Goals: the ember in the ash heap

by seangljacobs

Part of the New Guinea Commerce Winners Don’t Cheat Series.

By Sean Jacobs

In around 2004, at the height of violence and carnage in Iraq, the town of Fallujah was described as ‘the ember in the ash pit of the insurgency.’ I remember thinking that, despite its context, it served as the perfect metaphor for your goals and aspirations. Because despite the noise, the doubts and the circumstances that inevitably batter your path to success, what’s truly important to you will sustain itself.

Since leaving school ten years ago I’ve noticed that highly successful people often talk about a ‘destiny’ or an ‘inner calling’ propelling them through the inevitable peaks and troughs. Success to these people isn’t a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’.

Take, for example, the acclaimed actor and performer Jamie Foxx. ‘When I was growing up in Terrell, Texas… there was something inside telling me I would go far,’ he says. ‘It’s like energy – an intangible destiny.’ Richard Parsons, the former Chief Executive Officer of AOL Time Warner, puts it in another way. ‘I always knew I’d rise to the top,’ says Parsons, ‘it never occurred to me I wouldn’t.’

Such statements, of course, appear arrogant. Yet there’s more at play here than destructive self-confidence. These people, I feel, have simply connected large reserves of self-belief with inner passion. They march toward what’s important to them – their goals – with not just a sense of fulfilment but destiny.

How do they find what’s important to them? It starts, says Robert Green in Mastery, with an early inclination. The basic elements of all the great Masters in history, he observes, consist of ‘a youthful passion or predilection, a chance encounter that allows them to discover how to apply it, an apprenticeship in which they come alive with energy and focus.’

While I certainly don’t consider myself a ‘master’ in any sense finding my own passion for history and politics followed a similar early inclination. For as long as I can remember I’ve been interested in current affairs. As a youngster growing up in Papua New Guinea, the Middle East, and in South Australia and Queensland, current affairs was the only area that I showed a degree of strength in over science, maths and economics. Knowing where countries were on a map, or the dates of historic events, slowly graduated into a deeper understanding of the workings of government and free enterprise. Naturally I aspired toward a career in government because, simply, that’s where my inclinations lay.

Once you have found this orientation your goals can begin to take shape. The idea of setting goals is incredibly simple – create a target and lay out the steps to get there. But I’ve found, in the decade since leaving school, it’s not something that can be achieved in a five minute workshop (as we were often encouraged in school). Goals need to be calibrated over time and they must mean something to the only person that matters in the process – you.

After finishing university I was intensely eager for a position in a Commonwealth graduate program. I applied everywhere I wanted to go – the department of defence, the prime minister’s department, the department of foreign affairs and trade. Yet I was entirely unsuccessful and, inevitably, wounded in my numerous attempts.

Rather than despair, however, I created a long path toward my goal. What I needed was more experience. So I used my comparative advantage in sports by volunteering for an assignment running Fiji Swimming in Suva, Fiji. From here I built contacts with international development agencies and was recruited by the United Nations to work in Papua New Guinea (PNG). During this time I also updated my academic credentials (and picked up new professional skills) by completing a postgraduate certificate.

Experience ‘on the ground’ in two countries incredibly important to Australia naturally increased my chances in eventually winning a place in one of the most competitive graduate programs in the country. It’s an instructive example of not losing hope but, most importantly, laying down a path toward achieving your targets.

Are you going to achieve all your goals? Perhaps not. But the fact that you actually possess targeted aspirations places you in a special league. ‘The calamity isn’t to have dreams unfulfilled,’ the old saying goes, ‘but to have no dreams to reach for.’ And if you’re intensely high-minded, there may be ideals you seek that are simply unachievable as an individual. These are, in the words of the writer David Brooks, ‘tasks that can’t be completed in a single lifetime.’

The most important thing to remember for young Australians is that, if you possess goals you truly aspire to, they won’t fade with setback. Nor will you really lose your passion for them. Your goals will stay lit and, like the description for a dusty town in 2004, remain the ember in the ash pit.