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.  

Playing the Long Game

The pain exploded from my lower back all the way down my legs. It was excruciating – like someone was stabbing my nerves with a rusty, jagged spoon.

For three nights, there wasn’t a single position I could take to free me from the prison of pain. 

I got in to see a neurosurgeon immediately. I was scheduled for back surgery the very next day. My disc had ruptured and was a non-stop flaming machete hacking at my nerves. 

Surgery went off without a hitch and the pain went away immediately.

The cause of the injury had been weightlifting related but the lesson of it wasn’t learned until I realized (with help from my lifting buddies) that I had to change my approach entirely.

And that approach has translated beyond the weight room. 

Up until that back injury I had been playing the short-game.

I would try to load up as much weight as possible and rep it out hoping to hit an impressive personal record (PR). I’d tackle big athletic challenges to prove I could be a badass, like the year I decided to run three marathons. I was obsessed with seeing how much I could accomplish as quickly as possible. 

That was my approach to fitness – do as much as possible and go hard.

Until my back decided it had had enough and exploded.

After 8 weeks of physical therapy, I returned to the gym ready to slowly and cautiously get back on the demon horse. With the help of a friend, we focused on building strength – slowly and incrementally.

There was a mantra we had that kept me focused:

"PR the day but live to fight another day."

The idea wasn’t to lift as heavy as possible, it was to do better than last time but more important was the focus on coming back to do it again. 

Because injury could stop all progress. 

I had to shift my philosophy of quick achievement and focus on the minimum viable improvement. A PR of 5 pounds, is still a PR. One additional pull-up over last time is still a PR. Two seconds faster in a workout is still a PR. You get the point. 

Slow, incremental improvement over short-term gains.

Sustainability over glory.

Mastery over momentary achievement.

I’ve found this philosophy applies beyond the gym. 

When I take a long-term view and commit to a goal that matters, I try to approach it so it’s sustainable and balanced. The long-term often commands discipline and consistency – a willingness to show up daily, get my reps in and repeat. 

If I am unwilling to commit to a goal for 3-5 years, it’s not worth my time to entertain. 

The long-term game isn’t as sexy as the short-term – who wouldn’t want to chase something that promises quick results. But, in my experience, results that last – the ones born from excellence and mastery – don’t happen overnight.

Chasing after the short-term may work for a while (it did for me), but at some point, the next level of growth will be out of reach unless you shift your perspective to the long-game.