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

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

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.

 

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.

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

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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Comments

  1. says

    Yes! No more cluttering up my mind with annoying things I SHOULD be doing waiting for that thing that will never happen as planned… Life can change in a heartbeat, I know this. Utter devastation or complete joy can be just a breath away. I have plans for some things – like paying the bills and doing the dishes and that holiday I so want to go on (when things are RIGHT for me to go I will…), but recent events reinforced yet again the lesson that failure is an opportunity to learn…

    Thank you.
    I needed to read this today!
    xoxoxox

    • Drew says

      Thanks Marg! It’s always nice to know that I’m not the only one who feels this way, although I’ll probably find some equally annoying things to clutter up my mind with ;)

      Life does seem to have a way of taking us in unexpected directions. Sometimes when we look back we realize that it might have been for the best, and sometimes it just is what it is, but either way it’s still the path we’re on and it has shaped us into who we are today.

      I wish you all the best on your journey and please keep in touch!

  2. says

    Another excellent post.

    At 16, I emancipated from my parents and have been on my own ever since (I’m now 23). My father had always preached the significance and importance of goals, and the need to adhere to a strict regimen in order to accomplish them. Although this works well for him, this has never worked for me and over time I discovered why.

    I’ve found that there are some things where goals are useful (graduating high school, getting into college, graduating from college, etc) but that the problem for me comes when I put a time-line on these goals. I find that if I set a deadline on a goal, then I am setting myself up for failure and it, somehow, personalizes that failure to an emotional level.

    “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”

    My business (jewelry design and selling online) is my first experiment with this goal-free process. I have to admit that it’s very freeing in some ways. I can’t say there’s less stress or less pressure so much as a sense of accomplishment that comes from each and every day rather than striving for an end goal and holding off on that sense of accomplishment until whatever that goal is has been reached.

    Thanks for another thought provoking post.

    - Twist

    • Drew says

      First of all, thank you for your kind words about the post. I really appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts with us here in the comment section.

      I think you describe this paradox perfectly. There are some things where goals are useful. They give us a general direction to move towards (such as graduation or learning a new technical skill) and I completely agree that its important to sit down and reflect where we are and where we would like to go from here.

      I think I have more of a problem when it comes to more specific goals such as I’m going to complete X amount of manuscripts this year, I’m going to get up at 5am and go to the gym every morning (hahahaha), or I’m going to earn X amount of dollars this year. I think this is the kind of thing that gets us in trouble because way too often it sets us up for failure. Why? Because hardly anybody creates modest goals for themselves. We’ve all been told to “dream big” and shoot for the stars. Well that’s all great, until December comes and I’m still struggling to finish up my March goals ;)

      Thanks again for sharing your experiences with us and good luck with your “goal-free” jewelry design business. Please keep us updated and enjoy the journey!

  3. says

    Hey Drew, thanks for this great post!

    I have been reading so many articles lately about goal making, setting intentions, resolutions, whatever you want to call them, and I have to admit I’ve fallen into the trap! Although, I don’t think it’s so much of a trap.

    I found that your post had me thinking about my goals in a completely different light–thank you so much for that! I feel okay with having these goals I’ve set for myself, but I also feel okay without being too rigid about them. I understand they were more to inspire me, get me thinking, and moving me forward, and aren’t necessarily something that’s set in stone and can’t be tweaked. I guess what I am trying to say is that they are flexible, and I’m okay with that.

    Thanks for getting me thinking! I’ll be seeing you around. :)

    • Drew says

      Thank you Alli for sharing your thoughts on this. I think, at least for me, it has always been that sense of flexibility that I’ve been missing. It seems that we’ve been trained to think that if something isn’t happening the solution is to double your efforts and to try harder. The idea of changing course always seemed like it was an admission of failure.

      It’s like I was admitting that I chose my initial path poorly and then wasted all of this time following it like an idiot. Then because I had already sunk all of this time and energy into this particular path, I might as well keep going. Now of course, there’s something to be said for perseverance and not “giving up”, but it seems that it also has to be balanced somehow with staying flexible and having the willingness to explore other options. Now where exactly that line is, I don’t know, but I think once you accept the fact that it’s okay to change directions, life has a way of becoming far more interesting. . .

      • says

        I totally understand what you mean about if you’re not following your “course” then you could potentially be failing. But really, what is failure? Maybe it’s a good thing sometimes. It helps us realize what wasn’t meant to be or isn’t working.
        I think it’s okay to admit you didn’t know where you were headed and ended up in a place that made you feel uncomfortable or was possibly even a waste of time. Because really, I don’t think many things are a waste of time–they help us learn what we want to do and what we don’t want to do. Sometimes you have to try things you don’t like in order to get where you want to be.
        I agree that there’s definitely something to be said about not “giving up,” but I do think it’s okay to realize that you’re headed in the wrong direction and try to figure out how you can keep yourself on course.
        For me, as long as I am moving forward (or even just MOVING, really) I feel like I am headed in the right direction. If I am making progress, even if it’s not what I had mapped out in my goals, it’s still something worth noting. Progress is progress, whether you planned it or not. :)

  4. says

    I’m so happy I found your website!

