Monthly Archives: January 2014

Why Success Won’t Save You

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I read an article today that said that only 8% of people who set resolutions actually make their goals. The article went on to say that “the very nature of resolutions set us up for failure.” The answer, according to the article, was to plan better. Set specific, achievable goals.

This begs a question. Is this blog totally against setting goals for anyone? Or just for me? The answer is that this blog is about motivation in general, and how to be motivated without being achievement oriented. Setting a goal to eat more salad isn’t going to make your neighbors think you are successful and most likely won’t make you feel as though you winning the never ending war on weight. So no, this blog isn’t about not setting goals; I’m not anti-goal. It’s me, the recovery achievement junkie that needs to not set goals for a good long time. However, constantly striving for achievement, swinging from one accomplishment to another like monkey bars to keep you out of some sandpit of “failure” or despair, now that I recommend against.

I would argue that this general aversion to achievement that I am putting forth, maybe even campaigning for, has its roots in our fear of failure.  If we try to beat back that fear of failure by setting goals so that we can be what we think others will think of as successful, then we are in a place of anxiety and are never fulfilled. No goal will get you to a place where you feel safe and restored, if that goal is to be “successful” as some kind of talisman against failure.

Let’s stop and think about failure first.  There are heaps and heaps of wildly accomplished people who have lovely things to say about failure.  “Think like a queen. A queen is not afraid to fail. Failure is another steppingstone to greatness,” says Oprah Winfrey.  A personal favorite from Winston Churchill is that “Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” So failure is not death, yes?

Another attack at this fear of failure is through the idea of abundance. Yes, I know, you are tired of hearing about abundance. The whole Secret thing back in the early 2000s kind of killed that right? The word makes me think of the yoga teachers who drive shiny new SUVs telling us to just leap into the forest of abundance and we’ll be safe. Sweetheart, have you seen my student loans? There is no leaping.

But honestly, the issue with success and constantly striving for it, can be based on the idea that there isn’t enough to go around.  This can provoke anxiety and competition, and all sorts of fun and games. I think money guru Marie Forleo says it well when talking about the need to see money as a measure of success and constantly striving after it. “I also don’t prescribe to a zero sum world-view based in scarcity. Meaning, if you get more money (or love, attention, fill in the blank) — that I get less. Both science and spirituality show us that through collaboration, innovation, generosity and partnership — our collective resources can truly be infinite.”

