Rethinking Goals: How changing my perspective lead to greater fulfillment

For the first time in almost a decade, I don’t have a laundry list of goals to accomplish this year. It was a choice I consciously made.

It’s a weird feeling and their absence is felt like a phantom limb. 

As a high-achiever, goals have been my jet fuel. They were the foundation on which I laid my identity and self-worth upon. 

In my journey to shift from achievement to building a purpose-driven life, I’ve come to rethink the role goals play in my life.

Goals have been a great tool to help me accomplish. I wouldn’t have realized success in my career without them. I wouldn’t have been able to complete seven marathons. I wouldn’t have achieved single-digit body fat percentage. I wouldn’t have started this blog. 

Goals helped me get clear on what I want. Without defining them, I’d never know what done looked like. 

The downside with goals is that they narrowed my focus on the outcome, without really understanding what’s driving the desire to reach that outcome. 

Further, once I achieve a goal, the natural question that follows is: 

What’s next?”

The combination of these two often lead to a mindless pursuit of more. I anchored my purpose to the pursuit of goals and became misguided by a belief that to achieve greater success I must take on bigger and better goals.

Making Lemonade Out of Putrified Lemons

This past year has been brutal. The unprecedented nature of the pandemic against a tumultuous socio-politcal backdrop has fatigued me to no end. I lost my motivation and it felt jarring. 

My baseline for stasis had completely been thrown out the window. I couldn’t see a clear picture of the future. That’s not to say I don’t know how to handle uncertainty, but the amount of uncertainty the future held was beyond the threshold of what I knew how to manage.

When existence bends itself into something you never thought fathomable, it takes a minute to orient yourself in this new reality.

Goals, at least in the form I was familiar with, felt outside the grasp of possibility

Fortunately, I’ve lived long enough to recognize the hard moments of life for what they are – moments to lean into and search for the seed of growth. 

Learning to Play the Infinite Game

One of the key tenets I’ve learned from my nutrition coach is the principle of sustainability. 

His approach to nutrition and fitness is such that if you cannot commit to doing it for at least 5-10 years, it’s not worth your time. This long-term lens forces you to think about mastery and focusing on the right habits for sustained behavior change. As it relates to the oft-chased yet elusive goal of weight loss, this meant it wasn’t just about losing weight in a short period of time through restriction, but learning the behaviors to maintain that weight indefinitely through balance.  

Seth Godin writes a similar theme in his most recent book The Practice: Shipping Creative Work. The main point of the book is that anything worth doing, is worth doing consistently. Good days and bad days are part of the journey. The hard part is having the discipline to show up like a professional. 

I realized that the problem I had with my process for setting goals was that they were short-term and finite. I became focused on the wrong thing – the outcome over the process.

Instead of learning how to manage my weight by tracking calories, focusing on the minimum effective dose and proper rest, I thought running marathons and redlining during workouts were the solution. 

Instead of making a practice of writing, I’d consistently set unrealistic writing goals, fail to achieve them and reset with an even more unrealistic goal, thinking the issue was the goal and not my process. 

Instead of learning how to find a balance between work and life, I told myself that once I reached a certain level I’d stop hustling, instead I just struggled to set boundaries.

Simon Sinek’s book The Infinite Game gave me the language to describe what I had failed to grasp about goals. I was treating goals as a finite game – an end-point where there is a winner (achievement) or loser (failure) – instead of an infinite game – with no defined endpoint, no winners or losers, and the focus is on playing to keep the game going as long as possible.

Play On

Goals are important for progress and self-development. They’ve given me a challenge to test my mettle.

However, this past year has forced me to radically rethink goals. The focus has shifted from an outcomes, finite, based goal to a focus on developing the right daily behaviors for long-term sustained change so that I can continue playing. 

Instead of asking myself “what do I want to achieve?” I ask, “who do I want to become?” 

It’s great to have big, audacious goals. But change doesn’t happen just because you achieve it. The goal post will always move further out and you’re back on the hamster wheel. 

Especially during the last year, I couldn’t even picture what the goal post looked like. I was lost without a goal post until I questioned the assumption of the goal post being the goal.

Learning to play and enjoy the game is the goal.

That meant a daily focus on building the right habits for long-term sustained change. It was a commitment to show up and build the discipline to gradually let change take hold. 

If you’re like me and you’re looking for a different approach to fulfillment, I challenge you to rethink achievement.

