On Goals

It’s a strange time of year.

Not a bad time, just… strange. It’s a sort of liminal space, where pretty much everyone that can be is done with 2021, and yet 2022 hasn’t started yet.

I try to hold this week as free of commitments as I can, so I can do reflecting on the year that was, and set some intentions for the year to come. But one thing I don’t do is set goals – for New Year’s, or ever.

There are several reasons for this. One is that I spent some time working in a toxic sales environment, and goals were super manipulative ways to get us to produce more. And I hate being manipulated. So when I finally quit that job, I decided I could quit goals, too.

But they weren’t hard to give up, because the reality is, my brain doesn’t work that way. As someone with ADHD, I have an interest-based nervous system. If I’m not interested in the project, no amount of external goals will get me there. And if I am interested, then you can’t make me ignore it. This is both my superpower and my kryptonite – I am not externally motivated.

Goals prey on your dissatisfaction. But I’m not dissatisfied.

Don’t get me wrong – I have things I would like to do. For example, I want to go to both Europe, and Puerto Rico. But if I end up not being able to do that, I will be OK. I work hard to make sure we have enough income to maintain our quality of life, but I am old enough to know that if I made 50% more, I would not be 50% more happy than I am now. Our car is 10 years old, and it makes me just as happy as the 3-month old car I rented a few weeks ago to go on a road trip.

In 2022, I want to be a good husband, want to learn skills I do not currently have, want to have enough income to maintain our quality of life, want to meet interesting people, want to make the world better than I found it. I don’t know what any of that will look like. In fact, there are dozens of ways any of that could look that I would be happy with. But that’s what I want.

A concrete example: Right now, we are looking into renovating our kitchen in the next 18 months or so – like, a down to the studs, new appliances, new cabinets, new floor renovation. I’m interested in it, so I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how it can happen. I read articles, watch videos, research appliances, make lists and budgets, and try to figure out ways to make more money to pay for it all. So I guess you could say that is a goal. But I would never say, “By April 15th of 2023, we will renovate our kitchen.” It will happen when it happens, which is fine, because I enjoy this process. And should our priorities change, and we decide to keep the existing kitchen, that’s fine too. And in the meantime, I’m learning things I did not know, doing work I enjoy, and keeping busy with something that interests me.

As I look back over a career of counseling people who were dissatisfied with their life, their dissatisfaction could often be traced back to their having picked a goal they wanted to accomplish, rather than asking if the work was worth doing.

In the last chapter of The Great Gatsby, Nick says that Gatsby paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. For Gatsby, success could only look one way. The big house, the public acclaim, and crucially, the girl. If any of that did not happen (and, it didn’t), then he processed that as failure. Never mind the fact that he was rich, was acclaimed, was living in a literal mansion and had rose from nothing to prominence. Because he didn’t meet his goal, he wasn’t, to his mind, a success.

So, goals. I don’t set them. Instead, I commit to pay attention, to find out what I’m interested in, and do more of that. I try new things. I give myself permission to fail. And above all, I ask myself if this work is worth doing.

Because for most of us, life isn’t victory or defeat, but the slog of the daily routine. Most of life is process. And if you hate the process, if you don’t think the work is valuable in and of itself, then no amount of success will make up for it.

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