So with the idea that failure ain’t so bad, and won’t have us living in the park fighting the squirrels for food, I recommend against focusing on achievement as a life preserver.
Whatever is haunting you, if it is, isn’t going to go away with another title, or a better car, or running a marathon.  If it’s really haunting you, it’s going to pop back up with all sorts of new ideas, and at the same time make you worry about losing whatever title, car or marathon race medal you just managed to get your hands on.
This goes back to the idea of process addiction.  The idea that the process of getting the thing, of striving for the achievement at whatever costs, that blocks out the haunting until the striving is done.  As the Twelve Step group Workaholics Anonymous says “All these are ways we cope with the pain of having lost our sense of being and of not feeling good enough. Over-scheduling our lives with activities is how we run from ourselves. We keep busy to blot out our feelings.”
I think that some of our need for constant achievement has become hidden in the world of self-improvement. If you look to the life coaches and mentors who are having a positive effect, say Molly Mahar of Stratejoy or Andrea Owen of Your Kick Ass Life, the methods they suggest aren’t about hitting the next step, the next brass ring. They start with a premise that you, yourself, are fabulous as you are right now and that what you need is not improvement, but removal of the blocks that keep you from expressing your fabulous awesome.  In other words, removing the idea that failure might suck the life out of you as a block to being and contributing as you are. Right now. Right here.
I’ll hit this in a further blog post, but I think just in the way that we bond through Fat Talk, through disparaging our bodies to one another, I think we now bond over self-improvement. As in replacing, “I’m so chubby, I can’t believe I bought this ice cream” “Oh no, you clearly haven’t seen my thighs today” interchange, with “I need to focus on being mindful and of making the most out of every moment because I’m just not spiritual enough” “Oh, yes, and I never savor the moment as I should so that I can be aligned with the present.”
I’m not saying we shouldn’t strive to be more mindful, obviously I just discussed workaholism as an escape mechanism, but what I mean is, do you really need improvement? Do you really need to be better? Maybe you just need to ditch the fear and be ok with yourself. Yourself that is imperfect and lives in the middle and I bet, is loved by many people just as you are right now.
I know with my need to achieve, so much came out of feeling like a failure in junior high. Picked on by other kids, traumatized by some events. I set a goal one day of wanting to walk down the main street in my little town as a “success.” (We had moved away from the town when I was 15).  This goal propelled me into corporate law (even though I was happiest writing and drawing and being outside and am not attuned to the “looking out for number one” mindset you need to succeed in that environment). Once I did manage to get back to that little town, years and years later, after I’d stumbled out of corporate law and barely felt successful and was in a financial morass of debt, I did walk down that street. And I thought for a moment about the fact that I had started a couple of organizations, and had helped a few people out, and had managed to get through law school reasonably well, and I decided maybe that could be success for the day. It took the wind out of that desperate goal to show everyone I was as good as them. My thoughts of returning to corporate law evaporated after that day. As did my need to earn money to show people I was as good as them.
I still struggle with the need to achieve goals. I am a little lost at the gym without the goal of losing weight or training for a race/triathlon. What do you mean I just get on a machine and have fun? How do I win at that? Do I beat the guy next to me? Is there some gold star for burning calories? It’s a transition. It’s a new way of thinking and I’m clumsy with it. I recently hurt my right shoulder, enough so that reaching for things became extremely painful. As in reaching for doors, opening jars, giving the bouncy dog scratches with both hands. It’s been about two weeks and its better now, but I struggled to figure out that I should be opening doors with my left hand (and foot) and maybe the bouncy dog could have scratches with one hand for a couple weeks and be ok (she didn’t care at all).  The point is, its clumsy, but it gets you through.
I’m struggling with trying achievement at work too. Not that I can abandon work for a couple days while my brain gets used to not trying to Be The Best at work or bill the most, but that I am currently in a situation where I literally have no motivation to put effort into my work. If I carefully craft an awesome motion it gets the same effect as if I throw something together at the last minute riddled with typos. The problem is, not that I want to be the best, but that I want to have pride in my work. It’s a fine line though. Because it means I have to focus on me having pride in my work, not on an external source of judgment. As in, I have to finish a memo and decide for myself that its lovely and useful, even though no one is actually going to read it properly (given the dynamics of the Philly courts).  And yes, I realize this is a terrible working environment and am doing my best to move along. Which does in fact raise other problems. When faced with a job hunt, what does a recovering achievement junkie do? Let’s go with, decided to look at it from a purely practical perspective: I decided I needed XX amount of money over XX hours and that whatever fits that bill will work. I do have a ton of projects, I am working to fill my resume with other things so I can leave what I’m doing now, but I’m constantly working to remind myself that none of these projects is on a deadline.  None of them are going to make me a better, stronger, prettier person.  And that it’s entirely possible that I will screw one or all of them up. And if I do, so what? If I fail at my class on policy analysis will my dog no longer love me? Probably not, she’s a fairly nonjudgmental sort. If I fail what is the worst that could happen? I’m out my tuition dollars. Which sucks, but they can be made back up again. The worst that happens is not that I don’t get to leave my job eventually. The worst that happens is not that I get sucked into some whirlpool of awful that I can’t get out of.  The worst that happens is that I wasted some time, and probably had fun doing it. Fear of failure, meet focus on learning, on growing.
Am I advocating that the answer to our addiction to achievement is to focus on growing and learning and stumbling through failure. Not really, because if you have kids or elderly parents that are relying on you, the stakes for failure are much higher. I get that. I really do. But I am saying that if you are rushing from status to status, from 5K to marathon in six months, that looking at what’s following you two steps behind, at what’s robbing you of fun or joy or a sense of accomplishment with these things, might be a good idea.
That’s my plan.
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Finding Opportunities Without Setting Goals

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I did not set a goal of making more money this year.  In fact, I didn’t even set an intention to make more money. And yet, I’ve had two possible maybe almost opportunities to make more money come up in the last 24 hours.

