A Different Way of Thinking About Goals

Every Wednesday evening for the past 15 years or so, my best friend David and I take our dogs up into the hills near our homes for a midnight hike and what we call “the talk on the walk.” This is a free-flowing talk about anything and everything, and over the years we’ve covered thousands of miles and every imaginable topic from comparative philosophy to politics to strategies for diaper changes.

One week, David had been watching the video of “A Whole New Way of Thinking About Success” that I made with Dr. George Pransky, and he was asking about why George seemed so puzzled by the emphasis our culture places on the value of goal setting.

While I didn’t want to speak for George, I’ve heard him talk about it enough over the years that I could presume his two main objections were similar to mine. In a world where our experience of life is 100 percent created via thought in the moment, there’s no way to predict whether our experience of having achieved a goal will be any better than our experience is right now. In the actual moment of achievement we can fairly safely predict a series of “feel good” thoughts and a release of happy chemicals into the bloodstream, but there’s an abundance of evidence that shows that after a time we go back to the same patterns of thinking we had beforehand and the same general level of happiness as we had before achieving our goal.

This would be fine if the goal was something we actually wanted to create in the world, but as often as not the goals we set are our best guess at what will “make us happy” in some imagined future. Ironically, the exact opposite tends to happen.

The moment we set a goal in place, most of us stop living fully in this moment and begin living in a series of comparative “nows,” where whatever is happening now is evaluated in the light of how well we think we’re doing at reaching our new goal. If we think we’re making progress, we allow ourselves to feel good; if we think we’re still too far away or are never going to get there, we feel worthless, stressed out, pressured, hopeless, frustrated, angry, and a host of other emotions that follow our insecure thinking like puppies on a leash.

So while setting goals may well help us to achieve goals, they’re extremely counter-productive as a pathway towards a happy and fulfilling life.

Around this point in our conversation David and I turned around and began taking the dogs back towards home. After a few minutes of simply enjoying the sights and sounds of the Santa Monica mountains, he asked me if that meant that our wanting to write books and produce films and achieve things in the world was stopping us from being as happy and fulfilled as we could be. I smiled, because that was something I’ve spent a fair bit of time reflecting on over the past few years.

I’ve noticed in my experience that there are certain things it’s fun for me to think about. I like fantasizing about world leaders reading my books, seeing the innocent error of their outside-in thinking, and turning their lives and policies around to bring them more into line with their innate wisdom. I think it would be cool to stand atop Mt. Everest, sip tea with the Dalai Lama, and play a game of flag football with Tom Brady.

This kind of “pipe dreaming” doesn’t seem to me to diminish my appreciation of the present moment, and over the years has attuned my mind to possibilities and opportunities that I might otherwise have missed. When the opportunity to step into one of my pipe dreams and make it real arises, I sometimes do. This doesn’t mean that the dream has now become a goal; it skips that step and goes straight from pipe dream to possibility to project.

Once something is my project, I am working on it in the present moment or I’m not. When I am, it’s a part of my “now” — when I’m not, it’s not. This frees me up to stay creatively engaged with the present moment, regardless of what it contains or whether or not it will ultimately “get me” anywhere. I’ve noticed that when I’m creatively engaged, I tend to do good work. Good work often leads to good results, and good results often lead to more opportunities in the world.

The simple rule of thumb I use for myself is this:

Anything that takes me out of the present moment, up into my head and away from life, is of less value to me than anything that takes me back home.

With all my love,

For more by Michael Neill, click here.


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