a notch, an NFL quarterback. Or someone who decides to be a professional ballerina, or a movie star, or a billionaire.
I decided some time ago to make an informal study of people and their goals. What kind of person sets herself a goal? What happens to him when his goal is not achieved? I started looking for source material on the topic, but I couldn’t locate much. So for the last decade or so, I have asked people a question (with the following intro): “I’ve asked a lot of people this question, and I’m consistently surprised that everyone seems to have a ready answer about themselves. I’ll tell you my current tally on this survey after you answer this: People appear to break into three distinct groups.” Then I lay out what I laid out above. “Now the question: Which group are you in?”
I have asked about two hundred people this question. I have never had anyone hesitate to self-categorize. (Note that this only works with people of a certain age…it doesn’t make sense to ask people as they’re starting out). Once they identify their group, I tell them the results of my informal study. Regardless of the number of times I’ve done this, the proportions remain about the same. One-third of respondents end up in each of the three groups.
That division doesn’t surprise me much. It seems reasonable that two out of three people eventually settle on some specific path or goal. What does surprise me is that a third of the people I’ve asked believe that they’ve accomplished what they set out to do. I am betting this is sampling error. It could result from the socio-economic status of the people I know. Most are reasonably well-off professionals. I assume those numbers would change if I had a more randomized sample.