The futility of targets: Life Hacks by Charles Assisi
Our identity and self-worth are linked to the goals we achieve. Ironically, that is what binds us down as well.Updated: Jul 12, 2019 17:47 IST
There’s a photograph from last month that I can’t get out of my head — of hundreds of humans jammed in a queue, waiting to summit Mount Everest. What the image did not capture was heartbreak. Because the only reward for anyone who gets to that highest point on Earth is a few minutes, amid noise and chaos, to soak in their victory and try and take in the expanse of the Himalayas.
Staring at that image, the questions my teacher raised at a recent 10-day meditation course started to make sense. The first question he wanted us to spend time on was this: What is the most important thing to you right now?
In the silence, everything seemed important and urgent. Career, family, getting rich, staying fit, continual learning, and so on and so forth; until the questions started to scream through the silence. It started to get unbearable. To tame the noise, he posed another question: How does it feel when you engage in a physical sport?
Aggressive, competitive, driven by a desire to win, emerged as immediate answers. But in the silence that followed, the mind felt restless. Whatever happened to the child who played for fun? When did play become a task? What changed? What ought to motivate the adult self to play? Whatever might it take to resuscitate the child? There were no answers.
When a goal is part of who you are, it doesn’t overwhelm. It does not subsume identity. If you’re a mountaineer (as opposed to a one-off climber with just one peak in mind), you love the mountains, and maintain an equilibrium that allows you to get to them.
The teacher, then, had another question: What is your dream goal?
I’ve always thought that I know what I want. But when extrapolated against “what is most important to you”, the irony made itself apparent. I have too many “important goals”.
The teacher’s counsel was sought. He suggested the unnecessary be culled and I choose between living and life. Living is routine. Life is an experience.
Even as the import of that started to sink it, he posed another question: Is your happiness dependent on accomplishing your goal? Intuitively, it should be.
That is where the problem lies, he said. All goals come with pressure. Is that desirable? By way of example, you may want to ‘conquer’ Mount Everest. But what happens after you scale it? You feel euphoric. For a few minutes, maybe a few hours. Then that starts to dissipate. Until you find a new goal. The cycle is an endless one.
Why not be a mountaineer instead? A mountaineer doesn’t feel the need to clamber up a popular mountain to prove a point. Climbing is part of who they are. The goal doesn’t overwhelm. It does not subsume identity. You love the mountains, and maintain an equilibrium that allows you to get there. This is gentle discipline. It isn’t neurotic or sporadic. It’s lifelong.
You climb for the joy of climbing. You nurture others who seek to climb, and together form a community of people with common goals.
The distinction became clearer as I stared at the picture in the news. If I were among those climbers, my identity and self-worth would be tied to scaling that one peak. But if I chose to be a mountaineer, I’d be liberated. My happiness would be independent of where the world might think happiness lies. And I wouldn’t have to compete with anyone either.
There are those who get this idea and call it a moral compass. To acquire it is difficult and to stay on the path it points to is lonely. Those who can are called leaders.