    This is a great post and very true, I think. It made me smile when I read it, because the post I had just finished writing on my own blog moments before started out headed in one direction but ended up somewhere else completely!

    While it helps to have an idea of where we might be moving towards, it is not as important to ever actually reach that place as we may imagine when we first set out. I think the above poster Alli is right in her response when she says that the most important thing to do is to keep moving anyway.

    Thanks for inspiring, helping us to keep on keeping on, as they say :-)

    • Drew says

      Thanks Jacqualine for your kind words :)

      I think you and Alli are right about the importance of simply moving forward. This power of movement and momentum is vastly underrated I think. Even if you don’t know where you are going — putting that pen to paper or putting that brush to the canvas is always the first step. For whatever reason, our creative muse always leaves it up to us to make the first move. We have to first commit ourselves to the act of creation even if it sometimes feels like we are driving down a dark country road at night with our headlights turned off. We may not be able to see exactly where we are going, but we definitely know that something is going to happen if we just keep going…

  5. says

    Thanks for the insights, Drew. You bring up many valuable ideas here, and the following really resonates:
    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.

    I find this relevant to being able to live one’s life in a positive, forward-moving way, while being able to feel comfortable with the fact that most things (almost everything but a sliver, really) will remain unknown and unknowable to us. It means being “willing to work your ass off” to be one’s best self, without the promises of heaven or everlasting life or other imagined, comforting outcomes.

    • Drew says

      It’s always great to see you here Sky :)

      This is one of the biggest issues (and I have a lot of issues) I’ve had to deal with because I am a bit of a control freak by nature. I typically like to know that if I walk from point A to point B, that I’ll eventually arrive at point B. Now although that may work great in some aspects of life, such as finding my way to the grocery store, it unfortunately doesn’t work quite as well when it comes to something as intangible and slippery as creativity.

      Lacking a true path, I often find myself trying to make it up in sheer quantity. It’s the whole throw-enough-stuff-at-a-wall-and-sooner-or later-something-will-stick philosophy. Sit down, do the work, and have faith that something good will come of it eventually. Sure 95% of what I write will still be crap (some would say that percentage is even higher), but every once in awhile there will also be that small “sliver”, as you said, that offers you hope and keeps you moving forward.

  6. Veronica says

    I’m also one of those type A people who likes to lay down steps and “plan.” You’d think by now I would have realized that you can’t really plan, because something WILL happen to change said plans. Nevertheless, I have been on that danged failure treadmill for a while. And it does make me feel like I am failing when I don’t accomplish those little tasks. Then I get mad and feel bad and wonder about giving up. It’s vicious and I don’t like it. I do like what you said about it being more courageous to work WITHOUT a timed goal than to set vague goals you may not reach. I think I need to take this to heart and bail that sinking goal ship. Not completely, or, like you said, the dog may starve. Thanks for more very timely reading.

    • Drew says

      Thanks Veronica for stopping by and sharing your thoughts with us! I’m with you, for whatever reason, us Type A (aka control-freaks) personalities tend to make things worse because we think that we can control the chaos and are then constantly surprised when it doesn’t work out as we planned— so then we make a new plan in order to keep that “failure treadmill” running at top speed. On a side note, I find it interesting that my failure treadmill is running daily while my real treadmill sits unused in the corner of the room collecting dust ;)

      I’ll admit that this plan (of no plan) is still more of an ideal for me than a reality, but I am slowly learning that things usually turn out better the more I stop listening to myself and start listening to what the universe is trying to tell me.

  7. Veronica says

    Oh, I definitely agree. Following the plan To Not Follow the Plan is harder to do than it sounds. I’m trying it out though, and have actually managed to still get some things done! I think it comes in cycles, of moving about freely and intensly following lists and deadlines.

  8. Ricky says

    Hi

    I am a photographer and have been making images for years. However I cant over emphasise how difficult I find it to share my work. I was speaking about this with a friend recently who has recently become the proud father of a baby boy. As I say he is rightly proud very protective of his child so the best way I could articulate my problem was to compare the situation whereby he would put his son out there for critique.

    Please can I ask anyone out there how they might have overcome this problem

    Thanks you.

    • says

      You’re right Ricky, it is difficult sometimes to put our work out there and open it up to potential criticism. No likes to be told that their work is somehow not good enough. At the same time, you are not your work. This is a big issue with a lot of creative artists. We connect so deeply with our work during our time together that it is often hard to let it go. So we delay, and we tweak, and we edit to avoid having to put it out there as a “finished” piece. We talked a lot about this in a recent article here on the site called “Creating the Artist, not the Art” where we talk about the dangers of identifying yourself to closely with your work, and how doing this can actually slow down you progress of developing as an artist. I hope that it may help you out!

      My only other advice to you might be to start slowly and just start sharing your work online (Flickr, Facebook, etc…) It’s often hardest to share with our friends, family, and those who we are closest with because of our emotional connection. For this reason, it’s usually a lot easier to start sharing with complete strangers. Don’t necessarily start with your favorite images either so you can avoid as much emotional involvement as possible. Just start sharing something and I think once you start getting some positive feedback things will get easier. After all, most of us online in the creative community are pretty nice people :)

      Good luck Ricky and please keep us posted!

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