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Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Setting goals Part I

Goals are a huge part of our Western culture. I must admit that I am myself an avid goal setter. At least I've used goal setting as a technique to accomplish lots and lots of stuff. Recently though, in the last 3 years or so, I think my goal addiction has been subdued into making lists. I have lists now... lots and lots of lists.

Goals are the focus of every credible self-help program. Stephen R. Covey's seminal book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People devotes habits 2 and 3 to goal setting:

  • Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind
Synopsis: Self-discover and clarify your deeply important character values and life goals. Envision the ideal characteristics for each of your various roles and relationships in life.
  • Habit 3: Put First Things First
Synopsis: Planning, prioritizing, and executing your week's tasks based on importance rather than urgency. Evaluating if your efforts exemplify your desired character values, propel you towards goals, and enrich the roles and relationships elaborated in Habit 2.

Goals are an enormous part of just about every useful bit of self-help technology out there. Consider this interesting presentation at a recent TED conference:

Both of the above examples of goal setting techniques have the effect of completely jazzing me up. My heart races with the thoughts of what I could accomplish with my life and how happy and fulfilled my accomplishments would make me feel. My palms start sweating when I hear "don't tell anyone your goals" and I think to myself : "that's it! The key to my success! I need a coffee. This is amazing. I need a coffee!...

Oh yeah, that's the stuff.

I love Covey's book. I'd really love the chance to go to a TED conference. However my own personal experience leads me to question the simplistic assertion that goals are what life is all about. My own dabblings in Shambahla Buddhist training makes me ask the question:  Are ACCOMPLISHED people are always HAPPY people?

To be fair Covey's book also makes it a habit to be constantly tweaking your goals so that they reflect the person you are as you grow and develop. As such his idea of goals are pretty malleable. His goals are oriented towards relationships just as much as they are task accomplishment. Yet it seems to me very culturally reinforced that the achievement of tasks are what we admire the most in the west. We admire the accomplishment and loath the failure associated with career success much more publicly than, say, our accomplishments in raising children.
All I'm saying is that sometimes the harder we try to do some things the worse they get. Like when I try to play really swinging jazz or a really great solo I usually don't. But when I back off and let whatever might happen to happen that's usually when something interesting takes place. In a sense that's when my goals in music making seem the most fulfilled. Because while on the one hand my ego has a vested interest in playing great and being successful, my creative mind feels the most suppressed by my ego's desires. They are desires not based in the fulfillment of creativity but in the fulfillment of goals.

Imagine going to a party with friends and having goals for how the party will go. Having a goal for the discussions you will have. Having a goal for the success of having fun. Even if each of your goals were met wouldn't you say that you missed out on an import aspect of that experience of human interaction and co-existence due to the imposition of your agenda? How much of our lives really exists on a plane of this nature. What if the the paradigm for our existence involved letting go more of our agendas and not holding so tightly to what we want to happen and trying instead to dance with the flow of energy that surrounds us. Would we still be able to accomplish things?

I'm not saying that we shouldn't set goals for ourselves and try to accomplish success in our careers. I will always have my lists of what I'm doing on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis. I just question if whether or not most of the goals we set for ourselves are to somehow create a sense of meaning for our lives. And on a greater scale we only end up cyclically repeating patterns that ultimately cause our own suffering. This is a poignant aspect of Buddhism and one which many in the west find it difficult to reconcile. And yet at the same time we see the truth in it.  Perhaps it could be my next goal to have no goals....yikes!

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