How would your approach to goals change if you thought of them as a practice worth pursuing for years, rather than a mountain to scale as quickly as possible?

I’ve certainly found a deeper level of fulfillment in reframing life as an infinite game. 

Our life may be finite, but our approach to living it doesn’t have to be.  

The Somebody Trap

…most of us are raised to be somebodies and that is a no-win game to buy into, because while you may turn out to be much more somebody than somebody else, a lot of other people are going to be a lot more somebody than you. And you are going to drive yourself crazy.

Bird By Bird; Anne Lamott

I have a hard time letting go of the fact that I may not be somebody someday (my ego bristles as I write it). Add high-achiever with a dash of perfectionism into the mix and accepting this idea becomes as easy to stomach as trying to hold down some syrup of ipecac.

The allure to be somebody is strong. We all want to be like our heroes. They are our heroes, after all, for a reason. Their contribution changed us for the better. And, perhaps, you dream of making an impact on the same scale. 

The truth is, in order to make our fullest contribution, we have to hold space for the belief that we are worthy of making such a contribution. But, the subtlety here is that the focus should be internally versus externally.

The desire to be somebody keeps you grounded in the finite game of comparison. There will always be someone better than you. Yet, the high-achiever and perfectionist holds themselves to the standard of their heroes. This becomes an impossible benchmark to clear, making it harder to start. 

Looking back, this is exactly what held me back from starting a blog. I wanted to write like my heroes. I expected myself to operate at the same level completely glossing over the time they had invested into their craft. 

When I reflect on the times where I felt less than, I seem to find comparison at the center of it all. Comparison, as they say, is the thief of joy. 

The cosmic joke of it all is that this is an instance where what you need is the complete opposite of what you want. 

When you are able to shed the desire to be somebody, you allow space to make mistakes and do things for the joy of it. It becomes a practice to improve yourself versus proving yourself. 

This allows the roots of inner strength to take hold and enables you to withstand the deluge of the external world. 

You may not end up being somebody. But, that’s the point. Fulfillment comes when we make peace with the fact that we have everything we need in front of us. 

We just need to free ourselves of our ego and take the first step with no expectation other than the joy of the journey. 

What we lack

If you focus on what you have, you gain what you lack. And if you focus on what you lack, you lose what you have.

Effortless by Greg McKeown

I think a lot about time. 

How little of it we all have. 

How we are at the mercy of fate, happenstance, chance or whatever other word you want to use to describe how little we control. Tomorrow holds within it the mystery of unknown or unlimited possibilities. We could face death or we could face another day of the same existence. 

How do we bear the level of anguish that such an uncertain existence burdens us with?

If we calibrate our bearings on what we lack, how can we expect to find solid footing? 

How do we remain grounded? 

The things we lack are infinite. With our mind fixated upon all we lack, we are almost certain to enter into a spinning free fall, unable to distinguish between up and down. We lose ourselves to the pursuit of more – a bucket that will never be filled. And yet, we continue to fill it, remaining ignorant to the hole at the bottom of it. 

This is the very definition of setting ourselves up for failure. 

A focus on what we lack is a coping mechanism for fear – the fear we are not enough, fear we’ve never been enough or fear we’ll never be enough. 

Perfectionism and high-achievement are both born out of a belief that we must pursue what we lack. They narrow our focus and provide us with a myopic view of what we think matters. They are a symptom of a culture that tells us we are not enough and sells us on what we need to fill that gap for just four easy payments of $99.00. 

Irv Blitzer, John Candy’s character in Cool Runnings, sums it up best:

"A Gold medal is a wonderful thing, but if you're not enough without it, you'll never be enough with it."

This is the true lesson of life. 

We must find a way to ignore the incessant beat of the drum for more and focus on what we have. 

What if everything is as it should be?

Gratitude is the antidote for living in the present. 

This is no promise we’ll see tomorrow. We might as well appreciate what we have to unlock the true beauty and impermanence of life. 

Maybe then we’ll realize we lack nothing and have everything we need.

The Critic

A critic is someone who enters the battlefield after the war is over and shoots the wounded.

Murray Kempton

The hardest thing about creativity is learning to ignore the critic – whether it’s your own internal critic or the (imaginary) crowd you’re sure will tear your efforts apart. 

But, unless you are creating specifically for the critic (and if so, I question why you would willingly engage in such a masochistic act), pay them no mind.

It’s easy to criticize. It’s harder to create. 

Creativity isn’t a spectator sport.

