This article is part of the goal setting theme for January.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of goal setting, it’s important to identify what lies behind the goal setting process. Mind That Ego is more spiritual self-fulfilment, less attainment. When working with clients, I want to emphasise internal development — not external — is the key to long-term contentment. For that reason, from a spiritual and wellbeing perspective, I’m incredibly wary of goal setting. Though seen as integral to living a full life, it can impede contentment.
This is because when mismanaged, goal setting becomes an “I’ll be happy when.” A perfect example of this is the phenomenon of “post-Olympic depression,” whereby gold-winning medalists sink into a depressive state after achieving their ultimate goal. The same can be said of any elite performer, whether an Oscar-winner or a musician with a gold-selling album. In the same manner, those who chase financial success often find that, having made the first million pounds, it’s not enough. Now they want two million, then five, then 10. Harvard University lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar calls this the arrival fallacy.
To put it simply, the achievement of goals isn’t a means to happiness. To counter that truth, I believe there is a vital distinction to allow you to remain fulfilled and content during every step of your journey to achieving goals. This distinction prevents the egoic trap of “I’ll be happy when my goals are achieved.”
The key is understanding is the distinction between hopes and dreams.
We live in a culture of hope. A prime example is the iconic Hollywood film, The Shawshank Redemption, which uses the slogan “hope will set you free.” This is a lie.
Tibetan Buddhist Pema Chödrön provides an alternative — Abandon Hope. She reasons:
“Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty. We can’t simply relax with ourselves. We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment. We feel that someone else knows what’s going on, but that there’s something missing in us, and therefore something lacking in our world.”
Chödrön highlights the fact that hope is linked to attachment. Hoping for certain things to go a certain way in the external world becomes a condition for our happiness. But as highlighted by the arrival fallacy, once those hopes are attained (IF they are attained), there is no salvation. Only A New Hope.
It’s difficult to avoid this trap as hope is ingrained in our culture. Knowledge bible Wikipedia defines hope as an “optimistic state of mind.” The opposite of hope is hope-less-ness or despair. But if we understand hope in the new light outlined above, we understand the opposite of hope isn’t despair, it’s liberation. We realise that abandoning hope and the attachment to attainment is freeing. Hope-less-ness becomes a desired state of mind.
When setting goals, we walk a tightrope, with hope lingering below. But abandoning hope doesn’t mean we have to abandon goals. The desire to progress is a huge part of human life. It has immense value. So how do we balance progress and goal setting in a non-attached manner? We dream.
The Value Of Dreams
“Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.” — James Dean.
Dreams are different from hopes. Dreams are fantasies created with a mixture of imagination and play. Most of us define our dreams as practically unachievable, and consequently we aren’t attached to their fruition. Apply the DNA of dreams to goal setting, and you’ll be simultaneously liberated and motivated.
In The Idea In You, authors Martin Amor and Alex Pellew provide a model for healthy dreams, referred to as the Two Horizons. The idea is that, in your mind’s eye, you apply two horizons to your goals. The horizon far away in the distance is the ultimate dream. The one closer is the “to-do,” or the just-do-it action that needs to be done, today, to take you closer to the far-off horizon.
The beauty of this model is that you mix practicality with limitlessness. Your far-off horizon can be as elaborate, exciting and flamboyant as you like. It’s the best-case-scenario of your pursuit. Amor and Pellew encourage us to have fun with this; they ask us to close our eyes, to vividly imagine what lies on this horizon, to immerse ourselves in all aspects of it, to make a movie in our mind.
But remember, the key is to not become attached to this horizon. You do not think: “I hope I make it to this horizon. Then I will be happy.”
Examples Of The Two Horizons Dream
Let’s apply this to my goal of becoming a Life Coach.
The far-off horizon is a blissful place. I see myself with the freedom to travel, with a beautiful apartment in Berlin, overlooking the spree. I have a reading room with lots of light and lots of plants, a deluxe coffee machine in the kitchen, an ultra-high definition projector in my bespoke cinema room (materialism is okay in moderation, ha). I’ve continued to develop my knowledge of personal growth. I have a wealth of clients who I work with intimately. I share my knowledge and experience to help them, and in turn, they help me to continue to improve and develop.
My near horizon, my “to-do,” is writing this post. It’s focusing on what I can learn today. It’s putting in a few hours of study on my course. The beauty of this model is that this far-off horizon is also helping to motivate me to get out of bed, get up, and do those immediate tasks.
Two horizons can be applied to any goal. Take exercise. I love lifting weights. I have goals. Again, my far-off horizon is blissful. I have my “ideal” physique (vanity is okay in moderation). I feel strong in body and mind. I’m lifting more than I ever imagined I would when starting out. I’m knowledgeable of what it takes to help the body reach its potential.
My near horizon is going to the gym, today. It’s eating well, today. It’s getting enough rest, tonight. It’s enjoying how I train, but also making sure I beat the man I was last week. Even if only by one repetition.
Like everything in life, the key to the Two Horizon model balance. Don’t get swept up in the far-off horizon and daydream — you won’t get things done. Don’t obsess over the near-horizon, it can feel monotonous or worth putting off for another day.
A Note On Depression And Hope
I’ll conclude with a note on depression. When I was seriously depressed, I felt it important to hold on to the glimmer of hope that one day I’d feel better. For any of you suffering from depression now, the thought of abandoning hope will seem like a process of giving up.
Firstly, the model outlined above is less for major mood disorders, and more for the destructive traps we can fall into during the “pursuit” of goals. However, in hindsight, I do believe abandoning hope is relevant for depression. And here’s why: it’s not hope you need, but faith.
There is a significant difference between hope and faith. Hope is the craving for a desired outcome — “one day I’ll feel happy.” Faith is different. It’s not craving an outcome, but instead, a state of belief that all of this is worthwhile. Put into thinking terms, this may look like: “I am suffering greatly now. But this is all for a reason. I’ll come back stronger, learn from my experience, grow, and help others in the same position.”
Faith is the belief that you’ll experience personal growth from adversity. Instead of relying on an outcome, looking ahead to a place in time when things are better, you instead accept the situation as it is, acknowledge it’ll change, and take meaning from it by believing that once things have changed (all things do) you will have learned from it.
So if you are suffering right now, you too can abandon hope, have faith, and dream of what it’ll be like once you’ve overcome this challenge.