I have major, serious creative and mental blocks around the idea of goal-setting. It sort of makes my skin crawl. Yet, paradoxically, I want to set goals. I want to achieve things, and I know that most reachy-goals require many little steps to achieve. I touched on this idea in the Self-Actualization Studies post a couple weeks ago.
I’ve typically found that, whenever I’ve noticed some sort of resistance or pain related to something most people seem to find neutral or good, it means there was some event or conversation or happening in my past that inspired the current discomfort. It’s very simple and basic psychology kind-of-stuff. It works for me. If I can figure out where the original problematic message originated, I can fix, or mostly fix the current problem.
I can identify a couple of things that happened between the ages of 19 and 22 that influenced my current stance towards goal-setting. These were two similar events: I set clear goals and used visualization, affirmations, and action to achieve them. I achieved them, and was quite unhappy with the result. I misunderstood the goals, and I misunderstood what achieving them would mean.
They are a bit embarrassing now, but here goes: The first was- to be skinny. Like- runway-model thin. Unfortunately, my frame just doesn’t support that! So, in addition to getting to be that skinny, I ended up very lonely, sensitive, and homesick. The second, a couple years later, was to get publicity for my design work. I made it into a game, sending these strange handmade books to reporters. Several local papers wrote articles, and published large-ish pictures of my face. People on the street started to recognize me. and I did not like it. I was still too young, sensitive, and insecure in my body and physical being to have that sort of thing happen and feel good. So I shut it down.
Goal-setting, and success and achievement- these issues are all wrapped up in so many layers for me, which I think began with the two events just identified, but might hold yet other depths to be uncovered. I’ve been trying to untangle them for years now, and focusing on them in a particularly vivid way for the past few weeks.
As we were traveling, I kept a journal rather than write on my computer. I typically keep a handwritten notebook going, but I reserve it for things I don’t want to write on the computer. This past trip, however, I didn’t bring a laptop, so I was deliberately using the journal to record writings that I intended to transfer to digital upon our return.
There was this one strange evening our third day on the road. It was a couple days after Christmas, and the highways were jammed with traffic and accidents. We left Roanoke in the morning and wanted to make it to Savannah by night. Passing Columbia, we checked the traffic map again, and saw that we’d need to skip the highway or be stuck in traffic. Route 321 looked like the best possible alternate. It was dark, with some 200 miles left to drive. We pulled off the highway and found the road. A two-lane, two-way with long stretches completely straight, no lights, and few other vehicles. Speed limit was 60 between towns. I drove, finding the radio station with all hip-hop, all-the-time. All we needed to watch out for was animals. It felt simultaneously peaceful and intense.
Daniel fell asleep. I drove in that focused, nighttime, attentive, going-fast-through-back-roads kind of mood. When we were about an hour from our destination, this clear thought entered my mind, the way an answer comes to you in the shower. The mind is relaxed, and the answers show up.
“Daniel. Listen. Wake up. I just had this realization about goals. You know, I just realized I know how to achieve and solve discrete goals, but complex or evolving ones elude me. Do you think I just need to break the complex goals down into discrete goals?”
ba da dum.
Now, doesn’t that sound obvious? That’s what realizations are. Usually they are dramatically obvious, but we’re blind to them emotionally or mentally or spiritually.
And what I found, as I going through my notebook from the trip after we returned: I had written down this same idea the day BEFORE I actually realized it.
In the car, pitch-dark, listening to southern hip-hop, driving on a back-road, going fast, super-focused, and a realization shows up and emerges into consciousness. It has meaning suddenly.
The same words, the same idea, can be presented logically, in a book, from someone else, or even from yourself, and it won’t be a realization. There won’t yet be that level of understanding.
So. Is there a way to encourage these realizations to come to light? Yes. By asking the questions of ourselves, we end up getting answers. They may take a while to show up, and one might need to ask the question many times and in many forms, but the answers will show up eventually. The practice of writing certainly helps me.
Oh, yeah. Are you interested in the discrete and evolving goals summary?
Here are some example discrete goals:
-learn a language
-eat healthy food, eat 80% raw
-get in shape, reach 14% body fat
-run a marathon
-write a book
These are discrete goals because the how of achieving them is structurally the same for everyone. Yes, it might be harder, or take more time or effort for one person or another to achieve something, but the path towards achievement is well-defined and easy to understand.
Here are some evolving goals:
-build a successful business
-find a job you love
-write a popular book
These sorts of goals, while one can identify a number of discrete sub-goals, and perhaps put a stake in the ground for achievement, really aren’t the same type of thing as the truly discrete goals. Evolving goals are constantly in motion. Anyone can make a list of 100 or 1000 sub-goals- really more like tasks- that lead towards achieving any evolving goal.
And finally, here are some gestalt goals– goals that can’t really be broken down into components:
-a happy marriage
-raising happy children
Do you think a happy marriage can be broken down into discrete sub-goals? I don’t. Sure, you can apply some best-practices- marry someone who is your friend, don’t mess with your hormones during the dating period, learn to argue well and fight fair, make sure you have similar values, and so forth. But those aren’t goals- those are parameters. These gestalt goals have constantly redefined terms and constant re-negotiation.
So what’s the point?
For me, understanding the difference between “goals I know how to achieve” (i.e. discrete goals) and “goals that remain a mystery to me” (i.e. evolving goals) was a MAJOR realization. It’s helped me to think much more clearly about my confused internal dialogs relating to goal-setting and follow-through. And it’s made it easier to feel curious and at peace about the idea of goal-setting.