If you aren’t willing to enter the battlefield and wrestle with the chaotic messiness of your own insecurity to create something in service of others, your opinion is about as useful as decaffeinated coffee (seriously, WHY does this even exist?).

Of course, this is all easier said than done. 

But if you imagine the critic as Murray Kempton describes, it frees you from the weight of their judgement (real or imagined). Only a sociopath would shoot the wounded. 

Why would anyone listen to what a heartless monster has to say anyway?

Missed Shots

You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take

Wayne Gretzky

I get the point Wayne Gretzky was trying to make with this oft repeated quote. But, I think it ignores the subtlety that catchy maxims gloss over.

This idea that we should be prepared to take the shots or opportunities we’re given sets a false expectation. Is every opportunity worth pursuing? And if I don’t take the shot, will my opportunities in the future diminish?

What if the shot isn’t aligned with my purpose or overall vision for life? 

A mentality where we believe we must take every opportunity is finite thinking, it’s a life of scarcity. 

What if, instead, we just realize the shots for what they are – a decision point, a juncture, a choice. 

And just because you choose to close yourself off to some, doesn’t mean you’re doomed to never get more. 

If anything, these opportunities are a marker you are on the right path. 

Success generally breeds more success. The real challenge is not grasping for every opportunity that presents itself. Rather, we must define what’s important to us so we can take the opportunities that align with our purpose. 

Opportunities have trade-offs. Saying yes to one, closes you off to others. You cannot get something without giving up something else.

Without acknowledging this, you risk living a life reacting to whatever is presented versus one of your own design.

While it is true that you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, a life of purpose necessitates we say no to many of them. 

It All Starts With Values

Without clearly identifying your values, it’s easy to get lost in a culture of comparison. In a world where choice is abundant, there will always be a better choice or an opportunity for more.

But if we take the time to define our deepest values, we make a clear judgment on what’s important to us. Anytime I’ve felt adrift and at the mercy of the currents of life, I usually find I’ve lost sight of my values.

Values are the raw materials of purpose. 

Values allow us to focus intentionally on the things that matter most. Values provide clarity about how to move towards our highest aspirational self. 

This clarity provides the path we must take to live into our values.  The path is the journey and any journey worth a damn requires discipline.

This disciplined pursuit liberates us from the tyranny of choice. 

And without the constant fear that we’re making the wrong choice or failing to make the best choice, we’re free to start living a life of our own design. 

But it starts first with values. 

What’s the Point?

I remember when I was 10 or 11, my dad, the ever-avid soccer enthusiast, decided he wanted to coach the youth league soccer team I was a part of.

By that age, my perfectionist tendencies were already budding. If I couldn’t do things perfectly, I’d get so frustrated and want to give up. I’d get disappointed and fume if I did not perform according to the level I believed I was capable of.

My dad recognized he had a special opportunity to do what coaches do – use sports as a vehicle to instill life lessons that apply outside the context of the sport. 

He began every practice with a reminder. “Remember why we’re here. We’re here to play a game and have fun. If we can’t have fun, then what’s the point?

Every practice he’d hammer that point home. 

Every time anyone on the team would get frustrated (including myself), he’d remind us. 

Before games, he’d remind us. 

During half-time, he’d remind us.

Win or lose, he’d remind us.

In the car, on the way home, he’d remind me.

Over and over and over again.

—–

As my dad’s Alzheimer progresses, I’ve been reflecting on stories like these. I search for the memories I want to keep alive. The lessons learned that shaped me and continue to influence me for the better.

In my search for a purpose-driven life, I’m trying to find the stories that gave birth to that idea.

My dad had known a truth about life and how to live it joyfully. He loved his career, he loved his family, he loved to travel, he loved food and he loved to be surrounded by loved ones. 

He was clear on what was important to him. He always seemed to have lived as if he knew the true purpose of life.

He lived it beautifully. He made a point to have fun and live it to the fullest.

And at the end of my journey, I hope I can say the same.

Because, we only get one life.

If I can’t enjoy it and have fun, what was the point?

Inspire Up

As a formal team leader in my current organization, I’ve been thinking a lot on what it means to lead. Does the the natural hierarchy of an organization both influence how you lead and obfuscate less evident opportunities to lead?

If you have a team, the natural inclination is to lead down.

This one is obvious. This is your explicit responsibility. We focus on what we’re accountable for and that’s developing our people. 

The slightly less obvious, but still implicit, responsibility is that you lead across. 

