Looking for something else and finding life

Don't let long-term goals hold you back from the little things in life.

Rev. Yme Woensdregt

We are taught to admire the person who seems to know where s/he is going in life. Society tells us that setting goals in life is an important life skill. People repeat maxims such as “You can’t hit a target you haven’t set up” or “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” Or they ask, “Where will your life be in 3–5 years?”

There is some value to setting goals for yourself. But I am discovering that it’s not really as critical as some people think it is. These days, when people ask about the next 5 years of my life, I often respond, “I’d be grateful to be alive, thank you.” I don’t mean to be flip; I simply want to emphasize that to me the important issue is how I live my life, and not just the goal.

It occurs to me that this practice comes from the world of business. When a blockbuster company is “analyzed,” the analysts don’t put the CEO on a couch and ask him how he feels. They look at three important numbers: 1) how many sales were made this year? 2) how many more sales are projected in the coming year? 3) how will the company grow?

This business approach of setting and achieving goals has become such a large part of how we think and talk.

But it doesn’t work for me. I know how to do it. I have tried, but I have discovered that as soon as I put my goals on paper, I want to do something else. Or I found that the accomplishments I had picked out of the air really didn’t have much to do with what actually happened.

As a result, I would become depressed or angry as a result, thinking that if I didn’t reach my goals, there must be something wrong with me. Or it was someone else’s fault.

In my 40s, I was able to lay this approach aside.

Before I continue, let me repeat that in some cases, limited goal–setting works well. When you’re trying to get a degree, or meet a deadline, or getting an important task completed, short–term goals are important.

But increasingly I began to find that setting larger goals (what some call “life–goals”) was like building larger prison walls for me; it left me feeling caged and deprived of the things I desired most, things like learning, friends, or an openness to learning about life from different angles.

I have a different approach to life these days, one which focuses more on the journey than on the goal. I have discovered that while I am on the way to something, I end up noticing and pursuing something else, which ends up helping to define a new contour in my life.

Here’s an illustration of what I mean. When I go to the library to look for a particular book, I also like to wander through the stacks. Just so you know I’m not an old fogey, it works the same way when I go online to look for specific information. Like the library, I will spend a few minutes surfing the internet. For some reason, this only works for me when I am seeking specific information or a particular book.

In the library or online, I search for a specific book or item I find it, pick it up, or learn it. Then I look around at the larger context. Maybe one of the other Internet search results catches my eye. Perhaps a book lying close to my targeted book looks interesting. I pick it up or check it out. I would say that more than 50% of the time, I find myself choosing to look at the newly–discovered item rather than the item I thought I wanted.

And, then, this newly–discovered item leads me to other items that I wouldn’t have noticed if I just was after my target book or search result. Many of my columns come from this kind of learning.

The same holds true with personal relationships. Sometimes I will ask people how they met their partners. Many say it was by chance, or when they were pursuing something else, or even someone else. They just happened to be at a meeting or an event where the other person was present. Or they were interested in one person, and noticed someone else who became more important to them.

I tend to interpret one of my favorite Scripture passages from this perspective. Jesus is talking to his followers: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).

Jesus was speaking in the context of what it meant to follow him and be his disciple. But it also applies to our basic approach to life. If we do everything we can to try to save our life, by planning it out to the last minute, we end up losing our lives. Our life will slip out of our hands.

But when we pay attention to other voices outside ourselves, when we pick up the extra book, or spend some time with an interesting article you never intended to look at, or when we spend time with that person who comes across our path, we can see how our lives open up in ways we never imagined.