Musings

The best goals are discovered, not created ― 6 min read

Boats on the river Ganges at dawn

Let's set ourselves a new goal

One day you wake up and decide you're finally going to learn to play guitar. You go to the shop, buy a guitar, start watching tutorials, learning scales and take a few lessons. At first things are enjoyable, novel and exciting, but over time you realize you aren't practicing as much as you were in the beginning, this is harder than you thought and actually quite frustrating. You start to feel overwhelmed by the size of the task ahead of you and feel frustrated that you aren't improving at the rate you'd like. Why can't you play like Jimi Hendrix yet? More time passes and you realize it's been days since you last played the guitar. Thinking about it no longer excites you, in fact it fills you with dread and guilt. Maybe eventually you sell the guitar.

I think many of us can relate to this story. Probably it wasn't guitar for you though, maybe it was losing weight, knitting a jumper, building up to running a marathon, writing a book, getting 10,000 followers on Instagram or something else entirely. It's a common pattern and once we've been through a few experiences like this it's easy to become disenchanted with the idea of setting goals at all (think about how many people refuse to entertain the notion of new year resolutions for instance).

It's a curious subject to explore because we are clearly able to achieve some of the goals and ambitions in our lives, but some of them seem beyond our grasp. Why is that?

This musing is about developing a more positive relationship with our goals and ambitions. Ultimately we don't want our goals to sap us of our energy and leave us feeling guilty, we'd rather they excite us, motivate us and make life more enjoyable and rewarding.

The good advice of others

I want to take a quick look at some of the current advice you've probably already come across when facing this problem and demonstrate some of the limitations I believe it has.

Just force yourself

One of the most common pieces of advice is to force yourself to overcome any resistance and make yourself take steps (even if they're very small) towards your goals. Certainly there is merit and enjoyment in exerting ourselves and overcoming resistance and some motivational words can help energize us. But, this can only take us so far and tends to fall flat when we no longer derive any enjoyment from what we're doing.

Sometimes this advice is no more helpful than it is obvious.

Visualize your success

Another piece of advice is to spend time visualizing your success, the joy you will feel as you competently play a complicated guitar solo (perhaps in front of an adulating audience). Again, I think this has some merit in that it can motivate and excite us, but we have to be careful that we are visualizing something we actually want and not tricking ourselves into believing this is something we actually want.

My view is that if we really wanted our goal we probably wouldn't be spending large amounts of conscious effort trying to visualize it - any visualization would be happening automatically.

Changing the way we think about goals

It's almost a cliché to ask the question "but what problem are we actually solving here?" and in the case of reaching your goals we rarely question the goals themselves, the process of forming them, or the value attaining them will actually bring us. That's what I'm going to do in this next section and hopefully it will change your relationship to your goals in a positive way.

Set goals for yourself, not for others

So much of our self-worth is tied into what our talents and achievements are. This happens from a very young age, children are praised by colleagues, parents and teachers alike when they demonstrate aptitude and accomplishment. The areas in which we can grow and develop are highly varied and include things like athletics, arts, academia and social skills. Excelling in these areas is truly impressive and usually very intrinsically rewarding, however, if we're fixated on public praise and affirmation we're quite possibly setting a trap for ourselves.

Always ask yourself who your goals are really for. If you're pursuing goals to gain the validation of others or to impress them you're going to struggle with finding the intrinsic motivation that will help you enjoy and achieve them.

Life constantly changes so don't be afraid to be flexible with your goals

Our desires are not constant. Maybe at one point in your life you were obsessed with collecting every single Pokémon card and now that goal seems alien to you? Maybe you spent a couple years rock climbing, really loved it but haven't done it in a few years now. It is normal for our desires and interests to change over time. If the goals we set are rigid and inflexible we lock ourselves into a specific phase and don't allow ourselves to grow and explore new things.

Always focus on what you enjoy and are receptive to at this point in time. Don't get trapped pursuing something that is no longer important or valuable to you.

Consider why you're setting goals

We set goals to improve ourselves. The idea is that at some point in the future we will be better than we are right now. The rationale is also that we will be happier and more accomplished once we attain our goals. Won't it feel great to have run a marathon, played guitar in a gig, or to have written a book?

Indeed it is delightful to have efficacy in life, but tying our self-worth into a future achievement indicates that we're not as valuable right now as we would be in the future and that our self-worth is found in what we do and accomplish rather than who we are in this moment. Ironically the present moment is the only place we'll ever experience happiness and feelings of self-worth. If we chase this through pursuing future accomplishments we will be stuck in a trap where what we're chasing perpetually eludes us.

Make sure that everything you focus on is rewarding and valuable, both in this moment and in your future. Make sure your pursuits and ambitions energize you and make you feel happy. Drop things from your life that make you feel bad and no longer fit.

Goals are discovered, not created

Don't imagine that you're able to define what you would like to achieve in the future, instead follow your own feelings in this moment. Value yourself for who you are and not what you've done.

Don't worry about defining your destiny upfront - it will do that for you.


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