Where am I going? What lays ahead for me on this journey I’m on? What if I go the wrong way? How can I get there quicker? These are the types of questions I’ve been asking myself for a very long time. They’re all about some imaginary destination, I figured I needed to get to. The next promotion, raise, course, certification or even retirement. Through my entire life I have put so much energy into trying to get somewhere, then once I get there it never seems like enough and so I start pursuing the next destination. It’s been a constant struggle to reach destinations my whole life. As a result, I’m not sure I was ever truly happy with where I was in life. Until recently that is.
Why the focus on destinations
I see our fascination with destinations as something we learn very early in life. This fascination may start in pre-schoolers, however, at the very least we start developing this fixation once we enter school. My evidence is the pressure put on students for better grades. You need to get better grades if you want to get ahead in life. You don’t want to fail a grade or you’re going to be left behind. Each year school kids are taught this lesson about destinations over and over. This doesn’t stop as when students go off to University or College the same pattern continues.
How many times do you hear people in school talking about hating school, or wanting to escape it to the real world I can hardly blame them, as it’s this never-ending cycle of working hard for destinations and once they get there it’s still not enough … keep going! What on earth is this teaching the young people other than how to survive on the treadmill of life … constant struggle and no matter how good you do it’s never good enough. Although I won’t try to make a direct connection I can only wonder how this treadmill we put our kids on contributes to serious problems such as mental health issues, addiction, and suicide.
The young adult finally escapes the educational system, and now they’re out in the real world. They have their first real job, and then what happens? They learn that instead of escaping, they’ve only graduated to the adult version. The focus on destinations is alive and well in the grown up world too. Instead of grades, they get performance appraisals, raises and bonuses. Instead of working hard to get to the next grade, they work hard to get that next promotion. Regardless of how far ahead they get, we’re taught it’s never enough and we need to keep going. It’s the same structure just framed a little differently. Throughout their career, they start focusing on the destination of retirement when they get to escape all of this madness and be truly free. It’s tragic when so many people get to retirement only to be unhappy there as well.
What’s the problem with setting goals
Truthfully there’s no real problem with setting goals for yourself and moving towards some destination. I set goals all the time, however, the intentions behind my goals and the way in which I go through life is what makes all the difference in the world.
Take, for example, my obsession with retirement a few years ago. I was in no place financially to retire at the time, and yet it’s all I wanted. I was so tired of being on the treadmill I created in my career that all of my actions, decisions and intentions were aligned with saving enough money for retirement.
This was about the same time I started working independently. Initially, I was taking contracts based on providing the income needed to retire sooner. I didn’t really care what the work was, nor did I care what I had to do. As long as they helped me with my goal of retiring sooner I thought I’d be happy.
It didn’t take long before my displeasure started growing inside of me again. It’s no different than the rest of my career, where each time I got a new job or promotion I would think “now I’ll be happy”. Then once I’d get there, I’d realise I hadn’t quite reached the destination and it’s time to work hard again going after the next goal. It’s the same treadmill I got on when I started school. Now the only difference is I have to constantly worry about finding the next contract to have the income I wanted.
In my case, the issue is my intentions were all about making money regardless of the cost. The cost of having this mindset was to sacrifice my happiness. There was little joy for me in the work I was doing, and in fact, despite being paid well the I really hated the work. This eventually led to me developing a really bad case of imposter syndrome too. It was just a vicious cycle I was in and I can see how I was actually making it worse.
If you’re so busy worrying about tomorrow you will struggle to find happiness today
Yesterday is gone and there’s no point dwelling there as it can’t be changed anyways. There’s no point worrying about tomorrow until today is yesterday. Why not be present in the day you have right now and live it fully?
I know when I’m more fully present with today so much more becomes available to me. I can be more fully with those I love and with the people I encounter on my journey. I am better at dealing with the problems I encounter throughout my day, and more importantly, I can enjoy all the wonderful things I see happening around me.
Leading for Change
When leaders focus on reaching some made-up destination their actions tend to align to reaching the destination rather than delivering quality. As leaders they get their people to fixate on the destination and often fall into the trap of pushing their team(s) towards getting there at all costs. Often it’s quality and/or morale that I’ve seen suffer, and as a result, outcomes tend to be lacklustre.
As a leader, it’s fine to establish goals with your team. It’s better to speak in terms of outcomes and let them figure out how to get there. With goals established, shift your focus to being present with what is happening today. Odds are, in their journey towards the goal your team is going to learn something about their goal.
What if the goal isn’t exactly the right place to be heading? If our only concern is reaching the originally defined goal, then we’re more likely to take corrective action to keep the team heading towards what is now an incorrect goal. However, if we’re present with what we’re seeing and learning today, then we’re more likely to provide the leadership needed to allow the team to adjust their goals allowing for the best possible outcome.