It’s February, and the media is full of headlines like, “Your New Year’s Resolution Didn’t Work, Now What?” The emphasis of these pieces almost always lands on goals, things to achieve or attain, with the implication that you’re a failure if you don’t reach your goal, and a success if you do.
I find this paradigm problematic at best. Say you achieve your goal: congratulations! Except now you have to set a new goal, because there’s no fade-to-black at your moment of victory. Life keeps going, so you keep going too. You determine some new point that you must attain or achieve, and as you turn your sights to that, it becomes your new benchmark of success. You’re a failure unless you reach that goal. Again.
Is this mindset helpful? It has you continually recasting yourself as a failure in the wake of every success. Life is hard enough without that kind of pressure.
And meanwhile, if you didn’t achieve that original goal, the standard narrative would lead you to beat yourself up, because it presumes that either you didn’t try hard enough or else you’re simply not good enough. So now it’s that much harder to try again, because you’ve established a precedent of failure.
Again, is this helpful? To anybody?
But I don’t think the solution here is not having goals. That doesn’t help either; we all need something to aim for, something that motivates us and keeps us moving. I think the solution is something counter-intuitive but wonderfully simple.
I believe the secret to most major life-goals is that achieving them doesn’t actually matter that much. Because the important thing is not arriving at a particular destination, but rather, the direction of your path.
People say that the path you walk is important because it determines where you end up. I believe this gets it backwards; the destination you aim for is important because it determines the path you walk.
Think about this one. We all have some successes and failures in our histories. Do those successes and failures define us? Or are we defined by our words and actions, the many choices we make from day to day? That second option strikes me as a far more reliable measure of who somebody really is, and the basis on which I’m likely to judge them, regardless of their visible accomplishments or lack thereof. It’s all about the path they’re walking. It’s the direction in which they orient themselves.
And of course, the path you walk is not unrelated to what you will or won’t achieve. But many, many other factors influence where you wind up. Our origins and opportunities are not all equal; our health is not all equal; our luck is uncontrollable. What we can control, as many have pointed out before me, is our choices: how we respond to what life gives us, day after day. Those daily choices are what constitute our path. We cannot dictate the points at which we’ll arrive. But we can choose our direction of travel, and when winds blow us off course – which they will, sooner or later – we can choose whether we keep heading toward that original destination or plot a new course entirely.
You’ve probably heard something like this before. “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey,” is a popular platitude, for good reason. And yet we all still get hung up on whether we’ve arrived or not, and how long it takes us to get there. Let arrival be an afterthought, and I believe the whole journey becomes richer and more satisfying.