You look for peers that are willing to do the difficult work of changing the culture or making a contribution to the larger organization. You build a tribe of leaders at a similar or higher level that you can challenge the status quo with and learn from. You push them as much as they push you. 

The least obvious and oft ignored opportunity for leadership is leading up. This is especially important if there are leaders you admire and hope to learn from. 

In your role, you probably look to these leaders for guidance and direction. But, just because they are higher up on the leadership hierarchy doesn’t mean they have all the answers. Just as you don’t have all the answers for your team. 

The way to lead up is to be the person you would like to see from those on your team. Exemplify your ability to be coachable, provide feedback and challenge the status quo. Offer solutions and don’t just present problems. Demonstrate the paradox of leadership – the ability to lead confidently AND the humility to acknowledge you don’t know everything. 

This openness and curiosity does two things. 

First, it keeps you in a posture of learning, which is the foundation of growth. 

Secondly, when done consistently and genuinely, it builds your reputation as a leader. This makes it exponentially easier to find mentors and teachers in an organization. 

In my experience, we all have a universal desire – to make our short time on Earth mean something, to make a positive impact, to leave behind a legacy. 

Those above you are no different. 

The best leaders want to share their experience and knowledge. But time is precious, so they will be selective of who they invest their time in.  

When you lead up in this manner, you signal that you take your growth seriously. You are a worthy student. 

As the saying goes, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear

The ability to demonstrate a desire to learn from and put into action their generous wisdom inspires them to reciprocate by becoming invested in your growth.

They make a positive impact, you grow.

This is the very definition of a win-win.

This is the art of building meaningful relationships. 

Jim Collins wrote it best when he shared advice he’d gotten from his mentor. He asks, “How do you know if you’re in a great relationship?” His mentor, Bill Lazier, responded, “If you were to ask each person in the relationship who benefits more from the relationship, both would answer, ‘I do.‘”

Transcendence in a pair of socks

Spirituality is the deep human longing to experience the transcendent in our ordinary life – it’s the expectation to experience the extraordinary in the ordinary, the miraculous in the mundane, and the sacred camouflaged in the profane

J. Pittman McGhehee

This past Christmas my wife took our 5 year-old daughter to a local shop and let her pick out a couple of things to gift me.

Aside from upgrading my office decor with some serious swagger – including, but not limited to a heart-shaped painted stone, a porcelain jewlery holder in the shape of a dog and a gel pen with a blue kitty cat figurine resting atop with its tail functioning as the clicker (don’t worry, the feelings of jealousy you’re experiencing are completely normal) – she also bought me a brand new pair of thick, soft novelty socks.

This prompted me to ponder on the utility and value of things and how they can evolve over time.  

As a child, socks would often be relegated to one of two piles: 1) the “accidentally misplaced in the garbage” pile or 2) the practical gifts that I’d begrudgingly accept.

As an adult, however, a pair of new socks makes me feel like I’m a descendent of the French monarch living in the Palace of Versailles. 

Slipping my feet into a new pair of soft, thick, plush socks feels so indescribably gratifying, like something that is best left for the privacy of my sanctum. 

It’s on the same level as the feeling of wrapping yourself in a fluffy new bath towel or a flight attendant handing you a hot towel to freshen up or napping in a hammock on a perfect spring day.

By no means do I think I’m transversing to some higher level of spirituality through these moments, but I’ll be damned if it’s not a moment of experiencing the extraordinary in the ordinary. 

And the more mindful I am, the more I find these moments are available to me.

Part of the process of Being – of finding fulfillment – is realizing these moments exist in the mundanity of life.

We need only pay attention to find them.

Turning 100

This officially marks my 100th post.

This feels like an appropriate moment to stop to celebrate and practice gratitude.

When I started this blog last year, I had no idea what to expect.

I had wanted to write for many years but was too scared to put myself out in the world. And while my writing isn’t anywhere close to perfect, I’ve learned to dance with the fear rather than let it dictate.

This journey has helped me grow tremendously and get clear about what matters most.

I could not have done it without your support. Thank you for being part of this journey. Thank you for your encouragement and interaction. Thank you for reading and gifting me with your most precious resource – time.

I am eternally grateful for your support. I could not have done it without you.

If I could figure out how to give you a digital bear hug, I’d wrap you in the biggest, most awkward hug ever!

Here’s to the next 100 posts.

With much gratitude,

~ Diego