Vision, when not referring to the literal definition of one’s ability to see, refers to an ability to think about and/or imagine what your future could be, and what practical steps need to be taken in order to get there. Clarity of vision, then, is knowing what future state it is that you want and knowing how to get there. Finding it can be challenging, but if we take the time to work on it we can have a clear vision for the future.
That clarity is the primary difference between people who flounder about their lives unsure of what to do and people who have focus and drive to succeed. And you don’t need to be a ruthless baron of the tech industry or a US supreme court justice to have that clarity. We describe people in society who have created titanic changes in culture or technology as visionaries because they appear to have been able to conjure up their future from nothingness.
But Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, Steve Jobs, these people carved out space for themselves in history because they knew exactly what they were pushing towards, and what to do to accomplish it. Not only that, but they knew what things in life were not worth their energy.
Underneath any apparent explosion of success is a long pattern of investment and focus, saying no to things that would distract from one’s goals. Lastly, there is certain flexibility needed in order to truly have clarity of vision, since our vision for the future can change over time as our lives change.
But how do we get there? What ideas can help us develop that clarity? How can I possibly know what I want to commit myself to in my personal life, my education, or my career? It isn’t so frightening once we have some ideas to frame up these massive questions.
I’m going to use an example from my own experiences as a singer-songwriter to help chart out a path for how finding clarity of vision can look.
There’s only so much time in a day/week/lifetime
The first thing we have to make peace within ourselves if we are to have clarity of vision is this: we can’t do everything. There are a million different things that can be done, and we only have so much time to spend.
This might make having clarity of vision seem more daunting, but understanding that we can’t do everything that we have the talent and opportunity to do is the key to focusing on what is truly important to us. For every road taken, there’s another that we couldn’t. If we choose one opportunity, that means we aren’t choosing the other one. But how do we choose which path to pursue? Here are some questions to help you get started:
- What gives you deep excitement about life?
- What topic, what issue, what artform, what thing in your world makes something inside of you leap with excitement at experiencing it?
- When you’re in the midst of a moment and everything else seems to be suddenly less important and you’re truly present and content, what are you doing?
If reading those questions puts something specific in your mind, that could be the vision for what you want to pursue. Now we’ve got something of a clear path forward (if you still aren’t sure, don’t worry. We’ll talk more about finding that thing at the end of this article).
For me, being a songwriter is what gives that deep sense of satisfaction in life. Creating a piece of music that communicates a story that my audience can find meaning in is fulfilling, it motivates me to do all the small tedious things that have to be done in order to be good at what I do. It didn’t matter when I started out that I was playing in mostly empty coffee shops or in ratty bars, playing songs I had written that connected with people was exciting.
Once we know what it is we want to invest in, we can start to study and learn how we should be investing our time. After that, we can start to see what things in our life, good and bad, get in the way of pursuing this vision. But where is the best place to start?
What other people have done what you want to do? Who can be a guide for you? In some settings, like in business, that can be more obvious. You can look up the top 100 companies in the world, who their CFOs are, and study how they got there. Then there are whole programs of education that are designed for people who want to work in those fields. In art or music, you can study the history of the art that interests you and read books.
You can find someone who has more experience doing what you’re interested in and ask them to mentor you, to meet with you regularly and answer questions you might have while offering the advice they wish they had been given when they were getting started.
For me, that meant examining what it was about folk and older country music that I enjoyed, and it meant finding more experienced songwriters to learn from. The city I was living in at the time didn’t have much in the way of folk musicians, so I turned to podcasts and writing to find songwriters who were talking about their craft.
Through their advice, I was able to avoid a lot of mistakes I might have made early in my career, and that helped me successfully launch and perform a tour that I booked myself. But to get there I had to listen and study. With their advice, my audience grew and I started to play in better and better clubs. Then after a while longer, I had a band that played with me, people who supported my vision and got behind it.
Saying yes and saying no
If we have clarity of vision, if we know what it is we have said yes to, we come to understand that saying “yes” to the best thing requires saying “no” to good things that get in the way. I drew this idea from episode one of The Robcast, a podcast hosted by author and teacher Rob Bell.
He says that our cultural value of busyness actually worsens our experience of life and gets in the way of the work we want to do. The feeling like we need to be out doing things and working all the time or we aren’t doing enough, that we are somehow missing out, creates unhealthy and scattered lives. So we say yes to every opportunity that comes our way.
