The Summoned Life and Setting Goals

David Brooks, in a New York Times op-ed, coins the term the “Summoned Life”. He proposes this as a counterpoint to the “Well-Planned Life” best described by Clayton Christensen in his book "How Will You Measure Your Life?" . Christensen suggests that life is best lived when it is planned, when you set goals for what is most important and work tirelessly to achieve them. Brooks suggests that another way to live life is less focused on your individual goals and aspirations and more focused on responding to the circumstances and context in which you are living today. As he writes,

The person leading the Summoned Life starts with a very concrete situation: I’m living in a specific year in a specific place facing specific problems and needs. At this moment in my life, I am confronted with specific job opportunities and specific options. The important questions are: What are these circumstances summoning me to do? What is needed in this place? What is the most useful social role before me?

These are questions answered primarily by sensitive observation and situational awareness, not calculation and long-range planning.

The process of setting goals has never really resonated with me, be they New Year’s resolutions or annual employee development goals. But Brooks’ essay made a lot of sense. While long-term planning is not my forte, I am eager to discover how I can best serve my team or family or community at any given time, to find the best way to apply my unique skills to the situation at hand.

So if you, like me, are not keen on goal-setting, take heart. The “Well-Planned Life” has useful lessons to teach, but so does the “Summoned Life”. Sometimes you do need to set goals (annual performance reviews are one example–getting the most benefit out of that system requires learning how to flourish within the system, including the goals), but other times you can feel free to let your circumstances summon you.