Monday, October 28, 2019

Goals. Good or bad?


I like going long and solo. It gives me time to think uninterrupted. On this particular fall day, I was perplexed about something and needed to figure it out. By the time I arrived back at my car, I was content with my conclusions. But let me start at the beginning.

Goals. What do we do with goals? Since our knee-high-to-a- grasshopper days we've been told we need to set goals; to aspire to great things.
  • Win the conference. 
  • Beat our nemesis, School XYZ
  • Run a PR
  • Shoot 85% from the free throw line
  • Claim a state title
  • Be highlighted on ESPN for claiming that National Championship we chased all season long.
Of course, goals are not unique to athletics. Business culture tells us we must set lofty goals because if we don't know what to shoot for, we'll miss every time.
  • Add 15 new clients
  • Increase sales by 30%
  • Be the leader in commissions
  • Earn that incentive trip to Hawaii 
  • Hang the plaque for winning the prestigious award for customer service
What about education? Goals are often set--and demanded.
  • Make the honor roll.
  • Claim bragging rights for a 4.0 GPA
  • Be at the head of the class
  • Score the highest on a test and nab an academic scholarship
  • Have three advanced degrees by the time you hit 30
Are goals motivating? Do they incentivize us? Maybe they do. Maybe they don't. And maybe, just maybe, a preoccupation with an end goal may distract us from being the best we can be along the way.


Let's say you are a soccer player. By definition, the team who wins the game will need to score more goals than the other team by the time the clock strikes zero. So then, should our emphasis be to win by scoring more goals than our opponent? Well, yes, of course. That is part of the game. But we need to put some qualifications on how much importance we place on the scoreboard.

Can we totally control who ends up with more goals? No. The other team might be bigger, faster, stronger, and much more skilled. They might be playing athletes who are on their way to professional careers. We might have sidelined our top three strikers with injuries. They may have scored the winning goal on a totally bizarre ricochet of the ball completely outside of our control.

Given all that, let's say the scoreboard says Them 2. Us 1 at the end of regulation time. We lost, right? Yep. Absolutely.
We lost by definition of the rules and intent of the game. No argument there. We may have done everything possible to win, but we were not able to come away with more goals than Them.

What do we do with this? Are we big fat losers? Are we failures? I contend that if the only thing we were shooting for was our team's neon number on the scoreboard, you may rightly conclude that we failed. However, the repercussions of such an attitude can be devastating, emotionally debilitating, and detrimental to future growth. It could create a dire situation that colors our every thought and action from that time forward.

However, what if we saw our intended outcome of the game (a win on the scoreboard) as an intermediate step in our journey to become excellent. To become the very best we can possibly be. To optimize every opportunity. To focus on the process and in doing so, surrender the outcome. To do every daily drill whole-heartedly and with purpose. To improve fitness. To build teamwork and foster relationships. To find a way to fight through challenges and struggles. To, as Joshua Medcalf writes in Chop Wood. Carry Water, "Dream big. Start small. Be ridiculously faithful. Focus on what you can control."

What if?

What if we saw a goal as a push pin on a travel map? You mark the beginning of the route and then
identify where you need to end up with another push pin. Next, you tie a string around each pin and carefully and thoughtfully determine the intermediary steps that will allow you to arrive at each location. Those intermediary stops are also marked with push pins, helping us define the path we need to take to get each destination. In this way, even an intimidating trip from LA to NY, for example, is broken down into doable, definable segments that will ultimately have you belting out New York. New York.

As I began my long trek through the mountains, I thought about what my "win" would be. Truly, getting back to the car alive and uninjured should put a check mark in the "W" column, similar to scoring more goals than the other team. By definition, my training run success meant that I had to start, cover about 23 miles, and arrive intact back at the car. It would require ascending some big mountains, descending the same, and passing through valleys, each presenting their own set of unique challenges.

The biggest climb of the day began with a northward ascent on the Appalachian Trail that promised to land me on the summit of Cold Mountain, a picturesque open bald that begs a rendition of "The hills are alive with the sound of music..."  But rather than seeing that mountain as simply a pushpin along the route, what if I viewed standing on the summit as THE goal to be achieved, nothing else mattering, forgetting there were miles to conquer after topping out? Well, here's what I think would happen.
  • I would appreciate the view for awhile and feel quite accomplished. (And yes, I know that Cold Mt. is not a terribly difficult climb. Just play along so I can try to make my point.)
  • Talking to the hikers who pass by might entertain me for a period of time.
  • As time goes on, I would start to feel the chill of the wind and put on my jacket.
  • The big rocks, warmed by the sun, would provide a spot to lay back and take a nap. This will help the time to pass.
  • The sun would begin to disappear beyond the mountains to the west.
  • The realization of being alone would settle into my soul. 
  • My excitement for being there would begin to diminish.
  • I would wish I had a blanket and a fire to keep warm. 
  • I wish there would be others to help me through the night, no matter how cold and blustery.
  • Darkness would displace the sunlight, leaving me to shiver in it's wake.
  • I would feel despondent and lonely, despite having accomplished THE goal.
  • By morning, I would be tired, cold, and hungry. 
  • With no one with which to share the experience, I would hang my head and head back down the mountain, dejected and depressed, and unappreciative of the journey to the top. 
Alternatively and so much better, what if I looked at the goal (in this case a well-executed traverse of the entire course) as a series of pushpins on a map? Each of these equally significant waypoints would allow me to concentrate on completing the smaller sections in a particular manner and with great focus. Certainly, the climbs require something different than the descents, smooth trail begs for increased speed, while technical trail demands more attention to footing. That grand mountaintop along the way simply becomes another pushpin on the map, helpful in tracking progress. The mountaintop is not, nor will it ever be, THE ultimate goal because it's only a tiny spot on a long, continuous journey.

Our goals, whatever they may be, should ultimately establish a series of "pushpins" for becoming great and achieving excellence. Our goals should demand ridiculous faithfulness in every step of the journey and in the controllable processes.The outcome will take care of itself.

There is little long-term satisfaction in holding high a championship trophy (although there is certainly nothing wrong with earning one). Just ask the myriads of champions who have been on the mountain and still feel small and unfulfilled. The significance of that hunk of metal will tarnishes in the aftermath of fleeting celebrations. But the greatest sense of fulfillment comes when the journey itself is embraced rather than chasing outcomes over which we have no ability to fully control. As Medcalf describes the person driven by a scoreboard, a championship ring, or a top podium finish, ". . .with one eye on the goal, you only have one eye for the journey." Sounds to me like an accident waiting for a place to happen.

I prefer my journeys to be taken with both eyes wide open and focused fully on the task at hand.

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