Time flies, fun or not. A week, a month, a year simply…vanishes. I graduated a year ago, and it has taken most of that year to recover enough to think about next steps. Another job search, and probably moving. Continuing efforts to improve my health. Things like that.
But then my therapist (a.k.a. Hippie Dude) started asking about long-term goals, after discussing the issue of career choices for ages and getting nowhere. So goals might help, right? I gave it a try despite my doubts and made lists of “goals” for various part of my life. At the following session, Hippie Dude told me that those weren’t goals per se. Goals focus on set outcomes, while I focused almost exclusively on processes. Out of two dozen items on the list, only four were true goals!
The rest of my Not-Goals were actually processes that will help me “live long and prosper”, which is my real goal and always has been. Hippie Dude says they belong in a Treatment/Wellness Plan – practicing mindfulness and yoga, minimizing Rx’s, getting and staying fit, knitting an Aran sweater, and hiking more long-distance trails. The only thing remotely career-related was “write a book”, which is also a process (publishing a book would be a goal).
So why must I have goals when they trigger anxious, neurotic behavior? DBT says I need goals. My therapist says I need goals. All of my professional mentors say I need goals. Goals seem to really help some people. But I’ve never been comfortable setting goals. A great blog post on ZenHabits, Achieving Without Goals, highlights what makes me so uncomfortable:
- Goals box me in
- I don’t know what the future will bring, so planning for
fantasiesgoals is basically useless
- Failing at goals makes me
feel badmiserable and despondent but achieving them doesn’t necessarilyusually satisfy
- If I’m always focused on the future, I can’t live in the moment, nor be content with where and who I am
This is exactly why I find goal-setting so wrong-headed. I was a lot happier when I had no goals or ambitions beyond living a decent life. These days, practicing mindfulness helps more than anything else. Mindfulness is all about being here and now, and life is simply more enjoyable that way. The contentment that mindfulness brings is something I’ve come to cherish.
Goals don’t allow that contentment. The goal of getting my next job creates future-focused tunnel vision complete with crushing anxiety, dissatisfaction with my current job, and indecision ad nauseum. It steals my attention constantly; I obsess, fret, ruminate, and talk myself out of what I thought I wanted because others also impose their goals on me. But in reality, all my jobs have come to me, not me to them – so why do I keep worrying about it? Because it’s a goal, and I become practically possessed when I take goals. They turn me into an ambitious, anxious, twitchy wreck. They make me feel like a loser.
Left to my own devices, I rarely make specific goals. Backpacking is different: we make the goal of reaching the final trailhead when what we really care about is the journey. Signing out on the last trail register is indeed a victory, but that’s because our feet are tired — that moment is not why we go backpacking. It’s every step between the trailheads that matters. It’s a decent metaphor for life, because although I really want a hot shower when we hit the finish line, what I want even more is to keep going. That’s what a life well lived should feel like, right?
The Buddha taught that desire is the root of all suffering. I think he was right. Goals are desires, and they’re inordinately good at causing suffering – clearly more so for some of us than others. As time passes, principles become ever more important to me, while goals quickly become obsolete, over and over. Living according to principles rather than goals will never make me feel like a loser, and that sounds like good medicine to me.
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