The Goal of Nothing & the Art of Letting Go

list of goals

“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” ~Lao Tzu

Let’s face it, having goals kind of sucks!

What do you want to do, be, or have in ten years?  Where do you see yourself in twenty years?  What are your three major goals for this year?  What are you going to accomplish this month? What about this week? And if you’ve got a list of goals as long as your arm, why are you sitting around reading stupid articles like this?! (wait…forget that last one)

I’m sorry but when did accomplishing anything become so damn complicated?

These days it seems that if we haven’t created our yearly, monthly, and weekly goals and shared them with the universe — then we might as well be spending our day living in a mud hut digging in the dirt with a pointy stick because our life is obviously being wasted.

It doesn’t stop there, however, because it’s not enough to simply have these goals, we also need to write them down, set firm deadlines, visualize our goals, and then say them out loud every morning as some kind of karmic affirmation to the universe.

At some point along the way, it seems that we’ve all been brainwashed into believing that if you want to make anything out of your life, you need to come up with this grocery list of goals for yourself and then slavishly “work the plan” everyday.  If we don’t, we’re told that we will simply float aimlessly around the universe and end up living with our mother when we are forty-five.

Goals are good.

After all, without a goal how could you possibly expect to get to where you want to be?


So what’s the problem with having goals?

There have always been a few things that have bothered me about this idea of creating these long elaborate lists of goals for ourselves.

Goals are mostly about the illusion of control.

We live in an age that praises self-reliance. We’re taught that we are the masters of our fate and we are the captain of our soul.  Those who rely upon others to help them are either slackers or children.  In our society, we are not only expected to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, but we are taught to revere the “self-made” man or else be seen as some kind of liberal commie socialist bastard

But are we really in control?

It seems to me that we continue to create these goals for ourselves because we’re under the impression that we are completely in control of what happens to us.

Now hold on, before you go running off to your goal-setting anonymous meeting to tell them about the crazy Skinny dude spouting heresies online — I’m ceretainly not implying that we are somehow being controlled by some mysterious unforeseen force, or that we are mere puppets in fate’s fickle hand. It turns out that I don’t believe in resigning myself to fate any more than I believe in the magical power of setting goals.


It’s not that goals are bad, it’s just that shit happens and plans change. . .

Unforeseen events (both good and bad) happen all the time in our life  that will inevitably alter our course. I’m talking about things that we could have never seen coming even with all of our charts, maps, and life plans laid carefully out in front of us. 

Creativity requires faith. Faith requires that we relinquish control. ~Julia Cameron

The real problem is that if we become so focused on keeping our head down and making our initial goals happen no matter what, we’ll often miss a new opportunity that may be sitting there directly in front of us.

So the way I see it, we have two choices — We can either keep pounding away insisting that we always know what’s best, or we can consider opening ourselves up to these new opportunities as they present themselves. There are hundreds of different ways to get from point A to point B and if you spend all of this time and energy drawing up a nice looking map, chances are that you will be far more reluctant to change course when things go awry.


Goals set you up to fail

Everyone knows that whenever you set up a goal for yourself, you are required to create monthly, weekly, and daily action steps to achieve this goal. That’s basic goal-setting 101

However there’s always that one step that you really don’t want to do, or you don’t know how to do, so you just keep putting it off.  Soon your weekly goals fall behind schedule which means that your monthly goals are continually being pushed back and sooner or later you realize that you have created this endless treadmill of failure for yourself.

Sooner or later we begin to realize that all of these daily to-do lists that are constantly being consolidated day after day are really only effective as a tool of self-hatred.  They breed an environment of constant stress and a sense of failure which is the enemy of creative productivity 

We must be willing to let go of the life we planned in order to have the life that is waiting for us. ~Joseph Campbell

Now of course all of the goal setting gurus tell us that failure is not an option.  Actually it turns out that failure is an option.  If nothing else, failure give you the chance to stop, look around, and possibly reassess your current goals.

