Lose your aim, lose yourself

Set it, or someone else will for you.

At 28 years old, Bruce Lee sat down and penned a document that would guide his every action for the rest of his unnaturally short life.

He confidently began, “I, Bruce Lee, will be the first highest paid Oriental super star in the United States.”

Knowing the heights that Lee reached after his death, we may take the boldness of this statement for granted. At the time of writing, he had never made more than $7,500 for a film. Even then, this was a staggeringly low sum for a film actor. It would be a long, uphill road ahead.

But that wasn’t the extent of his ambitions.

He continued to write, “In return I will give the most exciting performances and render the best of quality in the capacity of an actor. Starting 1970 I will achieve world fame and from then onward till the end of 1980 I will have in my possession $10,000,000. I will live the way I please and achieve inner harmony and happiness.”

Bruce Lee’s legacy, and his impact on Asian-American representation, cannot be overstated. Even now, five-decades after his death, he is still considered to be an irreplaceable cultural icon. And all of it can be attributed back to the note he scrolled to himself in January of 1969.

"A goal is not always meant to be reached” he would say, “it often serves simply as something to aim at", and poignantly so. It wasn’t until after his death, four years later, that he would achieve the targets he had set for himself.

Lee’s philosophy suggests that, despite the clarity of his vision, goals should not be treated as a definite end. Instead, they are designed to set our aim. To provide direction to our thoughts and actions. They act as a sort of waypoint; a north star.

In this sense, our goals are an orientation. Therefore, the most perilous concession we can make is to allow someone else to set our aim for us.

Change your goal, change your perspective

When we’re young, it’s natural to set lofty goals. But at a certain point, we stop dreaming and aiming, and starting living someone else’s life.

We tend to adopt our parents’ dreams early on—choosing a field, or profession that would make them proud. Then, with time, we appropriate the goals of our friends, in an attempt to garner respect.

But we don’t stop there. Many of us still find ourselves outsourcing our goals. Instead of from our parents and peers, were now assuming the goals of our employer, setting our aim in the direction they choose.

The problem with that is our goals don’t just determine our aims, but they affect our perception of the people and places around us.

I once heard a clinical psychologist describe it this way: we don’t simply classify things as objects in our environment—devoid of purpose. Rather, we classify them as tools that help us towards an aim. This means our goals literally determine how we see the world around us.

This might explain some of the magic behind The Law of Attraction and Confirmation Bias. When we’re looking, we find what we’re looking for. But when we’re not, serendipitous opportunities pass us by, completely unnoticed.

It’s the founder looking for a new CFO, who all of a sudden has a high school friend reach out saying they know just the guy. It’s the transplant to a new city, who finds an off-the-market listing, when walking down a side street on their way to work. Things that were there all along suddenly become visible, and useful, when viewed through the lens of a goal.

In its most distilled form, our aim determines the meaning we give to events, relationships, and objects in our lives. So when our goals shift, our perception of the world around us shifts, as well.

Exiled, but not lost

In his time alone, he had been given the space to think; to straighten up his act, and to reaffirm the legacy he wanted to leave behind.

It had been nine long years since Steve Jobs had been forcibly removed from Apple. Yet, he was still studying his old company, and the moves of his old rival, Microsoft.

“Microsoft has had two goals in the last 10 years,” he began a 1994 Rolling Stone interview, “One was to copy the Mac, and the other was to copy Lotus—and over the course of the last 10 years, Microsoft accomplished both of those goals. And now they are completely lost.”

At the time, Microsoft was unsure of who they were, and had no Chief Definite Aim, as Bruce Lee would call it. That’s the thing about goals. When we don’t set one for ourselves, someone else will invariably set if for us. The moment Microsoft stopped following its own vision, it started following the vision of those around it. In doing so, it began to lose its soul.

While many things changed for Steve Jobs during his time away from Apple, one thing remained the same; his conviction to his aims, to his ideals, and to the goals of which he aspired.

Although he was gone from Apple, Steve Jobs was never lost.

Apple, for him, had never been about making money. Instead, it was about creating great products. Products that would enable creative minds to bring their work to life. That’s why, when he left and started NeXt—another PC company—his goal was the same. After that, he co-founded Pixar and still his central aim remained; create great products, enable creative minds.

Despite the personal tribulations—and his complicated relationship with Apple—his aims were unwavering, and critically, they were his own. This was how he could brave the wilderness of his eleven-year long exile, without losing himself.

Make the struggle worth it

We all must be moving towards something.

That something doesn’t have to be grandiose or world changing. It must simply provide a direction. An objective. A lens for us to view the world.

But most importantly, that goal, that aim—it must be our own.

Fourty-seven years after his death, Bruce Lee’s daughter codified this philosophy, “If you can’t feel the dream in your heart and see it in your mind’s eye, then it may not be your dream. It may be someone else’s.”

It’s easy to go through the motions, and have other people set your goals for you. To be the boss’s favorite, to play politics, to buy a bigger house because your friend did, to seek the promotion because it’s next on your company’s track. In the shuffle of pursuit, it’s easy to forget that an aim is not your own. 

When that’s the case, you risk making the same mistake Microsoft made in 1994, of losing yourselves—and losing your soul.

“Your time is limited,” Steve Job implored the 2005 Stanford graduating class, “don't waste it living someone else's life.” He was urging on that same lesson; by losing agency of the goals you set, you will ultimately lose your direction. You’ll lose the unique lens in which you view the world, and with enough time, you’ll lose yourself.

How can you tell if you’re following a path that is not of your own choosing?

“Your dream should excite and entice you”, says Shannon Lee, daughter of the Kung Fu legend, “It should make all the hard work and potential struggle you are going to have to put into it worth it, because it is all yours.”

What I think may be an even better test is asking yourself this one question. If, like Bruce Lee, you were to die before ever achieving your aims, would you still walk down the same path you’re on today?


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