A Case for Letting the Universe Decide

Say you decide one day that you want to achieve something lofty. Become a director at your current employer. Learn to play the guitar. Open your own retail store. Start your own product line.

What’s your immediate next step? Do you:

A) Write down your goals, change your daily mantra, and vow to stay focused until said goal is your reality.

B) Email your mentor and enlist their help in formulating a step-by-step action plan.

C) Take it day by day, put your best work out there and see what the universe serves up.

D) Close your eyes and pray it happens.

I was kicking around on The Facebook the other day and came across an interview in motto featuring Ina Garten of Barefoot Contessa fame. I’ve always been fascinated with her career trajectory and how she got from where she was (government employee) to where is she (goddess of effortless entertaining and successful business woman). Ina’s story was one I had always hoped for myself: create a business by making the things I really love accessible and then making those things accessible to everyone else.

Apparently, she did it not only by accident but by completely abandoning her goals. Here’s a portion of the interview:

Motto: What do you wish you’d known when you were just starting out in your career?

Garten: When you’re in your 20s, you feel like you need to have goals and that there are so many other things you should be doing. But the more I’ve grown my business and my career, the more I’ve come to believe that goals aren’t always helpful—at least not for me. Instead of trying to plot out specifically where I want to go, I’ve always just done the best job I can on what’s in front of me and let the universe reveal itself.

When I was in my 20s, I was working in nuclear energy policy and management and budget for the White House, thinking, “There’s got to be something more fun than this.” And then I saw an ad for a specialty-food store for sale in the New York Times, and it was in a place I’d never been before: West Hampton. So my husband, Jeffrey, said, “Let’s go look at it.”

To say that I knew nothing about what I was getting myself into was an understatement. I’d never run a business before, never even had employees working for me. But when I saw the store, I thought, “This is what I want to do.” So I made the woman a low offer, thinking we’d have time to negotiate. But the next day she called me and said, “I accept your offer.” That’s when I said to myself, “Oh, shoot. Now I have to run a specialty-food store.”

Motto: So you feel that not having a specific goal in mind helped keep you open to this opportunity that turned out to be life-changing for you?

Garten: I think if you set goals, you keep yourself from really interesting sidetracks. Before I bought my store, Barefoot Contessa, I’d thought I was going to go into real estate and buy old buildings and redo them. But I loved cooking, and when I saw the ad, it just clicked.

Something similar happened later, after I had been running the store for 20 years. I knew I wanted to do something else, so I sold the store to some of my employees, not having any idea what exactly I would do next. About nine months later, I thought, “I’ll write a cookbook while I figure out what I should do.” But then I turned out to really love writing cookbooks.

There’s nothing quite like hindsight when you’ve built what Ina has, but the sentiment struck a chord with me. What if we’re judging our own success by someone else’s destiny? I know it sounds corny, but some of the best things in my life haven’t exactly come because I’ve planned them. They’ve come because I had no other option than to face what was in front of me and turn it into something worthwhile. Other times they’ve been a side effect of being a non-linear thinker. Sometimes you just land somewhere because of circumstance. The magic happens in seeing opportunity in uncertainty.

I get a couple emails every now and then from women in their early twenties on how to get where I’ve gotten, and I give them the same advice that was given me. If you really want something, put your best work out there, good things will come. And, if you’re smart, you’ll remember to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Now in my 30s, the next phase of my career is beckoning loudly. I know what I want, and it’s going to take a lot of work to get there. But I’m taking what I’ve learned and I’m just going to put good things out there. We’ll see what happens next.

Image: Emma Elwin

  • This couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. I’m currently at a job that is a great opportunity with great people and an overall good situation, but not ultimately what I want. I’ve been torn between the two paths of taking a leap and kind of forcing a change or just sitting back and learning a whole lot at the job I’m at and letting life unfold where it may (with a healthy dose of hard work). This (and Ina!) is encouraging me to stay put and continue to forge the path in front of me.

