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.

Boundaries

State lines. Property lines. Medians. Guard rails. Borderlines. Fences. Goal line. End zone.

These are all various forms of the same thing – a boundary. 

They serve as reminder of where the edge is. 

Push too far past it and you’ll exceed the boundary that’s been set. 

Build something outside your property line and there will be reprucussions. Veer off the road over the median or past the guardrails and disaster is certain. Catch a football outside the the end zone and your team won’t score any points.

Boundaries give us information about how the world is structured.

This of course is easy to see in the physical world. The edges are clearly marked.

And we don’t question them. 

The external world exerts a boundary and we adhere.

Of course there are some boundaries we should question critically. 

Because not all boundaries need be set by the external world. 

That’s not to say the external world won’t alwys impose. 

If we haven’t given much thought to our own personal boundaries, it’s easy to accept what is presented as if it’s our only choice. We can feel helpless like flotsam at mercy of the ocean currents.

To set our own boundaries, we must first care. 

We must be invested in an outcome that is different than what the external world imposes. We must have the courage to disagree and push back. Otherwise, our acceptance can turn to resentment. 

You cannot live intentionally if you are constantly accepting what the world imposes. 

A boundary is nothing more than a constraint that informs how to achieve an outcome. 

If you value building a life of contribution, you must set your boundary to encompass the activities and behaviors that maximize your ability to contribute. Anything outside of that or not related must be ignored or minimized.

I suppose if you don’t know what your desired outcome is, then any boundary will do.

Connecting the dots

Recently, I got to experience a first that every parent dreads but is almost always inevitable. 

An unexpected visit to the ER.

My oldest had split her chin open as a result of a bad idea on how to descend stairs and the outcome of that bad idea. 

It was a pretty gnarly gash but she weathered the experience (and the 7 stitches) better than I expected. 

Much of that the result of taking her to the local children’s hospital. 

Everything from the look and feel of the hospital to the way doctors and nurses engaged with her playfully to the distraction provided by the Child Life staff all made it a bit less scary. They offerred her choices, which empowered her to have a say along the way. 

It reminded me of my time as a volunteer Hospital Magician with Open Heart Magic. I saw many of the same principles we used to engage kids utilized with my daughter. It helped me appreciate the experience and service on a deeper level and from a different perspective – as a parent with their child in the hospital. 

I realized the true power of the service was in the opportunity to punctuate an otherwise difficult day or moment for others and replace it with a memory of joy, awe, and laughter. 

What made the service so special was that it gave me an opportunity to make a direct positive impact on someones life. It provided an undeniable link between service and impact.

It got me wondering about all the people in my life who gave similarly to me and the impact it has had.

All the mentors, teachers, parents, bosses, friends, and co-workers who have left their mark on me – who saw something in me and gave generously of themselves. The people who shaped my life for the better and continue to shape me. 

Any contribution I make is a result of their influence. Therefore, the more I contribute the more I keep their impact alive.

Much like my service with Open Heart Magic, a meaningful life is one in service of lifting others up, to leave our own positive mark on others. And hope that our mark carries forward as those we impact make their own contribution.

Think of the impact your life could have if others lives were richer becuase of you?

There’s nothing to lose from this posture and only endless upside. 

An unplanned trip to the ER was the least likely of places I was expecting to find this golden thread.  But insights like this don’t usually call ahead of their arrival. 

Sometimes we just need to keep asking ourselves the same question over and over (and over and over) and recognize that the absence of an answer doesn’t mean there isn’t an answer. 

We just don’t have all the dots yet to connect the full picture.

Envy or Admiration (Push vs. Pull)

I was recently listening to the Tim Ferriss Show with Jim Collins and they discussed a profound question that’s been slithering around brain since I heard it (Damn you Tim Ferriss and your sneaky wisdom that latches on like an anaconda).

But first, some context. 

Earlier in the episode, they discussed the idea of push versus pull motivation.

For many of us, the motivation early in our career is one of drive. An urge to run away from something and fill up an empty bucket. 

My own experience shows me I was motivated by a need to prove myself. I wanted to fill a bucket with accomplishments. I wanted to hold up this beautiful bucket and let it sparkle under the glow of the sunlight for all to see (I command thee to revel at the splendor of my bucket!). 

Push motivation can be great fuel for what motivates you. But it is not without its pitfalls. 

The underlying urgency of push motivation lives in the world of comparison to the external world. It’s an obsession to compare yourself against your peers. To calibrate where you are on the scoreboard of life and figure out what to fill the bucket with next. Most often we’re pushed to fill the bucket with money, fame, material things, prestige, recognition or a crowd of adoring fans.

These are some powerful carrots to chase after. But will it ever be enough?

