I wrote the other day about how I’m giving up my seven-year-old habit of setting a word of the year. The tl;dr version is that I realised all of the words I’d ever set amounted to one thing: trusting myself to keep trying to be a better person.
Of course since writing it, a lot of other thoughts about the whole goal-setting culture have been jostling for attention. I have literally no research at my fingertips to prove any of my hunches so maybe I’m pulling this out of my arse or my cloistered social media bubble. But I don’t think I’m alone in feeling like everyone I know is labouring under a persistent gas cloud of fatigue. I think there is starting to be a steady push back against the idea that every January or autumn back-to-school season or big birthday should come with the necessity to ‘reflect’ and plan and set intentions.
Let’s start with what I don’t think. I don’t think people should bin all their aspirations, dreams, ideas, practical work plans or any of that forward-thinking stuff. I don’t think they should stop enjoying the view behind them of how far they’ve come. I do think the only obligation to the future anyone has to is to consider saving some money for old age and getting a pension if that’s an option that is open to them. The rest is all a matter of access, primarily, and then choices.
I’m focussing on the choice bit because I live a really very comfortable life with a number of options open to me. I think I’m largely speaking to people in a similar situation. But I really don’t want to go the route of “real people have bigger problems to worry about”. Firstly because I think that’s immensely patronising and inaccurate (you can have a lack of privileges and want to plan, for heaven’s sake, maybe even more so if you feel very little control). But also cos, look, we know the parameters of this conversation. We know what we’re talking about. You know where I’m coming from, even if you don’t know me. This is not new. But I still get to unpick it some more.
Like most people, I’m neither fully determinist nor entirely the opposite. I recognise choices are not made in a vacuum, which means some are unavailable and others are immoral or at least not very nice. We never make any logical decisions, as far as I can work out, because people aren’t very logical. That’s fine. We might do some vaguely sensible things, or necessary things, like train to be a teacher if that’s the job we want or go on a course to learn something that makes us better at things we need to do to make money or enjoy our private time. We save money to do specific things: move out, go on a holiday, replace the kitchen. We attend the gym to stop huffing up the stairs, and we promise ourselves to file our tax returns earlier so we don’t get a nasty shock.
Are those goals? I don’t feel like they’re what people talk about when they talk about goal-setting. I think they consider them steps on the way to their fully realised life which is their real goal – but which, they’re dimly aware, is actually constantly moving further and further away. The problem is, I suspect thinking of these small things as steps towards a bigger goal actually reduces both the motivation to complete them and the satisfaction we’re supposed to get from achieving them.
It feels to me like we’ve devalued the process in favour of the result. I understand why. Why do anything if it’s not going to get you from A to B? I’ve said before that the only two states that feel rewarding are the ‘planning to’ and the ‘having done’, because the bit in the middle is laborious and so, so hard. But I think the reason for that is the constant pull of the done, ticked, completed, achieved. Remove that, and the middle bit doesn’t seem so boggy anymore.
Perhaps the secret to greater contentment – maybe even greater success, whatever that means – isn’t scanning the skies to spot the rainbow that’ll lead us to the pot of gold. We think we’ve got to mark a point on the map, and travel like hobbits to Mordor, sweating and trailing spiders’ webs until we can save the Shire. But then we get there, and it turns out there’s another great leap and another and another and we’re always going to want to keep going. And that’s exactly it: we’re going to feel dissatisfied no matter what. So I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t believe we need to motivate ourselves at all.
We’re going to keep going, because what else is there? And why not? Yes, on a daily basis you might need a structure and a plan to manage, for a whole variety of reasons, which is absolutely fair enough. But for the bigger picture? You’ll probably keep plodding along regardless. And I can’t help thinking that the plod will be so much more pleasant if we stop taking a pause to whip ourselves. Sure, not every goal has to feel punitive, but somehow they always seem to take on the language of tradition, honour, discipline, excellence.
Let’s be honest: most of us are not destined to be world-renowned (and most of those who are world-renowned did it through a series of small manoeuvres to achieve an idea of a goal, rather than the actual thing they got, and which tended to involve a dose of luck, privilege and being in the right place at the right time which is simply not always calculable). And feeling like we need to give ourselves a performance appraisal every January to get through the next cycle around the sun might appear to help, but I think at best it’s… nothing. At worst, it feels harmful – like picking a scab until it bleeds over and over again and thinking that the scar is proof that it’s working.
