10/22/2013 02:25 pm ET Updated Dec 22, 2013

Choosing Something Sufficiently Epic

There have been a few of moments on this trip of mental battles between having a goal versus being content in the present. Some research says that having goals means you're more likely to be unhappy, whereas other research says goals encourage happiness.

A week or so ago I locked up the bike in a Winnipeg basement and was invited to Silicon Valley for the Evernote Conference, and there was a moment that came close to nailing one side of the goal/contentment dilemma on the head. A point that applied to something much wider than the technology context it was set within. It was about being driven by a grand, epic mission.

For reference, watch this recent video of Louis C.K. talking about emptiness. Louis talks about a moment when he realised he has a massive empty feeling inside. Forever empty -- a moment of realisation that, really, we're all alone and this life doesn't really mean anything, because we'll be gone soon. Louis is hilarious and it's obviously lighthearted and comedy, but kind of gets to something heavy and depressing in parts too.

At the event, Evernote's CEO Phil Libin talked about what his fuel is. What gets him out of bed in the morning and provides focus, motivation and drive. And it's the polar opposite of Louis' thoughts. He expressed the view that there's no reason to have that emptiness if you choose a mission that's sufficiently epic. You never have to be forever empty if you're confident that you're on the path to making a sufficient dent.

His specific example of epic was the company motto -- helping everyone "remember everything." Of course an epic mission doesn't have to mean a goal of ubiquity, but it's impossible to argue that a hundred year plan that strives to reach everyone is anything short of epic.

An ambitious mission potentially keeps us hungry, humble, and improving, because it's not going to be finished anytime soon, we're always learning, and we have to get better to have any kind of chance. For the above example, there's 75 million people using the app. Sounds like a lot, but put it in context of the mission, and it's really small -- there's 6.9 billion people who haven't been reached. Suddenly it seems there's a hell of a lot of work to do. And that's awesome, because having such a huge goal can bring a team together, trickle and permeate through a culture, is a driver of progress and a provider of fire. There's work to do, and it's not going to be done for a long, long time.

Possibly most of us could learn from this kind of ambitious thinking if we experience Louis-type emptiness. Maybe we should stop putting off the epic things because they're hard, and consider them because they're hard.

Look at some notoriously difficult missions -- from the D-Day Landings, to reaching product ubiquity, to walking on the moon. These kind of missions don't always work, and there's bound to be a lot of grand goals that failed which we never heard about, but the ambitious ones -- the ones that appear nearly impossibly out of reach - are the same ones that do become meaningful. They're the ones that make a dent and change how we do things.

Perhaps having an epic mission should be as much a personal driver as a company one. But one that isn't a project but an overall outlook that takes time. Having no goals seems like a copout, but maybe total achievement of the goal isn't actually the most important part - rather it's what we get from working towards it. Either way, doesn't it seem like something is broken if we stop being ambitious?