“What happens is you end up involved in a bunch of good things, but they actually take all of your energy from the best things.” – Rob Bell
If you wanted to be a painter and you were offered a job that pays well but has time demands that would make it harder for you to get the practice and investment time that you need, having a clear vision about what you want means saying no to that job. That doesn’t mean the job is bad, but it is in the way of what is truly important. That is true regardless of what your specific vision is, some things will line up with a life pursuing it, some things will not. We have to learn to say no to what doesn’t.
When we do that and we invest in the development of our vision, we get better and better at making decisions and investing our time and energy in the ways that further our goals.
Through focusing on songwriting, I was able to create a record that was well received enough to book a month-long tour across the country. I got a band together and we hit the road, playing those songs every night in a different city.
In order to get to the place where I could spend a month off from work, I had taken my last job with the understanding that I would be gone for that month. I had saved money to cover my expenses in that time, I had spent hours and hours planning the route and promoting the shows so that we wouldn’t lose money on the road. That meant playing less local shows, writing less music, doing less of what was fun about the work I want to do.
But that investment meant I could enjoy the tour relatively worry-free and experience the fullness of what my hard work had led up to. It also meant I was ready when I realized that wasn’t really what I wanted.
It might be tempting to imagine that you’ve figured out exactly what you want when you find something that excites you. But the reality is that our desires and needs shift over time, and the vision for what we want will change too. That might mean a career change in the middle of your life, that might mean a deeper (and often a more specific) understanding of what you are interested in. That can sometimes be scary.
Clarity continues to develop
There was a moment halfway through the tour, where I was taking a solo on the electric guitar in one of our shows. It was going exceptionally well, people were dancing, the band sounded great. But then I noticed something, I was looking longingly down at the setlist for the songs that were quieter. I was looking at the songs that were about the lyrics and the writing, not about creating a feeling of excitement or playing loudly.
Because I had learned to listen to that voice within us that tells us what we want, what our vision really is, I was able to recognize that something had to change. The band was doing well; we were making money, we were making a name for ourselves.
But the way that we had come together, the way that the process of writing and production worked had pushed me away from the thing I truly loved: songwriting. Many of the songs were good songs, but they didn’t make the songwriting the center of the work.
So when we got home, I closed that band down and now I’m in the process of figuring out how to launch another project that will reflect the vision I have for what I want to create. I had to say no to what was good because it wasn’t pushing in the direction of what was best.
But if we trust ourselves, if we are willing to follow our intuition in these moments and lean into the changes, we will be all the better for it.
Clarity of vision is knowing what you want the future to look like and what steps need to be taken to get there. Developing clarity of vision requires investing in the education and time needed to truly understand what you’re chasing, and it requires saying no to the things that can distract you from it. Then, if and when your vision shifts, being flexible enough to respond to it.
Follow up questions:
How do I find out what it is that I have a vision for?
This can take time to figure out, and it will depend on how much reflection you do on your own life. Have you explored hobbies or trades or other things that seem interesting to you? If not maybe give that a try. Find a teacher, parent or mentor who knows you well and ask them what they see you doing or being involved in. Sometimes we can’t see the abilities and gifts that we have until someone else points them out to us. Be patient, it will take some time to figure out. But once you get there, it is an incredible thrill to pursue the things we have a vision for.
What are some more resources I can use to learn more about the clarity of vision?
That podcast episode that I suggested, episode 1 of The Robcast, titled “One Thing,” is pretty much all about this. Other than that, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell is a fantastic resource for learning how to really dig in and do the work needed to pursue excellence in whatever it is you want to do, for creative types I’d suggest A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. this novel is about creativity as much as it is about the plot events that happen in the story.
Here are some great Ted Talks that discuss goal setting and vision:
How do I know that what I’m doing is helping me pursue clarity of vision?
If you ever find yourself in the middle of a day and wonder why you’re wasting your time with X or Y. Or if you feel bored and purposeless for any good chunk of your day, then I would suggest whatever it is that you’re doing, it’s probably not helping you.
If the things that you’re doing make you feel more confident and capable to pursue whatever it is that you’re pursuing, or if the work you’re doing mind-numbing, though it is sometimes, pays for your ability to pursue those things on your downtime, then I think you’re on the right track.
This is especially true for work environments. A lot of good jobs are taxing mentally and creatively, but they pay well enough to justify it since the freedom of not having to worry about bills outweighs feeling in a funk a few days a week.