The Tyranny of Chasing Goals
Why are some goals harder than others? Why do certain skills feel forever out of reach? Why do some long-awaited milestones shower only fleeting happiness? Why does not competing for feel liberating at times? How do people reach a level of performance that seems divine?
First, The Mind Games
Take a few moments to think of some examples that fit the following. Be brutally honest with yourself. My answers are in parenthesis.
- The Ecstasy: These are activities that give you immense joy no matter how taxing. The more you do these, the better you have gotten over the years (writing, hiking).
- The Essential: These are skills that you have picked up as a necessity, say, to advance your career or to manage a household. No matter good you may be at it, given a chance you wouldn’t want to use it (public speaking, cooking).
- The Elusive: These include traits that you have consistently failed at mastering. No matter what books you have read or inspirational speakers you have listened to, this is hard for you (being an early riser, swimming).
Some takeaways are obvious here. Each of these experiences evokes a different natural response from us.
What we enjoy doing is easy to master. That which is the farthest from our natural state of mind remains an aspiration for the longest time.
But Motivation Can Overcome This, Can’t It?
Let us extrapolate this to what we are chasing in our lives. We will see similar patterns at play at work, in our relationships, and in our personal growth.
Pursuits that are incongruent to our inner being reduce us; seeking that is embraced by every bit of our existence liberates us.
When you are chasing the latter kind, it needs no pretense, no alarms, no reminders, nor any calendar blocks. With the former, the longest spells of free time would not suffice for the smallest of the effort.
This has convinced me that extrinsic motivations and impersonal goals have severe limitations. You may follow someone’s life who inspires you. You may hear a speech that moves you. You may read a book that expands your horizons. You may learn a new concept that blows your mind. Yet, chances are that these effects are short-lived.
Are you asking not to seek any inspiration?
You might say, “That doesn’t make sense. If you don’t have those who inspire you, those who elevate you, those who push you to become a better version of yourself, you won’t be able to get anywhere in life.” I would contend that any and all forms of extrinsic motivators may be necessary but seldom sufficient to achieve goals that add meaning to your life.
Firstly, no matter what you tell the rest of the world, your inner well-being depends on how closely you can relate to the goal you have signed up for. Your ability to sustain your pursuit depends on the strength of your conviction. Not whether if the problem is worth solving. But whether it is worth solving, for you.
You may read as many books or newsletters as you want or listen to as many podcasts as you wish. Unless you have invested the time and energy to build that conviction, you will either accomplish chasing someone else’s checklist and still find a void in your life (best case) or you will tire yourself and give up (worst case).
How many times have we defined a goal just to fit in or to chase the most glittering destination or to emulate out of envy? Rather, it is worth spending time introspecting our life stories and discovering paths that our true self aspires to. That answer ain’t hiding in books, newsletters, or podcasts.
It is likely that the most impactful goal you will ever accomplish in your life will be borne out of having no choice.
The Power of “Not Having a Choice”
The greatest impact you will deliver in your life will likely come from a pursuit where you just know you do not have any other choice. I had this realization after reading Dr. Kapil Gupta’s book, “Direct Truth”.
Your greatest achievement will not come from evaluating options, or narrowing goals, or creating a vision in isolation. The moment you create a goal driven by extrinsic factors, there is a high likelihood it becomes a worthless chase. Then you are a doer seeking prescriptions to discipline your mind in the hope of conjuring yourself a future that is a figment of your imagination.
Eventually, you will lose to the natural state of your mind.
The alternative is a commitment to a cause where you know you have no other choice. There is no “how” about finding that purpose or goal. In fact, the moment you explicitly make something a purpose, you have already lost. Sooner or later, the derived purpose will become a destination you have a desire for and the process will take the form of crutches you cling to.
As against this, once you innately discover what you “do not have a choice” about, you discover your true north. Once you have lived through the phases of “investigation, desperation, and understanding” of what matters to you and why, few things will shake you. Once you devote yourself to “what is”, you start to seek the Truth.
In that state, there is no want, there is no need, only a speckless clarity of the present moment. Every moment is complete. Any shortcomings or unfulfilled results are merely a passing snapshot in time. Each moment builds upon the previous one to bring out the best in you. Every thought is deliberate, yet there is no dogma. Every action is committed, yet there is no regret. Every step is firm, yet there is no rush.
Then, goals are mere mileposts. You don’t chase your destiny, you arrive at it. Just like that last memorable trail you hiked on.
(If you would like a deep dive into how you can use this approach to grow in the middle years of your career, you may check out this article: Why Do Careers Get Stuck in the Middle Management?)