The Goal Is Not The Goal

By Anthony Gold

Early in my career, conventional wisdom held that the way to achieve great things was to first set what are known as BHAGs.

Big Hairy Audacious Goals

The bigger the goal, the more you would challenge yourself to achieve the goal – so the theory went.

And while there is nothing inherently wrong in setting BHAGs, the reason most people don’t achieve them is not because they are too big, but rather because they are too prominent.

Have you ever set a BHAG for yourself? Perhaps losing a certain amount of weight. Or gaining a certain amount of money? Or becoming proficient at a musical instrument or sport?

If so, then the moment you set the goal – and for every instant until you achieve the goal – you are failing. In fact, at most times you are so far from your goal that you are failing miserably.

Our ego wants instant gratification. And when we don’t have it – and realize just how far off we are – a sense of disappointment and frustration inevitably set in.

The problem with making the goal the goal is that we judge ourselves based on our proximity – or lack thereof – toward its realization. “This is too hard. I’ll never get there. Is it really worth it?”

However, there is another way of achieving growth that leads to far greater success and a much deeper sense of contentment.

Instead of focusing on the goal, focus on the process.

What is the process?

A framework for living our lives, moment by moment, in which we are continually succeeding – which turns out to be a wonderfully reinforcing driver of positive change.

In Thomas M. Sterner’s powerful little book entitled The Practicing Mind, he discusses a novice learning how to golf. There are many components that go into creating a good golf swing which leads to a great shot. And any of us who has ever tried hitting a golf ball can appreciate how challenging – and frustrating – that can be.

If my BHAG is to be a good golfer, after a few sessions on the driving range or actual rounds on the course, I will quickly realize not only how bad a golfer I am, but how incredibly far away from the goal I seem to be. Why go through all the pain and humiliation?

But if I change the framework for practicing to one in which I focus on the process instead of the end-goal, then my entire perspective changes.

For example, a critical component of hitting a great shot is the backswing – the process of lifting the club while preparing for the follow-through. In one such practice session, I focus completely on the present moment of just repeating the backswing, over and over, without judgment. There is no good or bad. Just an objective analysis of “bring the club a little higher next time” or “slow the swing a bit more”. Each step of the way, in this focused practice session, I am improving.

This might seem like such a simple concept, but its subtleness is incredibly powerful.

For one thing, the practice session is anything but drudgery. When we immerse ourselves fully in a present moment activity, we get into a state of flow. Time seems to drop away. There are no regrets of the past and no worries about the future. We are fully here now.

Also, by removing all judgment from the practice session and using objective analysis to continually improve, there is no sense of failure. Each step of the way I am experiencing a sense of achievement and growth.

And most importantly, any process that leads to a sense of being in flow and continual personal growth is one we want to repeat as often as we can.

We’ve shifted our entire focus away from the goal and onto the process. That doesn’t mean the goal disappears from our awareness. But rather the goal becomes, in Sterner’s words, the rudder by which we can objectively measure to see if we’re on track.

Like a swimmer crossing a lake with the goal of reaching a large tree on the other side. Her focus is on the moment-by-moment stroke, kick, and breath. She doesn’t stop to pick her head up after each stroke to see if she’s reached the tree yet. But every now and again she raises her head to ensure she’s still heading in the right direction or if a minor course adjustment is needed.

By shifting our awareness and attention away from the goal and onto the process, we create a framework for amazing growth.

If our goal is to lose weight, develop a process of learning to eat right. Goal to visit the gym a few days per week? Instead practice a process of being active once per day at a level that feels good. It is so easy to get into present moment awareness while habituating the process. Initially making a slightly healthier choice for one meal per day. Taking the steps once per day instead of the elevator.

The sense of accomplishment we get from each practice naturally encourages us to keep it up. And the goal becomes a byproduct of the process, no longer the be-all, end-all BHAG that once felt so intimidating and unapproachable.

This process versus goal mindset is one of the most powerful mechanisms for personal growth. Join me in Monday’s class where we’ll explore how we can leverage this concept to achieve greater peace and happiness in our lives. I look forward to seeing you then.

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