What Do You Wake up in the Mornings For?

How to set the right goals for a life of fulfillment

A few years ago, I watched a video of Alibaba’s billionaire founder, Jack Ma explaining his success:

“People like me, I was born in a very poor family. I never got a great education. I failed all the examinations — for what reason? I don’t know. But later I realized, I don’t have money, I don’t have technology, I don’t have a lot of good backgrounds — a rich uncle or something. The only thing I can compete with young people is let’s compete for 10 years later. This is what I believe 10 years later will be happening. So everything I do, I do for that goal I think will happen 10 years later.”

While I understood the message and theory behind it — to aim for ten-year goals in which you have a chance at winning, I couldn’t really relate at the time, until recently — for different reasons altogether, and after having taken time to reflect upon turning 30.

You see, most of my life, I’ve simply followed the currents like everyone else, letting it carry me wherever it wanted; if there was an opportunity, I’d try my best to ride the waves and likewise, if there were obstacles, I’d try my best to stay afloat. I’d like to say I knew what I was doing or what I wanted to do, but I didn’t — I didn’t have any clue at all.

My career was the exact same way. I transitioned, in my early twenties, from designing for startups to building my own, failing miserably but then using the knowledge gained to becoming one of the highest-paid per hour designers on Upwork.

If someone had told me eight years ago, that one day I’d be a designer and a successful one at that, I would’ve never believed it for the fact that I couldn’t draw if my life depended on it, much less design. It was the last career choice I’d ever expect, up there alongside of being a clown or durian farmer.

Yet, there I was, eight years later, working as a designer for some of America’s top Fortune 500 companies — all because one day a friend had asked for my help in designing a logo.

In my mid-twenties, the demand for my services exceeded my capabilities as a freelancer, so, once again following the current, I started a design agency with a dozen or so employees. The agency grew faster than was expected, and as more profits were being made, I remember thinking, maybe this is my life purpose — to discover how to make even more money.

Because growing up, I didn’t have much; anything I wanted, I’d have to work for it and money, up to that point had always been the solution to all the problems I’ve had. Which is why it made sense at the time to continue pursuing what I already knew how to do. I figured if I continued to ride the waves of every opportunity I saw, and stayed afloat throughout each of the obstacles I’d encounter, I’d forget, even if for only a moment, how unfulfilled I was had really been feeling.

My late-twenties were drastically different from the previous years. If the previous years had been the beginning symptoms of a cold, my late-twenties were a full-blown outbreak — burning coughs, fierce chills, blistering fevers. To have said I was stressed would’ve been an understatement: I was depressed.

I’d wake up every morning not knowing what I woke up for. I’d ask myself, What do I wake up in the mornings for? but never have an answer. It made me wonder, Is discovering how to make more money the only purpose in life?

Because as important as money is, there’s only so much of it you can make before it stops being impactful. The new phone you buy will yet still be just another phone, the car yet still another car, and the house yet still just another house — and sure, it’ll be newer and better, but at what cost? If there’s ever a truth to money, it’s that it isn’t essential beyond what is required to live a decent and happy life, free of most financial obligations.

What I lacked and knew I lacked were more purposeful goals, but the only thing I knew how to do was follow the current, and the only goal I had was to make more money, so it would be another three years before I finally quit work altogether to travel.

Despite all that has happened though, there isn’t a whole lot I regret. I’ve accomplished much in the past eight years — I’ve managed to build a successful business, have made money as a result of it, and have built lasting relationships — all of which I collectively consider a major success, because just the value of it alone will have far outlasted that of money.

If anything, it’s just a little disappointing how short-lived my returns were, from nearly a decade’s worth of work: all the money I’ve made is long gone, most of it having gone towards much-needed years of therapy. It’s ironic, and in a way, difficult for me to imagine that that was once all I lived for.

But I know better now, which is where the advice from Jack Ma’s video comes in — to aim for ten-year goals in which you have a chance at winning. 

 I’ve spent the past eight years following the current aimlessly, letting it carry me wherever it wanted, so it’s time I finally charted my own course: in the next ten years, I’ll be focusing on building the skills and habits necessary for a life of fulfillment, because if there’s anything I’ve learned in the past eight years, it’s what money can’t buy.

So hopefully the next time I wake up and ask myself, What do I wake up in the mornings for?, I’ll have an answer.

What are your thoughts on the post?