Open the present

In the hot pursuit of your goals, have you forgotten the real reason you are chasing them in the first place?

Woman opening the present with a smile

Chase your dreams! Achieve your goals! Be your best! These are the battle cries in our post-modern world. From an early age, we are taught that success equals achievement; we’re taught to pursue recognition, honours and financial rewards and use our accumulation of these things as the barometer for measuring success in life.

Achieving things for the sake of achievement is a dead-end. You will never find fulfilment in endlessly pursuing one goal after another. The key to using goals to create happiness is to recognise them for what they are—a tool to help you get what you want, rather than being the thing you want. This requires a fundamental shift in the way we think about happiness and life. A shift from a “when-then” paradigm to a “see-now” one… Let me explain.

What do I mean by “when-then”? When-then is the way of looking at things that says, when I do “x”, I get “y”. The modern media has taken this paradigm to a whole new level and propagated it far and wide. Only when you have x, achieve y, or do z, you’ll finally have “made it”. We’ve been taught our entire lives to live in this “when-then” paradigm. It’s so much a part of our lives and our world that we don’t even realise it.

As a child you learned, “when” I listen to my parents, “then” I get rewarded with praise. In school you learned “when” I listen well and study hard, “then” I get good grades. The problem with this kind of thinking is that it creates a life where certain things have to happen before I’m allowed to be happy. School doesn’t teach us to enjoy the process of learning, it teaches us to enjoy getting the good grade. Our parents, though they are well-intentioned, don’t really teach us to be good so that we can be a good person, but so that we can earn their praise. We are taught to chase the vehicle and not the ultimate destination.

Dig deeper

Let’s dig a little deeper. Many students will go along when you tell them that if they work hard they’ll get good grades. For many, that works. But for some, those with very inquisitive minds, and those who are lazy and looking for a way out, will dig deeper and ask, “But why do I need good grades in the first place?”

The standard answer from teachers everywhere is that if you get good grades, you’ll be able to get a good job. For some students, that works. For others, they dig even deeper. “Why do I want to get a good job?”

“Well so you can earn a good living”

“Why do I need to earn a lot of money to enjoy my life?”

“Ahh…” that’s a tougher one to answer.

The problem is that success in life cannot be equated with a list of accomplishments.

No matter how many plaques you put on the wall, how many promotions you are able to earn, or how many medals are put around your neck, if you are not happy already, these things will not make you happy.

Spend a few minutes to reflect on how many times have you decided on a goal for yourself, worked hard to achieve it, and soon after achieving it, felt empty.

An example that illustrates this point is of Olympians suffering what they call “post-Olympic depression” every four years. For years, sometimes most of their young lives, Olympians train to realise a goal of competing in the Olympic Games. For years they sacrifice, dedicate their time, energy—essentially, their whole lives—to that singular cause. When you consider all that they invest to get there, it’s little wonder that the experience is unable to ever measure up.

That’s why it is so dangerous to create your life around a paradigm that says, “I’ll be happy when…” As soon as you start making your happiness conditional on anything you set yourself up for a fall. Conditional happiness creates a situation of diminishing returns.

It’s the same phenomenon that leads people into addiction. Think of how an alcoholic or drug addict becomes addicted. They take a drink and it feels good, so they have another. They enjoy the feeling of being under the influence of alcohol. So when the feeling wears off, they look forward to the next time they can feel it again, and as soon as they are able, they take another drink.

Soon, having a few drinks doesn’t have the effect that it used to, so they have to have a few more. They keep trying to chase the high of that first drink, but each time they get drunk, the high is never as good as the first time.

I would never diminish the severity or tragic nature of alcoholism. I use the example only to illustrate that idea of diminishing returns. Goals are the same way. Achieving a goal gives us a good feeling. The first time you achieve a major goal, you get a “buzz”. It feels awesome. When the high wears off, you can’t wait to start working on the next goal so that you can feel that feeling again.

