Snakes, Ladders, and Success

When you recognize that your well-being is an independent variable, not contingent on how many friends you have on Facebook or how much money you have in the bank, you're still free to want things and be about creating them in the world
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Recently, I've been doing my best to take a fresh look at the process of creation, and in particular, how results get created in the world. One question I've sat with in that time is ""are goals helpful, harmful, or neutral in the living of a wonderful life?"

This may seem an odd question for chronic goal-setters, as having clear, measurable objectives is often put forth as an almost mystical tool in our culture, backed by imaginary research studies at prestigious universities apparently showing that people who regularly set written goals for their lives are phenomenally happy, successful, and have more money and better relationships than the other 97 percent of their peers.

Yet in my own life, as exciting as I used to find the process of goal-setting, it became clear to me that goals have a tendency to become tied up with our well-being in a way that actually means we postpone our present happiness until we reach our future goal. One of my clients once described the process of setting clear goals and then setting out to achieve them as being a bit like foreplay - it can be fun, and it's really exciting when we finally do reach our target, but if it goes on too long it can become frustrating and even painful, especially if you never get there.

I finally abandoned goal-setting completely after doing a magazine interview where the journalist asked me about my five year vision for my life. When I thought about it, I responded "I'm really happy and I love my life. So in five years, I'd love to be really happy and love my life. The details of what that looks like will probably be different to what they are now, but the details don't really matter that much to me."

It was a very unsatisfying answer for the article, but a very satisfying way to live.

So it was somewhat surprising to me a couple of years back when I actually set some clear goals for the first time in ages. What led to the re-emergence of a goal list in my life was the realization that the stress and strain I associated with having goals wasn't really anything to do with having goals - it was to do with the volume of thinking I had about what I would have to do to achieve them and what it would mean about me if I didn't. Without the thinking, goals are just targets - something to aim for which helps organize and coordinate action.

When you recognize that your well-being is an independent variable, not contingent on how many friends you have on Facebook or how much money you have in the bank, you're still free to want things and be about creating them in the world. It's just that you're less likely to work yourself into an early grave in order to get them.

Think about it like this...

Imagine your goal or desired end result as being square 100 on a "Snakes and Ladders" (in America, "Chutes and Ladders") game board. Each time it's your turn, you roll the dice and move forward the allotted number of spaces. At first, it seems as though there should be some kind of mathematical formula for calculating how long it will take to get there, But it's not a linear process. Some turns, you land on a ladder and it shoots you forward ten spaces; other turns, you land on a snake (or chute) and it sets you back five.

This means that sometimes you will get where you're headed much quicker than you were expecting; at other times it will seem to take forever and you may despair of ever arriving. Of course, anything's possible, including not getting to the target if the dice of life don't roll in your favor, but the game is actually rigged in your favor. There are more ladders than snakes, so over time, the odds are that you'll reach square 100 if you simply stay in the game long enough.

And in the end it's really that simple. If there's something I want to do, have, or achieve, I'm free to be about doing, having, or achieving it. I do what occurs to me to do to create it, rolling the dice with each conversation I have or action I take, and the pre-existing layout of the game board takes care of the rest. Sometimes, I don't get where I'm headed. Surprisingly often, I do. The journey is nearly always as interesting as the destination, and the destination is nearly always nothing like what I expected.

It's been more than five years since that original interview, and I guess I've done what I set out to do. I'm still happy, and I still love my life. And a part of what I love is being able to share these musings and reflections with you. I hope you continue to find them helpful, and I appreciate your continuing to read and share.

With all my love,

For more by Michael Neill, click here.

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