Perhaps push motivation can only take me so far. Is it possible to be fulfilled if you are driven by a desire to fill a bucket that’s inherently empty?

Pull motivation on the other hand comes from maturity, from being pulled towards something. There is no ego, rather you are pulled toward the work for the sake of doing great work and contributing your gift to the world. This is the motivation that comes from pursuing your life’s purpose, a calling, your raison d’etre ay! (as French-Canadian are wont to say). 

Pull motivation is more concerned with comparison to the self, with a desire to do the best work you are capable of doing and focus on getting better at it. It’s a pursuit of a life of contribution, one only you can make.

And this brings us to the question raised by Tim and his guest.

The question you need to ask yourself is would you rather build a life to envy or a life to admire?

A life to envy is a life of comparison to the external world.

A life to admire is a life of comparison to the self. A life built doing the hard work, not because there’s a reward but because it’s what you were meant to do.

I can tell you which one I’d rather chase.

What about you?

Two Choices for Meaningful Work

People want to be part of a journey. We all want to do work that matters. 

And we want to have the stories that come from doing meaningful work. We yearn for that sweet intoxicating feeling that comes from contributing to work that matters, work that makes us feel validated in the world. 

So, you have two choices. I would argue these are the most important choices you have to make about the work you do. 

The first choice is the most common.

Find a journey you want to be a part of. Find a job, an organization, a cause, a leader that is doing work that matters. And do whatever you can to be a part of that journey. 

This is a great first choice. That first job or organization or cause you connect with, believe in what it stands for and want to help further its existence is a wonderful journey. The stories from this first journey will fuel you to not settle for anything less than that experience.

The second choice is a natural evolution from the first.

At some point, you have to stop chasing to be part of someone else’s journey. 

It’s time to create the journey for others. It’s time to lead the charge and make work matter for others.

Because that’s what leadership is. You have to be the one who leads the change. You have to paint the vision and make it so compelling that others want to be part of the journey. 

Because you’re here to do work that matters.

Don’t forget to enjoy the good times

This isn’t just a saying that serves as a reminder to celebrate. 

What’s unstated is that there will be bad times. There is no good without bad.

That’s what makes the good stand out. That’s what makes us never want to let them go.

But there will always be hard times. 

So when there are moments of good, stop and savor them. Enjoy them deeply and with your whole heart. Let yourself be overcome by their joy and euphoria and beauty. Squeeze all you can out of them. 

Because they aren’t guaranteed to last. 

Find what’s worth celebrating in your life. Make it big. Make it memorable. Make it worth celebrating. 

There’s hard work ahead. 

And, hopefully also more good times.

In search of the elusive ideal

Is it possible to achieve an ideal? 

I started this blog as a way to explore my own purpose. I believe doing so will lead to fulfillment in my life. 

So, I chase this ideal.

But what is fulfillment? What does it actually look like? Can it actually be attained?

I’d argue an ideal is as elusive as a snow leopard as long as you see it as an ideal. 

Ideals can be instrumental in helping us navigate towards a specific direction. They are a theoretical apex or peak we strive to achieve.

Ideals provide us with an example of what perfect looks like. 

But perfection is an impossible achievement.

For high-achievers, like myself, perfection has been the siren song that’s lured me to the treacherous waters of self-doubt and fear.

Ideals on their own can lead to stark-raving madness.

But, framed properly, ideals can be the canvas of a purpose-driven life. Ideals need boundaries, constraints, clearly defined expectations and outcomes.

In other words, you need to make the ideal achievable.

Until you see it as a thing that can be attained, you’ll never attain it.

DOES IT STILL SERVE ITS PURPOSE

Fulfillment is an interesting ideal to chase as a high-achiever. It’s the complete antithesis of my raison d’etre.

You cannot achieve ad infinitum and be fulfilled.

To be fulfilled, would indicate I have reached a state of equilibrium, I am in balance. By its definition, there is no desire or need for more.

Achievement has been a definitive super-power during my career, as I imagine it is for other high-achievers. 

I’d not be where I am today without it. 

But recently, I’ve realized that if I intend to achieve fulfillment, it may require me to shed my old ways of thinking.

I’ve had to examine my bias towards achievement. To ask if it still serves me the way it once did. Does it still deserve a seat at my table?

This line of questioning helped me redefine my desire for high-achievement to be one of purpose-driven achievement.

This reframe makes it possible to achieve the ideal because the boundaries, constraints and expectations that inform my purpose also now inform the ideal. 

The act of living in accordance to my purpose allows me to live a fulfilled life.

The unattainable now presents itself as attainable.

What ideal are you chasing?

How could defining it and reframing it into something attainable make it work for you?