The problem is that the next time you achieve a similar goal it doesn’t feel quite as satisfying. Keep doing it, and soon it seems too easy and you get little satisfaction from it, if any. So if you decide that you are going to be happy once you have this or that, you’ll soon discover the reward doesn’t live up to expectations.

More money is not the answer

So if achieving your goals won’t make you happy, what will? Money? Afraid not.

Father helping his kid to ride a bicycle
What’s more important to you? teaching your kids to bicycle or getting your next promotion

Studies of lottery winners have documented that while winning the lottery created a bump in happiness for a short time immediately after the win, the winners returned to the same level of happiness they had before the win, very soon after the win.

Studies have also shown that, contrary to the messages we see in popular media, money does not buy happiness. To be sure, money will make you happier than someone who has absolutely none. Those who are in abject poverty are known to be significantly less happy than those who are able to live a “middle-class” lifestyle, but the beyond that, more money will only make you marginally happier and after a certain point you are as happy or sad as multi-millionaires. Again, it’s a case of diminishing returns.

So if achievement and money won’t make you happy, what will? How does anyone find real lasting happiness? The key, I believe, is to discover the power of living in the present. I call it living with a “present-of-the-present” paradigm rather than a “when-then” one.

The problem with chasing money or achievements to find happiness is not that there is anything inherently wrong with either. Money and achievements have their place. Money is useful tool when used properly. Many believe that love of money is the root of all evil, and that’s true in a sense. The single-minded pursuit of wealth at all costs, has always, and will continue, to cause harm. But money itself is morally neutral. Money is not the problem, but rather how we use it and how we sometimes let it affect our behaviour.

The hype around goals

Achievements have their limitations. In today’s society goals have become a bit over-rated. Again, I hesitate to even say that as a “motivational speaker” since I’m supposed to be a great advocate of goal-setting. And in fact, I am. The question is not whether or not goals are good—they are—but rather what are they good for?

Why do you set a goal? What is the purpose of doing that? Let’s use an example to examine this more closely.

Let’s say that you have a goal to lose 10 lbs. We’ve all experienced that moment when we catch a glimpse of ourselves in the mirror and think, “I really need to lose a few”. So let’s say you’ve decided that now is the time—you are going to crack down and drop those extra pounds!

So if I ask you: what is the purpose of your goal, what would you say? The quick answer would be, “to lose 10 lbs”. But that would not be the right answer. The purpose, or reason, for the goal of losing 10 lbs is not to be 10 lbs lighter. That’s right. I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s true. Why?

Let’s come at this a different way. Let’s say that you start dieting and exercising more and after four weeks of hard work, you manage to drop those 10 lbs. You’ve achieved the goal. Now, why are you happy? Is it because you achieved the goal? Are you happy because you can put a check mark next to “lose 10 lbs on your to-do list”? Maybe, a little. But more likely, you are happy because by losing the 10 lbs, you’ve realised the purpose for achieving the goal—you look better in the mirror now. When you look in that mirror now, you don’t smile and say “I lost 10 lbs!” you say, “Wow, I look goooood!”

The goal to lose 10 lbs is nothing more than a vehicle to get you to your destination. It’s not the destination itself. This small, but important distinction, is the reason that goal-setting leaves so many feeling frustrated. Whether I’m working with a group in a consulting role or coaching an individual, I tend to get the same reaction to the suggestion of creating written goals; groan.

The wrong chase

Most people hate setting goals. And frankly, I don’t blame them. The reason they hate setting goals is that they’ve had experiences that have turned them off the process or convinced them that it just doesn’t work. The reason for that is because they’ve been chasing the wrong thing. They’ve chased the vehicle instead of the destination. They’ been chasing the diet and exercise instead of the result of looking better in the mirror. No wonder they don’t want to do it!