This is hardly a new thought, but somehow we collectively keep forgetting it’s already there. Through Anne Lamott, I came to this quote from E.L. Doctorow: “Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” When it comes to life, we could push that car analogy all the way up a hill and back. And you’ll have noticed it doesn’t even begin to mention having a planned destination. Or any need to go off-road.
Chatting about this on Twitter, Cathy Wallace – who’s really great and outrageously sensible – commented: “we’ve come full circle from a starting position of considering ourselves ordinary and therefore ‘less than’, to attempting to stand out, only to realise we’re *all* basically very ordinary in our way and that’s ABSOLUTELY fine” and honestly I think she’s spot on.
I’ve loved the brilliant Jo Middleton’s posts about her “midlife unravelling”, too which have resonated to an almost physically painful extent. Honestly, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a) we’re all women and b) we’re circling around 40. I think we’re all coming to the same conclusion, which is that we cannot plan bloody anything, because life will do what it wants, and we can only do what seems like a good idea at the time and try to enjoy it as best we can. Why does that hit women harder, in my opinion? Because while I think goal-setting in a work context has been a very masculine preserve in the past, the idea of annual reinvention and self-actualisation is peddled to the feminine much, much harder. And getting half-way through the average life expectancy (for women, heralding the end of your sexual and breeding capital under our current social system) tends to hone your acuity when it comes to anyone trying to sell you the perfect life.
Also, I’m tired. And the world feels tired with me. Again this might be my political bubble speaking, but a long, painful run of unexpected election results and turbulent international relations seem to me to be confronting even the most self-possessed among us with a bowel-melting lack of control. In that environment it’s hardly surprising that ‘new year, new you’ lives on under different guises every year. If we set goals and work hard and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps we can weather any storm, right? Uh-huh.
But beyond ageing, politics, exhaustion and just not seeing the point, the past five years have delivered to me personally an occasionally brutal, sometimes ecstatic lesson in how little we can truly shape. Goals? Are you kidding? I don’t even know what my kid will decide she likes eating tomorrow. I’ve dealt with two major family health crises, one of which is in stasis and the other very much ongoing. There have been employment ups and downs, which had nothing to do with competence or failure to network or really anything much within my or my loved ones’ grip. In the last year in particular, I’ve felt very much like I’ve been on a sort of amber alert – to the point that I ended up seeing my doctor for stress-related symptoms that were physically taking me down (I’m fine, kids; don’t worry). Set goals? Why? So life can laugh in my face?
Which is why in the last few months, I’ve had a breakthrough of sorts. Right around the time I stopped thinking of every decision as a way to get to the next rung, and the next, and the next, I realised I’d never even been standing on a ladder. And the minute I stopped being ambitious for things or berated myself for not knowing exactly what I wanted to do / want / be, the complete terror of being untethered felt far more manageable.
I’m not going to pretend for a single second I’m not still anxious about all sorts of things. Not having enough money to live on in my old age scares me. Ageing out of my industry scares me. Putting my daughter in a decent secondary school scares me. Doing work projects I haven’t done before scares me. Not finishing my novel scares me, as does finishing it. My extended family’s health and wellness woes rip my guts out and dance around wearing them as garlands. Can I set goals to win back that feeling of purpose? I can try. And you now what will happen? I’ll add achieving those goals to my list of worries and feel even more lost.
Pardon my language, fellow travellers, but fuck that.
I don’t have the answers. I don’t even know what all the questions are. But I do know that every time the fear rears up and whispers but what do you want to do with your days in my ear and I answer whatever feels right at the time, I feel better about… well, everything. And thus far, rather than presenting an obstacle, it’s made me feel confident to apply for a job I wasn’t sure I could get (I did), write stuff about films I wasn’t sure people would like (they tell me they do) and occasionally throw bits of writing into the wild without a third thought (I always have a second). These things don’t have to get me anywhere, cos I have no idea where I’m going.
Imagine it: no hurdles, just challenges. No failure, just learning. Getting on the best you can, and having that be enough. I’m willing to try that for a while, because frankly it sounds really peaceful, and peace seems like a spectacular gift to give myself.
I’ll let you know how it all works out.