I know someone who feels guilty when he spends a good part of the day sitting on a park bench, soaking in the world of nature. He’s equally uncomfortable about lying in bed for several hours while listening to classical music. Even when engaging in small talk with friends he’s embarrassed. How can one feel guilty about enjoying life? Well, we have been brainwashed by society to believe that we are worthless unless we pursue a ‘worthwhile’ goal.
Yet, no goal is more worthwhile than the pursuit of your own happiness. You see, helping those in need may appear to be noble, but it’s not a wise thing to do if it depresses you. After all, who wants to be helped by a gloomy, moody person? If you begrudgingly ‘help’ others, all you will succeed in is spreading more unhappiness. No, it is far better to look after your own contentment before considering the happiness of others. For when you allow yourself to be happy, you become a beacon, brightening the lives of everyone you meet.
After taking care of our own happiness, we can then branch out and start tackling some challenging goals. But here, too, be cautious. For although it will be necessary to focus on our goals before we can reach them, if we become too consumed by them, there is the danger of neglecting the present moment. We can become so wrapped up in the future that the present slips by unnoticed. Yet, it is only in the present that we are alive. The future is but a dream and the past, but a graveyard. We are here to experience life and add to it. But how can we add to it if we don’t experience it?
Another pitfall of focusing on our goals too intently is that we may unwittingly extinguish spontaneity. By allowing ourselves to be blown about by the winds of the present moment, we experience the adventure of life, the unexpected, and the unplanned. When we willingly let go of the rigid confines of our goals, we can take part in the dance of life in which we neither try to control it nor try to be controlled by it. That is, we become dancing partners, not quite sure who is doing the leading.
To illustrate my point, let’s look at the actions of two men. Ray and Ismail attended a seminar and became interested in a book the speaker mentioned. After the seminar, Ray walked into a bookstore and asked for the book. In moments he had it and proudly left the store, marvelling at his efficiency and happy that he reached his goal.
Ismail also went to a bookstore. But once he found the book, he didn’t stop there. He thought to himself, “Now that I’m here, I might as well browse.” Ismail leisurely browsed with nothing specific in mind. He left himself open to whatever the present moment had in store for him. After a while, he came across a remarkable book, a work that has the potential to change his life. It deals with a subject he never thought about. He smiled to himself as he realized that he never would have asked or searched for the book because it deals with a subject new to him. Like Ray, Ismail achieved his goal, but by remaining in the present and leaving himself open to the unlimited possibilities that surround him, he accomplished a great deal more.
Ray focused on his goal and reached it. But he is oblivious to the great opportunity he lost. It may be years before he catches up to Ismail (if he ever catches up with him at all). Ismail, on the other hand, is more attuned to life. He understands the give and take. Through the practice of goal-setting, he guides life in bringing him the outcomes he wants. Yet, he remains balanced by spending just as much time open to the unexpected gifts that life brings.
Trying too hard to reach a goal can be a formula for failure. It is like the engine of your automobile freezing because of excessive heat. And it is what Émile Coué (1857 ~ 1926) called the “Law of Reversed Effect.” This law did not escape the attention of one of the Rabbinic sages known as Rabbi Pinhas, for it is written in the Mishnah, “What you pursue, you don’t get. But what you allow to grow slowly in its own way, comes to you.” Besides, gritting one’s teeth and trying with all one’s might can be a source of stress. And stress depletes one’s energy and clouds one’s thinking, thereby lessening one’s chances of success. So, this is another reason for loosening your grip on your goals and allowing life to play a part in deciding what you can do, be, and have.
True, goals are important in life. But we will become much more successful by delaying our personal goals until we have set the following ones as a foundation.
1. BALANCE is the ultimate goal. Don’t be like Ray, so focused on your goal that you grow blind to the opportunities that surround you in the present. As Euripides (BCE 480 ~ 406) taught “Slight not what’s near while aiming at what’s far.” Be cautious, for a life without balance is a life half lived.
2. Live with AWARENESS. “Life is denied by lack of attention, whether it be to cleaning windows or trying to write a masterpiece.” (Nadia Boulanger, 1887 ~ 1979).
3. VISION. What is your reason for being or purpose? After you create your life purpose, you will be ready to work on your personal goals. For as Henry J. Golding wrote, “What our deepest self craves is not mere enjoyment, but some supreme purpose that will enlist all our powers and give unity and direction to our life.”
4. Appreciation and GRATITUDE. He who appreciates what he has is rich; he who lives without gratitude is poor.
5. APPRECIATION OF WHAT IS. Don’t merely appreciate what you HAVE, but appreciate what IS. When you learn to appreciate nature, art, beauty, music, poetry, literature, sculpture, painting, and photography, you will lead a joyful life.
6. Learn to THINK BEFORE YOU ACT. By controlling your emotions, you will retain the power of choice, which is the rudder that will guide your ship.
7. Personal GROWTH. Besides enjoying what IS, get excited about what CAN BE. This is the arena in which we strive to reach our potential and where we leave our mark on the world.
Here are some parting words given by Benjamin E. Mayes, “It must be borne in mind that the tragedy of life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream. It is not a disaster to be unable to capture your ideal, but it is a disaster to have no ideal to capture. It is not a disgrace not to reach the stars, but it is a disgrace to have no stars to reach for. Not failure, but low aim is a sin.”
Yes, reach for the stars, but while doing so, keep your feet firmly planted on the ground, and don’t let your dreams of tomorrow veil the opportunities of today.
If you found this subject interesting and wish to get a different perspective on goal-setting, you will enjoy reading these two books: 1. LIVING WITHOUT A GOAL, Finding the Freedom to Live a Creative and Innovative Life, by James Ogilvy, Currency-Doubleday, 1995. 2. GOAL-FREE LIVING: How to Have the Life You Want NOW!, by Stephen M. Shapiro, ISBN: 0-471-77280-1, 2005.