I also did not set a goal of teaching more yoga. Of finding ways to be on more non-profit boards and do more social policy. And yet, in the last 15 days, I’ve been invited to join boards, invited to assistant teach at one of my favorite yoga fundraising events, and wiggled my way onto a committee on a topic I’ve been following/advocating/trying to get other people to pay attention to for four years.

Why am I telling you all of this? To brag? Well, kinda. As in, look, I can still be a successful person and do cool shit even if I don’t set any goals. That so long as I follow my heart and say yes to every opportunity and don’t think “am I good/cool/thin/awesome enough to really do that?” and just go run after things that seem like fun or resonate with me, then I will have a million opportunities start cropping up in all sorts of places.

This really fits my theory that setting goals is sort of vision-limiting. As in, you only see the goal you are focusing on, rather than a million other opportunities to grow and learn and fail and change and shine. It’s like when I decided my next car would be a Subaru, then all I could see on the road were Subarus. They were following me. They were everywhere! I didn’t see any Hondas and certainly no Toyotas.  Setting a goal of making more money or getting a new job (that is one of my goals, though money has nothing to do with it) had me focusing only on either money or leaving my current job. It didn’t allow for colleagues to call and say they wanted me to come join their firm because the work was more interesting.  And setting goals like “I want to publish a book from this blog” would be limiting because then I’d only be thinking of what would be good fodder for a book, instead of just writing. And really, when I am curious and think of things I’d like to write about, they are everywhere. When I sit down and think, what would be good for a book, all the sudden my creative juices pucker up like they ate a lemon and I’m still sitting there, with the dog staring at me, 15 minutes later.

The moral of this story (is there one?) is that I’m finding that it feels truly hard for me to live without a set goal, I feel sort of aimless and like I’m not getting anything done, but then when I actually catalog all the stuff I’ve gotten done in the last two weeks (two articles published, invite to speak on international issues, green lighted on starting a peer mediation program, pounced on an opportunity to work on anti-trafficking legislation, invites to teach yoga, invites to join a board, and on and on), it’s kind of a gigantic load of stuff. And I honestly, couldn’t be happier about the millions of cool things I am working on right now. Even without those guidepost/northern stars to direct me.

Learning to Be Less

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I made this promise, this idea that I would not set any goals this year. And I made it because I spent 2013 locked in an epic battle of being exhausted from working too much and trying to do to much and also trying to learn to slow.the.f.down. In fact, I started berating myself for not knowing how to slow down. At one point I found myself racing down I-95 to get to a yoga class so I could relax, arguing with drivers in front of me who were, clearly, maliciously, keeping me from relaxing. I even found myself yelling at myself to balance, BALANCE! It was more than just a desire to do things. Many, many things. It was a desire to be more. More of a person. More of the person who runs races and makes it to yoga class and billed 10 hours that day. And published those articles. And made that homemade meal. And had a clean house.

And so, realizing that I had pinned my life down in small pieces by setting all these goals, like a biologist pins dried butterflies to a cork board, and had left no room to explore, I set about trying to slow down. I quit training for a marathon.  I quit trying to bill a million and five hours. I quit trying to do everything all the time for everyone. And it didn’t work that well. I still had weight-loss goals that I set up little bribes or rewards for myself to meet.  I still tried to set up running goals that were smaller. Maybe if the goals and achievements were smaller, I could do all of them, yes? No.

And thus, no goals.

So how is it going?

On January 4, (yes, three days into the plan of having no goals) I tried to revive a running goal. Reading through the Women’s Running Community on Facebook, I found a sweet post about a woman who ran her first 5K of 2014 and had a personal best time. Yay her. I wanted to set some records for myself this year, I recalled. Last year I set a goal of running a 5K in 27:30. I beat it by 10 seconds. So I decided to set another goal to beat that time by a minute. See something starting here? There’s never enough. There’s always something lower or better or faster.

Reading through the sweet post about breaking a personal time record, I said to my darling man that I remembered wanting to run in 26:30 (and behind that getting back to my college time of 21:30).  “That’s a goal.” He said simply. Right. It was. “How about, I’d like to run faster this year?” How about that. That is an intention. Something that might be fun to work on. Sprints in the winter around an indoor track are actually kind of fun. Or puke-inducing depending on how you do them. “That sounds much better.”

