Bethany Butzer, Ph.D. 

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The Downside of Pushing Toward Your Goals

Posted by Bethany Butzer, Ph.D. on September 7, 2016 at 3:35 AM

Most of us are raised to believe that it's a good idea to have goals. We're taught to work hard to reach our dreams. We're told that with persistence and dedication, we will eventually get from point A (where we are now) to point B (some idealized place in the future). This line of thinking is even embedded in our education system, where grades act as carrots to push us toward what's next. And next. And next. Alan Watts describes this perfectly:


"What we do is we put the child into the corridor of this grade system, with a kind of “come on kitty kitty kitty.” And yeah you go to kindergarten you know, and that’s a great thing because when you finish that you’ll get into first grade. And then first grade leads to second grade, and so on and then you get out of grade school and you go to high school, and its revving up – the thing is coming. Then you go to college, and then maybe grad school. And when you’re through with graduate school you go out and join the world. Then you get into some racket where you’re selling insurance. And then you have that quota to make, and you’re going to make that. And all the time the thing is coming, it's coming; that thing, the great success you’re working for. Then when you wake up one day when you're about forty years old, you say ‘My god, I’ve arrived. I’m there!' And you don’t feel very different from what you’ve always felt."


In other words, while goals are useful for driving us forward, many of us have become so goal-focused that we've lost track of the life we're actually living, right here, right now. We're dominated by linear thinking - we see our life as a path that's supposed to move directly from point A to point B. And when we get to point B we will finally be happy.




Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the only point B that we are all guaranteed to arrive at is death. The rest of the the things that we thought were point Bs are really just pit stops on a non-linear journey. None of our point Bs (aside from death) are ends in and of themselves, and none of these point Bs are going to make us eternally happy (unless your point B ends up being some form of nirvana or spiritual enlightenment!).


What I'm getting at here is that we need to back off on our linear ways of thinking and begin to appreciate that life is non-linear, and often works in cycles. Cycles abound in the natural world that we evolved in, and that we continue to be part of, despite our best efforts at modernization. The seasons are a clear example. There are times when trees and flowers produce fruit, and other times when the tree or plant pulls back and maybe dies. There are times when forest fires or tornadoes create mass destruction by ravaging huge pieces of land. And slowly, over time, the land recovers.


In the same way, there are times in our lives when we're working our butts off to get to point B, when a simple phone call about a terminal illness changes our lives forever - and makes point B far less important. Or perhaps we try really hard to get to point B but lose all of our savings in the process. Or you might be working toward an awesome point B when an even more fantastic opportunity comes your way. Our life journeys very rarely feel like a direct expressway. Instead, life is more like a non-linear path that ebbs and flows within the natural cycles of our universe.


Here's another example. Women go through a cycle every 28 days until they reach menopause. Coincidentally (although I don't think it's actually a coincidence) the moon goes through its own 28 day cycle every month. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that women are different every day of the month - like the moon. Some days (particularly during ovulation) women are bright and open, like the full moon, and other days (during PMS and menstruation) women are dark and mysterious (like the new moon). Most women are taught to ignore their cyclical nature and "push through" their cycles to operate in a linear way. So for example, when women are emotional during PMS or tired during menstruation they often apologize to those around them instead of honoring whatever it is that their body needs. (For more on this topic, check out Shakti Milan's course on the Wisdom of Women's Sexual Cycles).


Perhaps one of the reasons so many of us feel disconnected from our true selves is that we're ignoring the natural rhythms inherent in the world around us, and even within our own bodies. We're so hyper-focused on reaching our goals that we fail to realize that our lives are moving in a cyclical pattern, like a spiral. We might take a few steps forward, then a few steps back, then a few steps in a completely different direction. None of it is wrong. All of it is life.


Personally, I've spent most of my life in the pursuit of goals. As a recovering achievement addict, I still tend to be hyper-focused on reaching point B. As I pointed out in my last blog, lately I'm experiencing a lot of self-doubt and questions around what's next. I'm not sure whether I should stay in the Czech Republic or eventually move back to Canada. And I don't know exactly what direction to take with my career. Sometimes I get caught up in linear thinking and trick myself into believing that there's an endpoint to all of this - a magical time when I'll finally have it all figured out. But, as I mentioned before, the only guaranteed endpoint is death. So why not enjoy my life while I'm alive, instead of always focusing on the future?


This doesn't mean I can't have goals or dreams. It means that I'm going to continue to do my best to keep one eye on the future while emphasizing and enjoying the present.


This is a delicate balancing act. And I fall off the tightrope quite often.


But as Alan Watts shared so beautifully in this short speech, our lives are like a symphony. And the point of a symphony isn't to get to the end. It's to enjoy the music while it's playing.




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