Week 3: Goals revisited, or, What are you hiding from?


I have already settled on an approach! I am just going to label entries by week. That way you can follow along without my having to pretend this is anything more than a series of blog posts prompted by my revisiting Dojo Wisdom.

Last week I talked about what people sacrifice to reach their goals. This week I want to follow up on a topic I raised then, on the misguidedness of goals in general.

There, I said it. Every master of the universe has now unsubscribed from my email list. I shall have to resign as a card-carrying member of Type A Goal-Setters United.

Let me be clear. I like goals. I really do. But the older I get the more I like goals such as hug Jessica a lot and eat more chocolate. I am more interested in having a good life than in having a productive one. Yes, sometimes productivity is part of a good life—it gives me great joy to write a book and see it find its way into the world. And we all know of people who seem thwarted by life: they have talent and gifts that they never organize themselves enough to be able to use productively, and it seems like such a waste.

But I no longer make goals like This year I will write two books that sell 50,000 copies each.

Instead, I have warm fuzzies like, I enjoy writing. I shall write as much as I can while also enjoying the sunshine today and trying this new kind of tea.

Any purveyor of SMART goals is clutching his chest in horror now.

Here’s the thing. Goals can be fine, if you know what you’re sacrificing to achieve them and you’re choosing them intentionally. But they are also a most excellent way to avoid living your damned life. And that is what I want to talk about today.

Goals are the Type A person’s most effective avoidance mechanism. I can’t pay attention to that right now because I have this goal I’m trying to reach and of course you are a cruel and unsupportive person if you suggest that I should not strive!

Even people who don’t set goals and achieve them get burdened down by them: I should get a better job. I’ll move to a better apartment once I’ve saved some money. Someday I’ll have a boyfriend who really cares about me.

All of these are just ways to avoid what’s right in front of you now.

In Dojo Wisdom, I talk about recognizing the target behind the target (the goal behind the goal) because understanding what’s really motivating you can help you reach your goals and can help ensure you’re setting the right goals in the first place. For example, if you have a goal of losing twenty pounds, it’s hard to continue with it on those very many days when the scale is stuck or moving in the wrong direction.

But if you know the why (the goal behind the goal), you can do better. Maybe you want to lose weight so that you don’t die young of a heart attack. What you’re really trying to do, then, is adopt healthier heart-friendly habits. If you’re doing that, then even if the scale isn’t budging, you can make progress (maybe you’re eating less cholesterol and more veggies). You’re less likely to give up in frustration. The process is working even if the most easily measurable results aren’t cooperating.

I still believe that to be true. If you’re setting goals, you need to know what you really want. But often we grab onto goals specifically to avoid looking at what’s behind them. What are goals covering up in your life? What are you hiding from?

Goals seem to be about taking steps today to make tomorrow better but what they often do is put all the pain in the future so you don’t have to deal with it right now.

This worked beautifully for me when Jess was first born and I spent all my time chasing the (ultimately futile) goal of curing her. It’s not that I was wrong to want her to be well. It’s just that there is nothing that can make her well. But chasing that chimera meant I didn’t have to face this new life. I could convince myself it was only temporary. Things were only going to be bad until I found out how to stop it.

I wasted a lot of time and energy and effort and money that could have been better spent just being present.

Goals can be a trap. You reach one, you look around at your life in panic, and you set another one.

Once I realized how I was using goals to actually avoid living my life, I developed my new philosophy: accept everything now, exactly as it is, without wanting it to be different.

Every time I thought or said I want/I’d like/I wish and the verb wasn’t followed by a phrase like to have a glass of water, I looked at the words and made myself let them go. I just breathed them out. I didn’t try to refine my thinking or argue with myself or frame affirmations. I just stopped giving the thoughts much attention. Always before I would break out the spreadsheets and Sharpies to get ’er done. But now I just sort of ignored everything that didn’t have any bearing on this exact moment. For the particularly stubborn versions of I want, I had to sit with them for a while to see what they were about and why they didn’t go away.

This was a freakish amount of work because I had a lot to accept and an apparently biological aversion to accepting anything. I had to look at what I wanted and what would happen if I never got it. I had to find ways to give up wanting those things. I cried a lot. I learned a little.

I learned that being right here in this mess, down in the mud, requires me to be me.  Being Jessica’s mother has almost nothing in common with being the mother of any other child. I stopped trying to find intersections between my life and other people’s. I stopped trying to borrow someone else’s road map. I stopped trying. I started being.

That acceptance is a kind of peace that reaching yet another goal has never given me.