Goals Are For Losers

DeeDee newTime 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!

I hope someday that my extra-large pillbox will  be filled with only vitamins and supplements. And Adderall, because I'm realistic.

Filling my extra-large pillbox with only vitamins and supplements is an unrealistic delusion goal. Reducing prescriptions to a minimum is an ongoing process.

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 fantasies goals is basically useless
  • Failing at goals makes me feel bad miserable and despondent but achieving them doesn’t necessarily usually 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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15 thoughts on “Goals Are For Losers

  1. I could not agree with this post more. “Real” goals make me freak out, too. Even setting goals like, “I will scrub my floors every week” seems too rigid, because who knows what the week will bring. Great post!

    • I’m so glad to hear I’m not the only one who freezes up when deadlines are imposed! And I really have navigated my share of goals, but I’ve just come to realize how destructive they can be for me.

  2. Reblogged this on Big Blue Dot Y'all and commented:
    This is a great example of how a consumer of mental health services (therapy) should always think critically about what you are being advised to do. I am similar to this writer, in that I HATE GOALS. Luckily for me, my husband and I both are “floaters” and both shy away from goals. So what does this mean? On the up side, it means we are flexible, open and relaxed. The downside–we will likely never be wildly successful by concentrated effort–it will come with luck. And for our kids…the will likely never live in their own home. We are dedicated renters. It doesn’t bother me most days. When I was younger and much more unhealthy, I made goals compulsively and pushed myself to illness to meet them. I’m not sure I know how to create a middle ground. And if I have to choose between goals/accomplishments and happiness/small victories…I’ll choose the latter. Every. Damn. Time.

    • Thanks for the reblog!

      I’ve done way more goal-oriented stuff than has been healthy for me, and even then, it was my ability to hear opportunity knocking that has made me successful. It’s not luck, it’s keeping your eyes and ears open, and if you aren’t fixated on goals that’s much easier to do!

      My husband likes to say that luck is the residue of design. I see living according to principles to be the kind of “design” for life that makes us open to other options, viewpoints, etc.

  3. I definitely hear where you’re coming from, but I have to say that if I don’t set myself goals of some kind (like, pay the bills) it just will never get done. I used to set big goals and then go after them like a shark after chum, and bag each one of them. But like many constitutionally dysphoric people, when I got to the finish line it just felt like I needed to set a bigger goal, so….two B.A.’s, an M.D., an M.A. after that…5.0 GPAs…and then, right out of residency, a department chairmanship…and not long after that I went crazy and my only goal was to not commit suicide THAT day! Well, there you go. You just never know. Now I’m writing a book, which keeps me content but it’s already nudging up on 100,000 words so what the fuck do I do with THAT white elephant? Well, it gives me something to do while I’m crazy, I suppose. But at least I’m off the hamster wheel. Good that you’ve discovered this about yourself while you’re young, so that you can live your life in a way that is compatible with your nature.

    • I don’t see things like paying the bills as “goals” per se, but rather everyday maintenance tasks. I have repeating tasks on my to-do list software for paying bills, getting a walk in every day, filling in my mood charts, refilling Rx’s, etc. Sometimes even that stuff seems like a pretty gargantuan task, though – on those days, the little stuff becomes goals.

      Write first, edit second. You won’t need all 100K words in the end, but you need to get them out first before you decide what to keep and what to omit. Or you can do a multi-part series! 😀

        • Funny how our silly brains misbehave on such odd things… I’m not great at heeding alarms either, but I’ve been a compulsive list-keeper for years as an ADHD adaptation.

  4. Never thought about goals like that before, but have also been affected by not achieving them.
    I like the principle approach – great advice DeeDee!

    • Realistically I think most of us need both goals and principles. The point is not to let goals overtake your life, I think – my therapist found the goals/principles essay interesting and agreed with much of it, but it’s hard to figure out what to do next if you have no goals as such.

  5. Goals, shmoals. If I didn’t follow my nose instead of some half-butt list of goals, there is no way I would have been as successful as I am. 🙂 Go with the principles. You’re on the right path.

    • Thanks – I think it’s helpful to concentrate more on principles, even if I can’t escape goals entirely. Part of the trick is probably setting smaller goals, not big overwhelming ones, and then deliberately savoring successes rather than just looking to the next thing to tick off the list.

  6. I think you’ve hit the nail right on the head. We should be living in the moment, not worrying about whether we’re going to be able to X by Y date. As soon as we start worrying about the future, then the present becomes unbearable and the present is what we’re living. A book I once read (when in therapy myself) was “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle. Not only is it a good book, but it helped me to be able to let go of the past and to get a better perspective of the future.

    • I wish I could find a way to balance being mindful of the present with planning appropriately for the future, but it’s hard not to get sucked into the culture of hurry-up-and-achieve. In the end, it just all requires practice – not something that most of us want to hear or do. But that’s really the only way to achieve pretty much anything worth doing.

  7. Sorry to hear about the therapy session, but at least the therapist is trying to help you realize your goals 🙂 Think of it this way; no matte what anyone says, you don’t have to be part of the rat race to earn money and have a great future, everyone has their own idea of happiness and society tries to push on us that happiness is money, but it isn’t. It’s hard to forget this, but I realized that I am happy already, with good people in my life who help me when I’m having trouble coping. If you start thinking like that, I always say out loud, no, this thinking is a symptom of a disease, I need to fight it with not taking for granted good things in my life. Good luck and hope to read more in the blog!

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