    PS I think I was one of those girls who emailed you at some point 🙂

  • Such a great message. However, I often find myself torn when I read stories like Ina’s, because I can’t help but wonder, without the reality of their resources, how different would her trajectory be? Clearly having the funds available to buy a business in the Hamptons didn’t automatically ensure she would be successful, but at the same time, it did provide the opportunity to dive in. (Personally I’m glad things worked out.. her brownies are divine!)

  • This was so interesting to read, something that nos that I think about it, it has also happened to me.Thinking about it, the way I’ve come to were I al now is buy doing the best work I could, believing un myself and leaving the rest to God. It’s good to hasve goals, but it’s also good not to have them. I’m now reading the resto of the interview! Thanks forma sharing!

  • Love Ina! And I really need/want that kind of attitude. I’ve been so stuck for so long and it is because I’m a fearful perfectionist… If I can’t be perfect (or have the perfectly mapped out plan) then I will just sit here being nothing. Dreams on hold for years…. hopefully not anymore!

    Also, I’d love to read more about your future goals and dreams!

  • I have to admit I’m a planner. I love to plan everything down to the last detail. However, many times it doesn’t bring me joy. Many of my favorite memories are from a spontaneous, unplanned, surprising day. That is why one of my 2016 resolutions is to be more spontaneous.

    girl C
    https://fromgirlc.wordpress.com/

  • Thanks for this! Just sent it to my husband because I’ve been struggling with this exact dilemma. The goals I mapped out for myself in my 20s just don’t seem to fit the Me in my 30s. I recently quit my job and went to grad school…because that’s what I decided when I was 25. Meh. Not loving it. But I haven’t quit because quitting is a lot harder than just putting one foot in front of the other and not questioning the path I put myself on 6 years ago.

  • I love this post! I’m nearing my mid-20s, and I’ve always been the type to set some type of goal for myself. I’ve never set specific goals, because I’ve never actually known what I wanted to do with my life (I still don’t), but I set goals like succeeding at small things, that helps me stay on track and feel productive. As far as BIG life things, I totally agree that setting goals keeps us from accepting that other things might be better for us. I took a chance and moved from Hawaii to Washington DC, and while I love my job, I’m totally open to moving elsewhere, experiencing new things, and figuring out who I am. I think it’s best to live life “in the moment.” This post solidified that idea for me.

  • I love this perspective. I’ve learned this the hard way. I ran myself ragged in my 20s, checking off my list of goals. But it didn’t get me any closer to happiness. Now as an American expat living in Saudi Arabia with my husband, I’m learning to embrace the uncertainty and the opportunities in every circumstance.

  • for a VERY linear thinking like me, this doesn’t make sense and is also really terrifying. BUT, i love the idea of making room for the sidetracks life brings us. going to keep this in mind when i do my quarterly goal planning, and especially when those unexpected opportunities come up. thanks for sharing!

  • This has been the case my whole life. Trying to follow a plan has almost always not worked for me. Life really is in the magic. Love, action, surrender, repeat.

  • This is perfect for my current situation. I am currently in my late thirties and still have NO CLUE what I want to do. I know I want to do something that makes me happy and I just haven’t quite found that yet. I see so many people so much younger than me having these great careers and having so much success – ugh if only everyone could be that lucky. I’m currently just enjoying the ride and seeing where this thing called life takes me. My goal is to figure my shit out by the time I hit 40 oh and to have Jennifer Aniston’s arms 🙂 Thanks for sharing Kate.

  • You did it again, Kate. You’re my go-to for sage, thoughtful advice that hasn’t the jaded or overly self-promoting tone so much on the internet from professionals of your stature has. Your words genuinely stay with me, and I just wanted to say thank you as one of the girls you latterly describe, but one who is in her thirties (with a toddler in tow) and feels the need to succeed all the keener.

  • well, the universe should tell that obese lady that promoting unhealthy food is bad for your health… I mean what’s HER time for the 100 yards???

  • well, i’m trying very at not getting caught up in the outcome of things. I can plan and I can take the next right action. but I have to be mindful that the end of the journey is an unknown. I don’t know where life will take turns, I don’t always know where the next speed bump is or where it comes from. but my feet point forward so that’s the general direction I try to go in. I just do MY part and adjust my pace to meet the journey. i’m 53 and I have learned when I try to control life…I’ve already lost control.