The other day, I was pawing through a box of books I had stored in the garage and was trying to decide if they were something I should drop off at The Salvation Army when I came upon Stephen Shapiro’s 2006 self-help gem, “Goal Free Living: How To Have The Life You Want Now.” It has been at least a decade since I read the book, but as I flipped through the pages I remembered it distinctly, and thought it would be a great reminder to pass on to my Calamity Politics readers to help them enjoy a healthy, happy 2018.
Shapiro is the first person that I can remember that gave me permission to release the religion of goal making that permeates our culture, and try to live without the restrictions of a set of goals.
I have been told since I was a kid, that goals of all kinds, big, small, wildly ambitious were all within my reach. I just had to want them bad enough. The rule seemed to be, if you can visualize it, you can have it; if you don’t know what you want (can’t visualize it), you might as well be lost at sea without a life preserver.
Shapiro disputes this American myth. In fact, Shapiro argues that if you want to be happy in its most broad interpretation, you need to throw that “five-year plan,” and the “life-time to do list,” into the garbage can.
Originally Shapiro was a motivational researcher. While doing interviews with business leaders for a book he discovered that after interviewing 150 of the country’s most successful people and traveling over 12,ooo miles the most fulfilled people were also the most spontaneous, and believe it or not, the least goal oriented. What? How could that be true? It goes against everything he, or I, have been taught.
After interviewing those 150 successful people in all fields of enterprise, from all parts of the country, Shapiro discovered that most of the successful people had taken a circuitous route to their eventual success, and it seems that the circuitous trip was what made the result, all the more satisfying.
Shapiro became convinced that the key to happiness comes from checking out the back roads and detours, both literally and figuratively, without fear of changing course. Shapiro is convinced that following goals may lead a person to financial wealth, but there is a good chance that if you follow the plan unquestioningly you will lose yourself and potential happiness.
First, “Ask yourself, whose goal is it, anyway?” According to Shapiro, “Most people’s goals aren’t their own. They tend to be driven by society and family pressure.” Second, when you focus on a goal he believes, it is like putting on a pair of blinders, you lose your peripheral vision, causing you to miss out on all kinds of great opportunities. Third, you will always be living for the future. You sacrifice today in the hopes that something wonderful will happen tomorrow. Goals are like that, you are always chasing them. Four, you are “courting failure” because you become attached to one outcome, and even if you achieve it, reality seldom matches the dream, and worse, it closes other doors to exploration and opportunity.
But all this seems to go against every core principle that I have been taught since childhood. How could all those books, seminars and teachers have been so wrong. I need those scraps of paper, those directions to success. I need my goals. Or, do I? How can I achieve anything if I don’t have a goal, no matter how much fun wandering around in the wilderness having great moments may sound?
Shapiro counters with, “Goal-free living isn’t about aimless, or things are getting tough” and I’m going to bail out, but rather it is about “being passion-driven in the moment, while knowing you can change course.” It is also about “getting out, playing, and trying lots of new and different things.”
The central message here is that you can’t find out what you love by just sitting around thinking about it, you must get out and experience it.
I am a goal-aholic, I can’t just toss away all my goals. Or, can I? I think Shapiro is saying “do you have the right goals and are you relating to them the right way?” Shapiro believes some people abuse goals, “as a way of escaping from being present in the here and now. They distract themselves by looking ahead. Life should be more into enjoying every single moment for what it is and allowing things to unfold.”
Hmmm, maybe I can do this.
I have been an RN for nearly 4 decades and one of the foundations of nursing is the Nursing Care Plan. The care plan for a patient provides direction and continuity of care. That mind-set is hard to just sweep away. However, I can see where a care plan to direct the care of a patient over a short-term period is not the same as the life time goal setting we do for ourselves. But, initially that professional methodology got in the way of me spreading my wings, and in fact still does in many ways. I wish I were better at this discarding everything I know.
Shapiro wants us to think about aspirations (working in government) versus goals such as (getting elected to congress on November 8th, 2018) because a broader aspiration will give you pleasure today and “success” becomes more broadly defined. The biggest complaint he has is with the institutionalization of SMART goals. In other words, Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results Oriented, and Time based. Sounds very similar to a Nursing Care Plan. The idea that you will know right away whether you’ve succeeded or failed is misguided and crippling.
The cure to the pain of a failed goal is to step back and ask yourself whether you defined the desired outcome too narrowly and whether you tried to control the uncontrollable. Shapiro reminds us, “Not only have you set yourself up for failure, but you’ve put a time limit on everything. Life is unpredictable, so give up control. Create many paths. And play hard.”
Above all, trash the idea that if you don’t succeed by Saturday morning at 11:30 you are a failure. Shapiro proclaims, “I’m not going to be done with what I’m doing till I’m dead. It is really about applying creativity to every aspect of your life.”
I like that, “applying creativity.”
Shapiro’s eight guide posts for living a Goal-Free Life:
1.) Use a compass, not a map. Allow yourself to take the less traveled path, allow yourself to try new things.
2.) Trust that you are never lost–every seemingly wrong turn is an opportunity to learn and experience new things.
3.) Remember that opportunity knocks often, sometimes softly–while we are blindly pursuing our goals. Sadly, we often miss unexpected and wonderful potentials.
4.) Want what you have. Measure your life with your own ruler. Appreciate who you are, what you do, and what you have, now.
5.) Seek adventure-treat your life as the one time only journey it is, and revel in new and different experiences.
6.) Learn to be a people magnet. Constantly seek, build and nurture relationships with new people gaining support and comradeship of others.
7.) Embrace your limits. Transform your shortcomings and perceived inadequacies into unique qualities that you can use to your advantage.
8.) Remain detached. Focus on the immediate. Act with a commitment to the future and stop fretting about how things will turn out.
I think Shapiro was on to something. I think he is right. Goals are by their very nature, self limiting. So, with 2018 just hours away I am giving you permission to toss that goal list and start living life.
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