So I was three days into this project and already wrestling with need to set goals. How can I just run faster? Don’t I need some kind of end point? And what counts as faster?

In reality, the question I was really asking myself was “will it be faster for other people? Will it count for the Runner’s World articles on running fast? Will I win my age group at 5Ks?” All external measures of faster. The same as the definition of goals – something measurable with clear steps to take to achieve it. But that’s where the problem came from. The achieving of things. The dependence on checking items off a list to feel good about, well. Anything. Myself, my work up to this point. Anything.

So how do I figure out if I’m meeting my intention of running faster? Really? It’s going to have to be the uncomfortable and harder to deal with idea of feeling it. Going to the gym and simply running some sprints. Then doing 5ks that look fun. And having fun. Running with no plan other than to have a good time outside.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

And to be honest, letting go of those weight loss goals – the last 10 lbs, of a 50 lb goal – is super hard to do when we are bombarded with news and web ads and little birds carrying banners, no not the last one, but tons and tons of messages about Achieving your New Year’s Goals. Stepping on a scale still triggers the idea of how much more I have to lose, instead of I wonder how much water I’m retaining from last night’s delicious meal? But I know, just as with running, that there are always more pounds to lose after achieving the “goal weight.” There will always be something that can be fixed or tightened up or moved around. Letting go of a goal to lose means letting go of the idea that with work and focus and maybe even a little obsessiveness I can be more perfect and won’t have to walk around feeling sloppy or like people will assume I’m not trying hard enough, in other words, imperfect. Letting go of a goal of losing the last so many pounds means learning to live with being less than.  Less than the idea I have in my head of what a successful person looks like (hint: everything is ironed and never wrinkles).  Less than the idea I have in my head that if I can achieve whatever society/the media/the mean girls have decided is the correct way to look today (thin! no curvy! no thin! no superdooper cross fit buff! no curvy!) then I will be insulated from criticism from said society/mean girls.  So it’s learning to live with being less than perfect rather than yearning to weigh less and less and less.

We’ll see how that one goes as well.

A Goal By Any Other Name?

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This New Year’s there were plenty of folk decrying the New Year’s Resolution – saying things varying from they’d rather focus on a theme for their year, key words they wanted to evoke during the new year , or even my favorite from the lovely Molly Mahar, to focus on ways of being, and let goals and directions and tasks flow from that.

So, if this blog is about achievement junkie me trying hard to break that pattern of thinking and learning to be more… well, learning to be, then shouldn’t we talk about what a “goal” is? Dictionaries define a goal as the purpose toward which an endeavor is directed; an objective, an intention.  But I’d argue that a goal and an intention are different, very distinct, things.

A goal, in my short, narrow view, is a specific event or thing that can be achieved.  For example, “Run the Philly 2014 Marathon” is a goal. It has a deadline, a specific action and tasks that have to be performed to accomplish it – in this case, training for and actually running 26.2 miles.

An intention is an idea, an aim or a purpose.  When I taught yoga, I would describe an intention as a the thing you seek that is, ultimately, also seeking you.  I would provide peace, love, clarity, joy, and honor as potential intentions.  When I get on my yoga mat to practice, I sometimes dedicate my practice to someone I love who might need an extra boost of good vibes, like a sister with health issues, or a friend with a broken heart, or I might state specifically what my plan is for that practice – “to be here, and now” or “to feel centered and grounded.”

While you can say that your goal is to be centered and grounded, how to you quantify it? I was 80% present at work today? I was present during the meeting on benefits again even when I didn’t really understand it? There are specific things you can do to become more centered and grounded, yes, go to yoga, sleep more, be clearer in your communications, etc., but again, not a clear way to quantify it. There’s no “win” there – no ZING! I did it, I am now balanced and happy? So intentions are those things that we can strive for, but maybe won’t set off the achievement hungry monkey inside saying “feed me things to check off my list!”

So a goal is not an intention, it is something that is, for our purposes, quantifiable, with actions to take and a deadline.

How then, do you motivate yourself to do things you want – for example, I want to feel more fit, I want to start a small online boutique, change my job, and I want to write more – without having deadlines and specific tasks to do?

