I am not a "goals" person. That’s nebulous, so let me explain. My brother-in-law loves to ask people, what’s your 5-year goal? Your 10-year goal? I don’t work that way. I’ve explained before how I define success, and as I implied then, this is not "vision board" kind of stuff.
In his book The Practicing Mind, Thomas Sterner discussed how goals often cause adult learners to self-sabotage.
If you have never considered it, think about how everything we learn and master in life, from walking and tying our shoes to saving money and raising a child, is accomplished through a form of practice, something we repeat over and over again. For the most part, we are not aware of the process as such, but that is how good practice manifests itself when done properly. It carries no stress-laden anticipation, no internal question, “When will the goal be reached?”
We have a very unhealthy habit of making the product—our intended result—the goal, instead of the process of reaching that goal. This is evident in many activities in our everyday lives. We become fixated on our intended goal and completely miss out on the joy present in the process of achieving it. We erroneously think that there is a magical point that we will reach and then we will be happy. We look at the process of getting there as almost a necessary nuisance we have to go through in order to get to our goal.1
When we only consider some future end-state a success, each effort short of that end feels like a failure. At some point after childhood, we lose the joy of discovery inherent in erring. Children are not troubled by falling while having fun; they pop right up again. When an adult falls, we check for witnesses before we check for injury.
And now we’re back to my goals.
I want to be content, within the bounds of what I think is right. My personal ethic, were I to boil it down to something pithy, is be kind and be tough. This means I try to care intensely and elaborately for everyone in my orbit, but you don’t need to worry about me. I’m good.
I further refine it–at the risk of losing pith–with seek micro over macro. This circumscribes my aforementioned orbit to my family, friends, and the people I come across day-to-day. This is based on my mistrust of any systems that purport to be universal. Said another way, I know I can treat my waitress well, but I know I can’t help all the waitstaff in the world.
I think small.
This valuing the micro over the macro makes my "goal" singular. Namely, I want to always get better. It is perfectly okay for me to get just a little bit better. It’s preferred, even.
This a continual process that places a big emphasis on the present moment. Sterner continues:
In order to focus on the present, we must give up, at least temporarily, our attachment to our desired goal. If we don’t give up our attachment to the goal, we cannot be in the present because we are thinking about something that hasn’t occurred yet: the goal. This is the goal shift I spoke of earlier. When you shift your goal from the product you are trying to achieve to the process of achieving it, a wonderful phenomenon occurs: all pressure drops away…
This awareness of being where you are and in the present gives you the constant positive reinforcement of reaching your goal over and over again. However, when your mind is only on the finished product, not only do you feel frustrated in every second that you have not met that goal, but you experience anxiety in every “mistake” you make while practicing. You view each mistake as a barrier, something delaying you from realizing your goal and experiencing the joy that reaching that goal is going to give you.
When, instead, your goal is to focus on the process and stay in the present, then there are no mistakes and no judging. You are just learning and doing. You are executing the activity, observing the outcome, and adjusting yourself and your practice energy to produce the desired result. There are no bad emotions, because you are not judging anything.2
I don’t worry about making sure every new opportunity will help me achieve a discrete goal. I instead approach each new endeavor as an opportunity to grow.
Maybe I can make some money. Maybe I can gain a new skill. Maybe I can brighten the day of a DMV clerk by simply treating her as a human being instead of as an impediment to my Getting Things Done mojo.
I apply a better check at all decision points.
Better is good enough.
- Sterner, Thomas M. The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life: Master Any Skill or Challenge by Learning to Love the Process. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2012.↩︎