I have a weird relationship with goals. Making a goal feels like locking myself in a cage while being lowered into deep water and saying, “Okay, I have X amount of time to get out of this cage, or I will die.” And I’m not particularly Houdini-like. Goals are things to be conquered. Measured. Pass or fail. Live or die. “Did you achieve your goal in the specified time?” is a question for a True/False test. I think I might be allergic to True/False.
We get so determined about accomplishing things. And we’re very linear and quantifiable about it… “I will set out to do a thing. Then I will do the thing. And then I will have done the thing. And then I will be happy.” It’s funny we think it actually works that way. I have a very wise friend who says, “Progress is not linear.” And if we’re honest, we know that’s the true answer.
But we keep setting goals for ourselves anyway and slogging away at them—money, relationships, appearances, power, thinking that if we just keep being determined, keep pushing, keep striving, we will eventually get somewhere, get something and be happy. And an awful lot of the time, we just get more frustrated regardless of what happens—beating ourselves up when we don’t meet those goals, or actually meeting their goals and still being miserable. There’s that brief breath of “I did it!” and then, “Why don’t I feel any better?” After all, that’s usually why we make goals—because we think that if we accomplish them, then we will be happy. But happiness is a whole other thing…
As an experiment awhile ago, I decided to stop making goals, to stop planning for things to turn out a specific way. Stopped trying to make quantifiable, “If I do/have _____, then I will be happy” goals. I gave up.
Instead? I just started asking myself, “I wonder what will happen if I _________?“
And you might think that, in the absence of quantifiable goals, life would turn into a filthy, moldy basement where you just eat popcorn and watch tv all day. Except, as it turns out, wonder is actually a lot more dangerous than setting “normal” goals. Imagination is so much worse. And so much better…
Because, at least for me, deciding to stop setting normal goals has turned into the antithesis of stagnant. For instance, I wondered what would happen if I stopped my normal, methodical gym regimen and walked into a CrossFit box. What happened? I learned to feel strong and more alive. (Quantify that.). And then I wondered, feeling strong and alive, what would happen if I stopped looking at the scale. What happened? I feel strong and alive and made friends with my body. What’s a scale for? (Weighing protein in the kitchen, that’s what.)
None of those were quantifiable goals.
It is worth pointing out that I still can’t do a strict pull-up even if someone were to hold a gun to my head. However, that is also not currently one of my goals. Ask me about my deadlift. Or my cleans. Or my double-unders…
And somehow I seem to be a whole month into doing 30 push-ups a day. Because evidently one day I just thought, “I wonder if I could get better at doing push-ups,” and started marking the days off on my calendar. There’s no quantifiable end goal. When 30 get easy and tight and bouncy, I’ll increase the number. For awhile. Then we’ll see what happens. There are numbers involved in this adventure, but there’s no pass/fail, other than the sense of wonder and the commitment to showing up every day.
Showing up is key. It’s loving what you’re doing even if it’s hard. Especially if it’s hard. Deep down, you know if it’s worth it or not. When it’s not time to give up. Figuring out how to make things you didn’t know how to make—out of wonder, not a deadline, not for money—is a lot of fun. Reading books you haven’t read, just because you wonder what they’re about. Writing about things you don’t know about, just because you like to ask questions. This blog? So not a goal. Neil Gaiman wrote, “I write to find out what I think.” As much as it’s anything, I think that’s what this is. There’s no schedule, no need to have anyone know who I am. I never know who will ever read it. It’s just about the doing… and it all just makes me so much happier, holding all these things lightly, with no end goal. No pass/fail. It’s just curiosity and wonder and play.
One is the Loveliest Number: A Side Note on Happiness
Whatever you want to call them, these personal goals, wonderings, etc., they always start with you. Only you. They don’t need to end with only you, but they have to start there. They can’t include requiring anyone else to do something. That way lies madness. Because, hypothetically, if your grand idea is to sit on a beach eating Blue Moon ice cream with Bob, you’re involving Bob, and Bob may not even like Blue Moon ice cream. Or sand. Of course it’s possible Bob loves all of those things—and you—too. So it’s worth a shot to ask Bob, “I wonder what would happen if… ?“ and if Bob thinks it’s a great idea, then Bob can make it his idea, too. Then you have two people with the same idea. Not one person with a goal for two people—this is important. Because if you keep insisting to Bob that he needs to be out on that beach in order to be happy, Bob may ask you to stop contacting him, and if you continue to call him and drive over to his house and leave packages of travel brochures on his doorstep, this is not going to be helpful. Trust me. If Bob isn’t so keen on the sand, grab your own ice cream and go. You’ll be fine. And happy. You can only choose your own adventures and do your own thing. And who knows who else you’ll meet out there…
So anyway, for what it’s worth, maybe it could be interesting to take a look at where you’re heading and wonder if you’re going somewhere you really want to go. Not just what sounds good or normal. Maybe play around with giving up on normal for once. Maybe experiment in wonder.
Wonder about making something or climbing something or singing something or reading or writing or lifting or painting or sewing or gluing or dancing or… something. Even just for a few minutes a day.
It’s so much more fun than making goals.