My friend Susan wrote, “Although I am ashamed to admit it….I don’t think I have any goals right now. At least there are none that have crystallized for me. I am a goal-setter, always have been, and have achieved almost all that I have set….
What I am trying to do is feel comfortable being in the moment of my life, my career, my health…I know all too well that none of those important ‘issues’ are unchanging. Tomorrow I may lose my job, my health or even my life. I am unsure of my role in my current job, but at the moment I am enjoying it. So…is it a problem to feel goal-less in my life and career? Am I being less productive than I could be? How is being goal-less affecting my work…?
Susan’s questions touch on many important issues.
What exactly is a goal and why are goals important?
According to the dictionary, a goal is: the object of a person’s ambition – an aim – toward which effort is directed. We set goals for things we want to be different in the future, not for what we are currently satisfied with. By their very nature, goals are future-oriented.
A myriad of research studies[i] have demonstrated that goals are important because they help us get what we want, keep us from drifting aimlessly, and that people with clear goals are more satisfied.
But goals are not what’s most important.
Goals are actually guideposts, milestones that mark the way. They help us navigate the road that fulfills our needs and connects us with our hopes and desires. When we are clear about what we truly desire, goals can help us get there.
Although we can never really control our future, if we understand our priorities, our values and what’s most important, we can adapt our goals to help get us where we really want to go. [ii]
What kinds of goals do you tend to set?
Usually we set goals to help fill a need – something we want in the future that we don’t have now. The kinds of goals we set depend on what needs and desires are most pressing. Abraham Maslow, a seminal contributor to understanding motivation described a hierarchy of needs, implying they are developmental in nature.[iii] But as Susan has quite articulately described, our needs can change. Health can become an issue unexpectedly, and what Maslow considered a lower level need suddenly becomes a primary need.
Current research has focused on two types of goal-orientation – performance (achievement) and learning (mastery). Some people gravitate more toward one type or the other, although it’s also thought that one could be motivated by both. [iv] And when we set goals, most people focus on these.
Six Goal Genres
It might be more helpful to consider your goals from the perspective of six genres. They are not linear, hierarchical or developmental. None is more important than another. At various points in your life, depending on your circumstances, any one of the six genres of goals might emerge as most pressing.
What do you do when your habitual Goal Genres no longer serve your needs and desires?
It’s likely that Susan is used to focusing on certain genres of goals that are no longer necessary for her, given her current level of accomplishment and competence. This is not an uncommon experience for highly accomplished men and women who are in the throws of mid-life.[v]
I’ve observed that as we grow older, the things we held as goals, whether we accomplished them or not, are not as compelling.
Presence: The Missing Goal Genre
Susan wants “to feel comfortable being in the moment of my life.” And here’s where her confusion comes in. Without an understanding of this Goal Genre, she believes she is goalless.
Most of us have had an experience, a moment when you know you HAVE everything you need, …where you know you ARE everything you need to be …and that there is NOTHING you need to do.
It might be at the birth of your child or when making love with someone you deeply love, or just simply a moment while floating on a raft in a pond on a warm, sunny summer day, or sitting on a porch and watching the sunset until the sky fades from dark purple to black, …and you realize I could die at this moment and I wouldn’t regret a thing. You feel alive and vibrant and it is enough.
The interesting thing about these moments is they don’t require you to climb a mountain, parachute from a plane, or go on an African safari. They occur when we deeply connect with our present experience, whatever it is.
Usually these moments are fleeting, but for some very lucky people, these moments can last for a long time.
When we reside in the moments of perfection, our typical future-oriented goals seem absurd. You have no goals because each moment is perfect. You have arrived.
HOWEVER… When you are not residing in that state of perfection, and when it is what you most deeply desire, you do have a goal – to recapture that state of Being.
The Challenge of the Presence Goal Genre
Ironically, you can’t approach goals in the Presence Genre in the same way you have learned to do so successfully in the other genres. Nature plays a trick on us. Paradoxically, using our future-oriented goal-setting skills that work so well in the other genres to return to the state of Presence can have a reverse effect.
These special moments exist exactly because we are not future-oriented. Instead of trying to control or achieve, we are accepting and appreciating.
But there is good news. It doesn’t mean you can’t have goals for this genre. They just need to be a little different.
- You can have a goal to live your life to its fullest - to be present to each experience as it unfolds, whether it is happiness or pain, joy or loss.
- You can have a goal to be true to your nature.
- You can have a goal to love yourself and to be as kind to yourself as you are to others, which means forgiving yourself when you have been judgmental, unkind, unloving or disconnected.
- And you can have a goal that when you do fall off the path, to recognize it as soon as possible so you can return.
- You can have a goal to learn to meditate so you can learn to discipline your thinking.
- You can have a goal to participate in experiences that help you lead from within.
- You can have a goal to connect with people who understand and share these goals.
Caveat – take these goals seriously but treat them lightly. Do not turn Presence into a project, because you will be approaching it from the Mastery or Achievement genre and as they say, “you can’t get there from here.”