Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Are Goals Blocking Your Happiness?

"I just won't be happy until I have an iPod Touch!" (or fill in your own child's acquisition desire du jour) Doesn't this sound so absurd that it makes you smile? Well, perhaps after you squash the urge to wring your dear child's neck? "I want, I want, I want - and I won't be happy until I get it, whatever it is!"

The idea that goals might block a person from experiencing the fullness of life seemed a bit counterintuitive to me. After all, one of the ways that I've described myself for the past 20 years is that I'm in the goal achievement business - my role has been to help individuals and companies define and achieve their goals more consistently, more quickly, and with less stress and strain. I've helped them gain clarity on what they want, and then go get it, whatever it is.

Yes, the idea seemed a bit contradictory to me - until I looked at it from the perspective of the opening paragraph. I didn't come to this realization on my own. I was recommended to read a book titled, "Goal-Free Living - How to Have the Life You Want Now!" by Stephen M. Shapiro. His premise is that goals cause us to live for the future rather than living in the present. Shapiro says that you're doing the same thing the child does when you say "I'll be happy when I live in this kind of house, or make this amount of money, or wear this size of clothes, or get married, or get divorced."

In addition to keeping you future focused, having a continuous string of goals can be like looking through the scope on a hunting rifle - the objects you see in the crosshairs are clearly defined, but you don't see the opportunities on the periphery of that intense focus. You might be seeing a crystal-clear view of nothing but (what appears to be) empty woods, yet off to your left is a 12-point buck that's standing and watching you looking intently elsewhere, missing your chance at a prize.
Perhaps a more generalized direction, rather than a specific route, might be in order to increase the happiness in your life. Your path to a joyful, enriched life might not be a straight line. Sure, there are situations where you're going from here to there, and a plan will help you get there. But other times if you're paying attention right here, right now instead of way down the line at your desired destination - you'll see an interesting side path that you want to follow. What will happen if you don't take it? What might happen if you do?

There are certain choices in life that are permanent - but a whole lot more choices that aren't forever. Anymore you can have a tattoo removed if you realize later that you don't want that ink under your skin. In many, many areas of life you can make another choice later. You can take a year off to be with your children. You can take a pay cut to work for a nonprofit whose mission is important to you. You can change your career path to make a more sane daily existence for yourself and your family.

When I was a kid my family used to go on long car trips. My dad liked to drive, we wanted to explore lots of new places during our annual 2-week vacation, and for five of us the expense of flying was prohibitive. I remember the discussions on those car trips about whether to take the Interstate or to take a more scenic route. Those of us in the back seat usually voted (like we really had votes!) for the Interstate, because that would get us to tonight's hotel swimming pool the fastest. Our goal in the back seat was quite clearly defined.

But had we stuck solely to the Interstate we would have missed, the parks, the historical sites, the museums, the amusement parks, and the Grand Canyon, for heaven's sake! If we had flown instead of driven to our destinations we might not even know how we got there, much less had the opportunity to see things along the way! Perhaps there is something to be said for taking the scenic route.


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