Few of my blog posts generated as much reaction—both positive and negative—as the one I did several months ago on goals. What I wrote was that, while setting and working toward goals has some definite benefits, there is a dark side to them, too. Goals, I wrote, are largely based on insecurity—on the idea that we aren’t good enough just as we are. That we have to keep struggling to do more, get more, be more. Goals are all about judging ourselves. They make us measure our value as human beings on a continuum of failure to success, loss and gain.
The worst thing about goals is that they can actually interfere with living well, with being joyful, with truly experiencing life. When we fail to achieve a goal, we feel inadequate. We think we’ve fallen short, that we’re not good enough.
The irony is that achieving goals doesn’t make us joyful, either. Sure, we might have a transient sense of satisfaction and excitement, pat ourselves on the back, and take our friends out to dinner. But it’s amazing how quickly that yummy feeling dissipates. And, what do we do when it fades? We set up another goal! We can spend entire lifetimes running toward a finish line only to find another race ahead of us the moment we cross it.
The emails I got in response to my post were almost as mixed as the time I wrote about the advantages of chaos. Some people couldn’t believe I would advocate aimlessness, as if I were suggesting we all just get out the corn chips, turn on the TV, and settle onto the couch for the rest of our lives. Others wrote me to say how much their goals had helped keep them stay focused and engaged. Yet many wrote that easing up on goals—putting them on the back burner or dismissing them all together—had opened up their lives.
What has made me come back to the topic of goals today is a post by one of my favorite bloggers, Zen writer Leo Babauta. “Imagine setting out for a walk with no particular purpose,” Babauta writes. “No destination in mind. Nothing to achieve. Just curiosity, fun, not knowing.” Babauta writes with conviction and clarity about the benefits of letting go of goals. He advocates a goal-free life in which we constantly adapt, shift, and allow ourselves to respond to the world as it is in the moment, without the constraints of goals. He describes waking up feeling alive and energized; dealing with uncertainty and change without fear; being flexible and having fun.
Babauta is especially focused on the goal-less writing life—and with several best-selling books under his belt, he has the right. He tells writers to let ideas come and go, follow whatever comes up, and allow the writing to lead you, rather than setting out with a specific target and a fixed plan.
For anyone who might think that a goal-less existence is the fast track to accomplishing nothing, I hasten to point out that Babauta has, in the last few years, run several marathons, lost fifty pounds, started a blog with over 260,000 subscribers, and sold more books than most of us do in a lifetime.
Now, the flip side of this is that the habit of goal setting isn’t all that easy to give up. We learn at a very young age that setting and keeping goals is the very lifeblood of a meaningful life. Conventional wisdom tells us we can’t achieve anything or get anywhere in life without goals. You can’t just turn those years of indoctrination off. Nor would you want to—because goals do have their place.
So, what I’m suggesting for my Tips for Writers this week is not to abandon all your goals, but to spend a week—just one full week—writing without goals. Rather than sitting down saying, “I’m going to get two hours (or five hours or twenty minutes) of writing in today” or “This is the week I finish this chapter (or scene or page or paragraph),” simply sit down. Write. Let whatever come up come up. Let your thoughts go where they go. Forget about your destination. Don’t think about what you are or are not achieving. Relish the uncertainty. Exhiliarate in the surprises your writing has in store.
Don’t worry, you can always go back to your goals when the week is over. You have an entire lifetime to fulfill one goal then the next then the next. Or maybe you won’t want to. Maybe you’ll find living and writing without the constant pressure and limitations of goals just too freeing to give up.
Causes Jill Jepson Supports
Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Interational Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs, National Wildlife Federation,...