Booker Prize winner Richard Flanagan and the perils of success

It can be useful to have goals in life, but there are three big problems with focussing too much on achieving your goals and ambitions.

Booker Prize winner Richard Flanagan and the perils of success
photo credit: nicklally via photopin cc

And his life was now, he felt, one monumental unreality, in which everything that did not matter – professional ambitions, the private pursuit of status, the colour of wallpaper, the size of an office or the matter of a dedicated car parking space – was treated with the greatest significance, and everything that did matter – pleasure, joy, friendship, loved – was deemed somehow peripheral.”

Richard Flanagan. The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

“When you hear ‘She is very successful’ or ‘He’s made a success of himself’, what does that conjure up for you? Our society generally defines success in terms of achieving goals: fame, wealth, status and respect; a big house, a luxury car, a prestigious job, a huge salary. When people achieve these things, our society tends to label them as ‘successful’. But if we buy into this popular notion of success, we set ourselves up for a lot of unnecessary suffering.

How so? Well, this view of success inevitably pulls us into the ‘goal-focused life’, where we are always striving to achieve the next goal. We may strive for more money, a larger house, a better neighbourhood, smarter clothes, a slimmer body, bigger muscles, more status, more fame, more respect and so on. We may strive to win this game or tournament, or make that sale, or get that promotion, or win that contract, or find a more attractive partner, or buy that smart car, or get that qualification, or earn that university degree. And the illusion is, ‘When I achieve this goal, then I will be successful.’

There are at least three big problems associated with going through life this way. First, there’s no guarantee you will achieve those goals, or they may be a long way off – which leads to chronic frustration and disappointment. Second, even if you do achieve them, they will not give you lasting happiness; usually they give you a brief moment of pleasure, satisfaction or joy – and then you start to focus on the next goal. Third, if you buy into this notion of success, it will put you under tremendous pressure – because you have to keep on achieving and achieving to maintain it.’

Russ Harris. The Confidence Gap.

How to achieve your true goal

Setting goals can guide us through the maze of modern life, but the process of working towards those goals can be more important than achieving them.

How to achieve your true goal
photo credit: t i g via photopin cc

It is only those who know neither an inner call nor an outer doctrine whose plight truly is desperate; that is to say, most of us today, in this labyrinth without and within the heart. Alas, where is the guide, that fond virgin, Ariadne, to supply the simple clue that will give us the courage to face the Minotaur, and the means to find our way to freedom when the monster has been met and slain?”

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Suppose you are out skiing, and when you got off the lift, you mention to the person who rode up the lift with you that you plan to ski down to the lodge where you’re going to meet up with some friends for lunch. “No problem” this person replies, and suddenly he waves to a helicopter above, that upon his signal, swoops you up and speedily deposits you at the ski lodge. You protest vigorously, but the pilot is incredulous. He says, “What’s your beef, my friend? It was you who said the objective was to get from the summit down to the lodge!”
The helicopter pilot would have a point if getting to the lodge were the only issue. If it is, flying down the slope achieves exactly what skiing down achieves. Both have you start at the top and end up at the lodge. The helicopter even has notable advantages: you don’t get cold, or tired, or wet, for example.

There is only one problem with this. The goal of getting to the lodge was meant to structure the process of skiing. That process was the true “goal.”

You have to value “down” over “up” or you can’t do downhill skiing. Aiming at a specific goal (the lodge) allows you to “orienteer” one way to go down the hill. But the true goal is just to ski, not reaching the goal (the lodge).

In precisely the same way, the true goal of goals is to orient you toward your values so you can live a valued life, moment by moment. A successful ACT patient put it this way toward the end of therapy: “I just want to do this because that’s what I want my life to be about. It’s not really about any outcome. I want to be alive until I’m dead.” Goals can help you do exactly that. But be careful! Your mind will often claim that the true goal is the goal itself (after all, evaluating outcomes is what this organ evolved to do), and it will suggest that you should cut corners (like violate your integrity, or ignore other valued aspects of your life) to get there. That defeats the whole purpose, and if you succumb to cutting corners, accomplishing your goals will only mock you.

Steven C. Hayes & Spencer Smith. Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

* In a series of posts I call mythology Monday, I look at quotes from the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell and consider them alongside extracts from books and papers on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and related publications.

Don’t let excuses stop you

Everyone makes excuses. It’s a part of what we do, just try to recognise them as excuses and don’t let them get in the way of your dreams.

The Great Lover by Jill Dawson
The Great Lover: A Novel

Lots of the people I meet on courses say that they’re waiting till their kids grow up, they’re waiting till they retire till they have time, and that’s when they’ll start their novel. My advice has been consistent for the twenty-odd years I’ve been teaching creative writing: don’t wait, there’s never a perfect time. Do it now.

Jill Dawson. Five top tips on writing from Jill Dawson. Retrieved March 11, 2014, from The Guardian.

‘As soon as you have to face any sort of challenge, your mind will come up with a whole list of reasons not to do it: ‘I’m too tired’, ‘It’s too hard’, ‘I’ll only fail’, ‘It’s too expensive’, ‘It’ll take too long’, ‘I’m too depressed’ etc. And that’s okay, as long as we see these reasons for what they are: excuses.’

Russ Harris. The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living: A Guide to ACT