It happened again. I was just publicly recognized for a goal that took me four years to reach. Immediately I spun into the emotional state that I call the goal hangover.
Goals suck, by the way.
We’re supposed to “find our passion” and make a “bucket list” and a “vision board” and then celebrate when we make all this stuff happen. For the record, the first three parts of that process definitely work as advertised. The trouble is the celebration part.
How can I celebrate when I now have NO GOALS??
Right now, I’m on a goal cycle in the 3-4 year range. I’ve been in this situation several times with wildly different types of goals, and I’m starting to learn to expect it.
I went back to college after my divorce, got my bachelor’s... and then spent months recovering from a respiratory infection
I got my driver’s license at age 29... and then had to commute on the freeway an hour a day
I ran a marathon, got the race medal... and then borked my ankle and spent months in physical therapy
I tackled my paralyzing fear of public speaking, earned my Distinguished Toastmaster award, and then...
This is something that tends to be an open secret for newlyweds. There is an entire industry built around Your Special Day, holding wildly expensive and impractical wedding ceremonies. But then - ta da - you’re married. The premise of marriage is that no day is special; you’re just living a new and different default mode.
(I super-love being married and I think our wedding ceremony was pretty modest - we mainly wanted an excuse to go on a honeymoon).
Marriage includes a bunch of stuff that a wedding typically does not: clearing hair out of the drain, loading the dishwasher, filing taxes, and debating whether to talk to the neighbors about one of their weird loud habits. Marriage is only one example among many of how what was once a lovely fantasy becomes the new baseline, the pretty ring on the vision board now just an ordinary fashion accessory.
Every goal is like that. You strive and strain for it, and then you reach it, and then it simply becomes a thing you can do. It’s a skill, a memory, or something you have worked into the shape of your body.
The trouble with goals is that for those of us who thrive on challenge, reaching the goal means the end of the challenge. It’s a bit of a letdown. What am I supposed to do with my spare time now? Sort laundry and watch TV? So you’re telling me that my reward for reaching my goal is... nothing??
Well, the medal or the trophy or the diploma or the...
Ordinary state of goalless being
Probably most people are more comfortable not having the stress of an impending goal. Most goals are very practical, like paying rent or getting the car fixed. I realize that lacking a goal is a strange problem to have, a problem of privilege -
And indeed, I use some of that privilege to try to help others acquire some privilege of their own -
And yet I find the prospect of having no goals to be disappointing, dull, and boring.
When I was several days into my case of COVID-19, I felt that I might die. I might die quite soon. It felt like such a pitiful waste. I lay there for days, thinking about my stupid day planners and my stupid goal lists and my stupid resolutions. It occurred to me that there would be no lasting legacy, that when someone else went through my stuff, they’d throw it into a bag and get rid of it. Rightfully so. I had very little to show for my time on this planet. Even though I’m a whole body donor, they probably couldn’t even use my poor organs.
At that point, I decided to trash my existing goals.
I decided that the old me had officially died and that, if I ever managed to get up out of my sickbed, I would start fresh.
Being very ill is the most boring thing in the world. It’s hard to sleep and there is very little to attend to while awake. Too sick to read or watch a movie. Too sick to do much of anything but let your mind wander. That’s when I started pondering over the idea of what I would do.
What would you do if you actually had a fresh lease on life?
A real chance to start over?
One of the first decisions I made, after choosing to trash my previous goals, was to act on my intentions more quickly. If there was a book I wanted to read, I would start it right away, rather than add it to a list. If there was a movie I wanted to see, I’d watch it that night - and be grateful when I could track a plot for longer than five minutes without getting confused. If I was thinking about someone, I would reach out right away and write them a note.
This is a way of having “goals” without having a backlog, a paradoxical way of having few to zero goals. Just do everything in the current moment.
That, though, didn’t seem inherently challenging enough. Was that all I was going to do for possibly the next forty years of my life? Read, watch movies, and text people?
Sure, that was more than I could handle at the time, but I knew if I survived intact I would presumably want more than that one day.
Could it be a physical goal? I had no idea, but I did know I had it in me to do whatever it took to get my physical stamina back. If it takes five years, I’ll do it, because what the heck else would I do?
Could it be a mental goal? I didn’t know, but I did know I really, really wanted to be able to read again and I would never quit trying. (It worked).
I did choose something. In fact, I chose a few things. I decided that I wanted to get a normal job again, and go to grad school, and that I still wanted to try for the ultramarathon.
If I lived.
These were some of my deathbed realizations: that I’m a challenge-oriented person, that challenge is what keeps me happy and motivated, and that I want to be where the action is. I want to do the obvious things, the things that are of a large enough scale to be worth my attention for the next few years.
What are yours?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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