What you may realize is that maybe you were really close to achieving your goal, or maybes you were completely off base.  Either way you can see it as a learning opportunity, but only if you are willing to reconsider the goal you were chasing in the first place.

Some people believe that failure is simply the universe’s way of nudging you in a slightly different direction.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to give up, but perhaps you might consider slightly altering your course.  But here’s the thing, when it comes down to it, very few of us really know what it is that we really want let alone how exactly we are going to get it.


Who’s goals are these anyway?

It’s also not unusual that the goals we chase after the hardest aren’t really even our goals to begin with.

Remember that most of these goals that we are beating ourselves up over, are often the expectations of others.  We have these goals because they are the things that our parents, our friends, our spouse, or our society expects us to do. When you sit down and really think about it, how many of your past and current goals are simply unconscious echoes of other people’s expectations?

For example , I remember wanting to be a writer for as long as I can remember. However, as everyone knows or at least told me growing up, no responsible adult can make a living as a writer (which so far is apparently true) so it was decided that I should get my teaching degree so that I could be an upstanding citizen and still have my little writing hobby on the side.


Sometimes the best goal is not having one

When was the last time that “success” arrived for you or anyone else you know exactly the way you imagined that it would?

Even if you do want to achieve something specific.  It rarely if ever happens exactly as you think it would.  In other words, even if the end result is the same, the method of getting there is often light-years apart from the well-thought out step-by-step monthly plan that you meticulously came up with five years ago. 

We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal and then leap in the dark to our success. ~Henry David Thoreau


Setting goals can limit our future possibilities

In other words, setting all of these goals for yourself only ends up limiting you because you are essentially closing yourself off from “what is” in this frantic attempt to create what you think you want.

What you’ll often discover is that you don’t really need to set all of these elaborate goals and you don’t necessarily need to come up with this perfect roadmap.  It turns out that all you really have to do is to find out what you need to do next.


Avoiding goals is not the same thing as avoiding hard work

Now just because a person is willing to open themselves up and not try to control the process with their endless list of goals and to-do lists, that doesn’t necessarily mean they sit around on the couch all day doing nothing as they wait for lady fortune to take them gently by the hand.

Having no goal isn’t about waiting or wanting, it’s about being willing to work your ass off today for an unknown result tomorrow

It takes far more courage to keep working not knowing where any of it will lead, than it does to set up endless yearly goals towards an imagined outcome.  One offers comfort while the other offers only vague possibilities.

It’s not easy and there are many days where I long for the comfort of knowing exactly where (I think) I’m going.

But at the same time, I now have this sense of flexibility that I never felt I had before.  Instead of simply pushing stubbornly ahead no matter what the outcome, I now make it a point to  listen a little closer to what the universe may be trying to tell me.

Most days the universe still whispers to me in shadowy indecipherable tones, but once in awhile, something will manage to get through this thick head of mine and an unexpected opportunity will show up on my doorstep.  I’ll admit that I’m still not always smart enough to open the door, but  at least now I usually know what I’m missing.

To this day, I still have a to-do list of daily tasks that I need to remember.  However these are not so-called “action steps” to achieve some large overarching goal, these are mostly simple reminders to myself so the cats do not starve or the kids are not accidently left at the bus stop.  Instead of spending my day trying to map out my future and figure out where exactly I’m going to be in ten years, I try to focus my energy on what I can do today to create something meaningful.

It doesn’t always work, of course, but tomorrow I know that I’ll wake up and try again.

Then again, maybe I’m just a slacker…..


What do you think?

  • Do you make yearly, monthly, weekly goals for yourself?
  • What system (if any) do you have to keep yourself focused on your goals?
  • Have you ever actually finished your daily to-do list?  If so, what did it feel like (I wouldn’t know)
  • What are you thoughts about having or not having goals?


Image courtesy of lululemon athletica

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About the Author

Writer, teacher, and head custodian of the Skinny Artist community. His book “Getting Creative: Developing Creative Habits that Work” is all about finding the time (and energy) to live a more creative life.

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