One of the greatest thinkers I’ve come to know in this life is a writer for the Guardian, Oliver Burkeman. He’s got a regular gig there: “This column will change your life,” and in it he explores all sorts of wonderful thoughts and ideas that maybe didn’t occur to the reader in quite that way before, but after pondering the concept à la Burkeman, they come out the other end thinking, “Exactly,” and also, “I’ve always thought that,” even if it’s the first time that reader ever bothered considering said idea. Incidentally, that reader is me…I have no idea how he affects others.
Another lovely mind out there is the creater of brain pickings, Maria Popova, who has three extraordinary talents: archiving some of the most interesting and worth-reading information out there, ergo consuming – if I will allow her – copious amounts of my life with all her interestingness; taking the ideas of multiple very talented thinkers and synthesizing them so that they are no longer overwhelming and instead fall right into place, one alongside the next; making herself seem somehow like this background informant, rather than the brilliant light she really is to the world of thought and thinking…humble people intimidate me. Anyway, I digress. Ms. Popova recently covered Mr. Burkeman’s new book, which has something to do with why setting goals is counterproductive, and she goes into very interesting detail in her post, and I intend to buy and devour this book, and I can also confirm that having read it, I will undoubtedly be in agreement with ol’ Ollie, because that is how he rolls…right into my brain, convincing me not only of his points, but also that I always thought them anyway, so no harm done.
But before I reach that point, a word on setting goals.
In high school, I played basketball. I was terrible, but I was a go-getter. My coach, who invariably referred to me as Butterfingers due to my uncanny ability to allow the ball to slip through my fingers regardless of my teammates’ excellent passes (I had many similar talents, but I shan’t go into those here), had a saying that went something like this:
If you reach for the heavens, you’ll end up among the stars.
So, yes, it’s February. And many people are reflecting upon (if not actively reviewing) their New Year’s resolutions with perhaps more than a little disappointment…but I would like to say this: I always aim too far, and I think it’s quite healthy. Listen: I said I would wake up early every single day. Have I done that? Hell no! But I’ve been waking up earlier more often to do the things I want to do. I said I would do sun salutations every morning. Have I done that? Please refer to my last response! But I’ve been doing them a heck of a lot more often than I did before the first of the year.
It both is and isn’t about being unrealistic. My personal tactic works something like this: If I absolutely had to do these things, am I capable? Yes. So I aim for that because I know that fulfilling those goals would be the best thing I could possibly do for myself. But I also bear in mind that the goals I set are ridiculously high, and I am ridiculously human, and if I manage to meet them roughly half-way, it’s already a huge improvement on what was before – namely nada.
Like with lots of things in life, I think it’s a game of balance. We must, on the one hand, be agile and ready for life to take its turns and accept things as they are, even if that doesn’t correspond to the vision we had in our brains for the future. But I think that vision is also very important…and it’s something I’ve really lacked in the last year, because I was really a ship without a shore…not a clue as to what direction I should be heading in to feel I was living the best life I could. I’m still not 100% certain about that, but it’s like the fog is clearing a bit, and my possibilities are coming a bit more into focus, not least because I’ve been squinting and straining to see them with all my might.
As Burkeman notes (via Popova – grazie mille), there’s a big part of us that is so petrified by the idea of not knowing that we can be very inclined to make important life decisions just to stop the uncertainty from consuming us. And (this bit here is from Saras Sarasvathy via Burkeman via Popova), studies have proven that people’s rigidity to the goals they set can be their own ruin – that the most successful people are those willing to bend and twist to the whims of the world rather than fight aggressively to achieve an end that might need tweaking any darn way.
But I’d be willing to bet that these “successful” people have an end in sight, even if they only keep in the corner of their eye, somewhere out on the horizon of possiblity…we don’t wash up on the shores of success by accident. That’s all I’m sayin’.