When we make the mistake of chasing the vehicle and not the destination we inevitably hit a dead end. At some point the logic falls apart. Chasing goals and achievements simply for their own sake is an empty pursuit. After all, when it’s all over and your life is coming to an end, the plaques and medals, the titles and promotions, won’t mean much. As they say, you can’t take it with you.

The solution is to stop framing our lives around the when-then paradigm and instead work with the present-of-the-present paradigm. Present-present is learning about the present of the present [or the “gift” of the present]. This paradigm looks at life in a completely different way than we’ve been taught. Instead of prolonging happiness until an arbitrary benchmark has been met, it helps us find it in the process of meeting that benchmark.

The gift of present

When you learn to think in terms of the present-of-the-present, you stop focusing so much on the destination and start focussing on the journey itself and that is the real key. Instinctively we all know this. We just need to be reminded.

Let me give you an example.

I’ll give you two scenarios, and you tell me which you’d rather have:

Option 1: As you near the end of your life, you have amassed a great deal. After moving up the ranks of your company all the way to Executive VP, you earned the respect of your pears and a great salary too. You were recognised with awards and promotions, and others looked to you for guidance and advice. You were admired by many and well thought of.

As you look back on your life though, you realise that you missed a lot. You can’t remember a lot of your children’s early years. Your marriage didn’t survive the long hours you had to put in as you gained increasing responsibility at work. So although you and your ex are still friendly, you live alone.

Option 2: As you near the end of your life, you realise that you haven’t accomplished many of the things you’d set out to do, but you also had a lot of experiences you never thought you’d have. You didn’t rise in the company as far as you probably could have and your salary took a hit as a result. But you decided a long time ago that it was more important to be home at supper time and put your kids to bed each night than it was to drive a BMW.

As you look back on life you have some regrets about things not accomplished and opportunities not pursued, but they pale in comparison with the 50 years of love you’ve shared with your beloved spouse and your beautiful children and grandchildren. So as you come to your final days, you know that you won’t be alone but rather surrounded by those you love most.

So which life would you rather have?

Man on a trekking
Once you start enjoying the journey, you’ll experience fulfillment

I realise, of course, that these two lives present very polarising outcomes and that it is, in fact, possible to blend elements of both. But the purpose of the illustration is to help you evaluate what your priorities are. If you could only have one or the other, which would you choose?

Everyone I know would choose option 2. It’s a no-brainer. But if you look at the second scenario, you’ll notice that it isn’t built around when-then. There is happiness, satisfaction and peace about life and yet many goals have been left unachieved. A when-then thinker would look at this life and think, “how can I be pleased with this when so much has been left unaccomplished?” But when we think in terms of the present-of-the present, we realise that the real happiness we seek doesn’t come from having things checked off a list, but rather from enjoying the process of living.

Celebrate the journey

Think for a minute about how goals work. Which period is longer—the time it takes to work on achieving a goal, or the actual accomplishment of the goal?

If you broke it down by percentage of time spent, the vast majority, in fact nearly all, of your time is spent in the process of achieving goals, not in the actual achieving of them. So why put yourself in a situation where you can only be happy during the small fraction of the time you are actually realising your goals, instead of enjoying the entire process?

Life is short, but it is also amazing. The key to getting the most out of life, and more importantly, giving the most with your life, is to live each day fully, completely and passionately, enjoying every minute. When you are able to enjoy the journey rather than the destination, then, and only then, will you discover what it means to be fulfilled. Then, your whole life becomes a celebration.

A version of this article was first published in the November 2012 issue of  Complete Wellbeing.

Magnifying lens over an exclamation markSpot an error in this article? A typo maybe? Or an incorrect source? Let us know!

Mark Black
Mark Black is a motivational speaker, author and success coach. He was born with a life threatening heart defect for which he has had to undergo a heart- and double-lung transplant. He is now a four-time marathon runner. Since receiving his second chance at life, Mark hasn't wasted a moment. He has now inspired nearly 70,000 people across North America with his truly unique story and powerful life lessons that help his audience members live life with passion and purpose.


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