As Laura Vanderkam states in her article on giving up goals in Fast Company, found here, “having a sense of where you’re going vastly increases the chances that you’ll get there.” Ok. So far so good. We know where we want to go – what things we want to do more of in 2014 – and thus, we’ve announced them to the universe (well, at least to the one person reading this blog).

Laura’s point, though, is that sometimes you have to let go of goals because you evolve away from them. That is, let go of goals that don’t serve you.

Other research, at least on the business end of things (and I did declare in my barbaric yawp that I wanted to start an online boutique) that goal setting can be harmful.  In a Harvard Business Review article, the authors discuss using goals to motivate employees and start with noting that “advocates of goal setting argue that for goals to be successful, they should be specific and challenging, and countless studies find that specific, challenging goals motivate performance far better than “do your best” exhortation.” The article can be found here. However, the authors found that “the use of goal setting can degrade employee performance, shift focus away from important but non-specified goals, harm interpersonal relationships, corrode organizational culture, and motivate risky and unethical behaviors. [and ] In many situations, the damaging effects of goal setting outweigh its benefits.” This study is also discussed here where the author suggests keying into areas of focus.

They note, as we have, that goals focus attention. However, goals focus attention so narrowly that people can overlook other important features of a task.  In our case, as we’ve discussed, goals have specifics, they have quantifiables. A goal of a marathon has a training plan attached.  That means, the goal of running the Philly Marathon in 2014 would have specific tasks of running 10 or 12 miles. That attention on the miles tends to take attention off of the actual enjoyment of the running.  I know that when I was banging out 12 mile runs last year, I wasn’t enjoying being outside as much as when i just ran. That’s a whole other post thought.

The authors state that “With goals, people narrow their focus. This intense focus can blind people to important issues that appear unrelated to their goal.” I think, on a larger scale, if I set goals of doing specific things – at last count last year I had about 20 goals – to run a marathon, to do yoga every day, to bill however many hours, to write however many articles, I lost focus on other things. Everyday things, like making home made pizza and having a beer with my friends.

So what do others do instead of setting goals? Come on, I’d love to be ground breaking here and say I was the only blog talking about not setting goals (but I will be the only one who talks about motivation and also talks about our addiction to getting shit done which glorifies busy-ness). Let’s take a peak:

  • some blogs talk about setting One Word as their focus to encourage activity or to set a theme
  • some blogs talk about the fact that without goals, their projects were unfocused and didn’t have follow through like this one
  • others (on fitness) urge readers away from goals “Its not the goals that matter, its the method, systems, or plan that do.”
  • others talk about goal setting as creating burnout, that goals may hurt more than they help
  • some blogs discuss the idea that creating goals can stifle creative outlets, and suggest that readers focus on starting habits instead
  • one of the most helpful does talk about goals, but frames them in terms of three questions: what is your vision, what do you want to learn, and how can you perform it authentically, i.e., in a way that makes you your best self?
  • Another provides six ways to challenge yourself, based on your feelings and reactions, to live outside your comfort zone, get to know yourself more, and find things and actions that resonate with you.
  • many refer to Leo Babuta’s Zen Habits and having a year with no goals.
  • the last exhorts that you create a reminder list of what you want to do on a living, dynamic areas of focus

So how do I plan to take on this year of having no goals? First, and most importantly 28d354a4bf5476448434b995d6a9c4a2

As I said, I have things I want to do, priorities and ways of being I want to encourage this year. But I also am someone who burned out pretty hard in 2013. As in, at one point literally couldn’t get out of bed. A person who could drink a latte and then take a 4 hour nap. Caffeine didn’t work because I was so exhausted from killing myself on 10 and 12 hour days, training for a marathon and trying to run around the Delaware Valley taking care of friends and family.

I’m starting with those priorities, and inviting them in. My priorities are to write more, find a job where I don’t have to pick up a sword and shield to do battle with the billable hour, where a 9 to 5 schedule is easier to enforce, and to start this little online boutique. To do those things, I have certain tasks I need to do, but I don’t need to fall back into achievement junkie mode of focusing only on the tasks rather than being present in my every day. This is why motivation is so clutch to this project. This isn’t a blog about sitting around going “om”. It’s one where I have plans and priorities and things I want to get done, the question is, can I get them done without falling back into that process addiction of doing too much all the time without a core belief in my worth without the checked off to do list?