Thursday, December 15, 2011

Goals, Achievement, and Being Present

Thank you to Leo Babauta of ZenHabits.net, Matt Frazier of No Meat Athlete, and Andy Gapin of AndyGapin.com. Their good writing prompted this essay. If I have misinterpreted their writings, I apologize.


Don't be a slave to your goals; be the master of the moment.
Presence trumps goals and challenges. 

Yesterday, Leo Babauta wrote a blog post entitled achieving, without goals. It was followed by a response from Matt Frazier of No Meat Athlete entitled, What Do You Say To Yourself When It Hurts The Most? Then Andy Gapin posted Why Do We Do Things That Aren't Fun?" responding to Frazier and Babauta. I had read Babauta's post earlier in the day and had a feeling that something wasn't getting through to me. I wasn't alone. Frazier and Gapin were struggling with it as well and because of their struggles I understand something much more now.

Babauta transformed his life, in part, through setting a whole collection of goals for himself, breaking out of his old routines. He has written extensively about this on his blog Zenhabits, but now he has come to a new conclusion that he can achieve much better without goals. Setting aside goals is the thing the others had trouble with.

Babauta recounts a conversation in which he was told that, "without goals, a lot of people wouldn't do anything." Babauta doesn't buy this and neither do I. The carrot is simply not enough to lead people on all the time.

Frazier and Gapin talk about how goals work for them, how they get them past when it hurts, when it's no longer fun. Their common thesis is that the goal, the challenge is what sees us through the tough tasks when we are naturally inclined to quit. The sweetest of carrots is necessary, they say, to keep us moving forward through intense hardship. It draws us out of the past and pushes us forward into the future.

This is when they run into trouble and dance around Babauta's main point -- an idea that Babauta himself dances around as well.

I can't dance, so I'll say that achieving goals happens when we are present in our lives. Presence is more powerful than goal accomplishment. Presence is, for my money, everything.

Babauta writes, "Goals keep you focused on something in the future instead of being present and enjoying what you're doing right now." Frazier wonders how it could be possible to enjoy an ultra-marathon, especially when we reach the "well-known 'no man's land' between miles 30 and 40. You've run more than a marathon, perhaps more than you've done in your training. Your muscles and feet are sore and you want nothing more than to sit down. But you've still got a long way to go... 15 maybe 20 miles, too much to feel like you're almost there...you've got an experience that is frankly, painful. It's learning to deal with the dark thoughts that creep into your mind here that make the difference..."

Frazier's problem comes out in that section. During that time in the ultra he comes unstuck from the present. He is focused on the accomplishment of the distance he has already covered and the task of how many miles lie ahead. He looks back, he looks forward, and his only nod to the present is to the pain. I'm sure it is painful, I'm sure it kills, but the pain didn't start 30 miles in. Instead, that's the moment he lost presence and without being present he has to rely instead on a goal to pull him through.

Gapin puts it differently, saying that without a goal he would sit on the couch and watch TV all day. I know the feeling but I also know the lie of that statement. He's talking about absence. Someone present in the moment isn't a couch potato even when they watch television from the couch. Gapin says that without goals we wouldn't do anything that wasn't fun. He has a point, but his definition of fun is troubled. He gets close to the truth in his fourth paragraph:

"When I was running the Philly Marathon there was a spectator holding up a sign that said, 'it doesn't have to be fun to be fun.'" It all clicked for him then. "I was in crazy amounts of pain and, by most definitions, I was not having fun, but yet, what I was doing was still fun to me as a whole."

In that realization Gapin found presence. Because he was in the moment, he was able to live with the otherwise unreconcilable contradiction of having fun while feeling pain, having fun in something that couldn't possibly seem like fun.

The paradox remains confusing only when we are not present in the moments of our lives. I've been writing this essay on and off for two and a half hours. I wrote the first draft on the computer, but it wasn't what I wanted to say and I scrapped it. This draft I wrote by hand and then typed. It wasn't easy and it shouldn't have been fun, but I have been present throughout the process and so I've been enjoying every word. I had no goal with this piece, just an urge to talk back to what I had read. I had nothing that I needed to accomplish and now, coming to the finish line of it, I have the same feeling that I have had throughout the writing. The finish isn't the goal. There is no goal.

Babauta's achiving without goals is about achieving presence. Once present, Frazier's and Gapin's questions resolve themselves. "What do you say to yourself when it hurts the most?" You say, be present. You say, breathe. And "why do we do things that aren't fun?" Because they are fun when we are truly in them.

I'm not about to suggest that I've reached a state of being present throughout my entire life. I'm just learning how to be more present. For me it's all about what I wrote at the beginning: I won't be a slave to the goal; I will instead always try to be the master of this moment.

Write on.