May 29, 2011

“Obviously, I Also Want _________”

We don’t really want most of the things we think we want. This is one of the biggest problems with goal setting and time management systems. You can work for years toward a big goal you select, such as your “dream home,” when it isn’t what you really want.

Most of our goals come from ideas that were planted in minds by cultural and commercial influences. We know that not all our goals are really our own by the way we react when we achieve our biggest goals. Sometimes, so be sure, achieving a goal is a life-changing experience, filling us with such a glow or so changing our view of ourselves or our place in the world that we know it is a step forward. Other times, though, a big achievement is an excuse to throw a party, but not much more than that. Our daily lives don’t really change, and especially, the feeling we bring to our daily lives doesn’t change. Or worse, achieving a big goal can be a big let-down, possibly even throwing us into a depression for weeks as we say, “Is this all there is?”

It isn’t that useful, though, to realize a goal isn’t really what you wanted after you have already achieved it. You could set a new goal, but how do you know the new goal won’t really be what you want either? Some success coaches actually encourage people to get out of the blah feeling that often follows the achievement of a goal by having people set a new, bigger goal immediately. Success, they say, is a journey, not a destination. That’s not actually true — if success is not an outcome, then it does not mean anything at all — but what else can we expect them to tell us? That the system they teach often just doesn’t work, and they don’t know why?

The dream house is perhaps the most potent example of a goal people work toward that isn’t really their own. The idea that there a special kind of house, just for you, that will make your life complete is so firmly planted in people’s minds that The Secret used it as its biggest example of a big goal, bigger than health, romance, or money. During the same period, success coaches encouraged people to visualize their ideal house and the means to pay forward, then to go ahead and convert that vision into reality.

To be sure, the right house does make all the difference in some people’s lives, and for many more, it is a reasonable and realistic goal that will make daily life go more smoothly. But for at least as many people, the quest for a dream house is a mistake. I remember, many years ago, helping a friend put the finishing touches on his dream house. He could afford to have it built only if he did part of the construction work, like installing the wall panels and painting the walls, himself. Far from excited, he was exhausted looking at the work that was ahead of him. “What I really want,” he told me at the end of the day, “is a hot bath and some clean clothes.” I also know of people who have reacted to their dream home by sitting in the basement watching television, oblivious to their new physical surroundings, or by selling the house and moving again just two or three years later.

We could save ourselves years of wasted effort and heartache if we could test our goals in advance. I’ve tried to test my larger goals using visualization. If I can visualize a completed goal in vivid detail, I can hope to see in advance my reaction to completing the goal. This is a worthwhile exercise for large goals, but it is far from foolproof. Visualizations don’t tend to match the details of real life, so that the imaginary version of a goal can be far better than it will be in real life. For example, if you visualize a trip to Alaska, you might well neglect to visualize the giant mosquitoes that dominate much of the landscape for much of the summer. Visualizations also aren’t a reliable way to measure your emotional reaction to an imaginary situation. The visualization might be showing you the reaction you think you should have rather than the reaction you actually would have. Also, this kind of visualization take a lot of time, so you can’t use it for every big goal, and you certainly can’t use it to test all the little goals that you spend most of your time working on.

I recently found a much quicker way to get a measure of the things you think you want. It’s the fill-in-the-blank statement, “Obviously, I also want _________.” If someone asks you to think big and then say what you hope to do in life, or in the next year, you’re likely to answer first with some of your more personal and distinctive goals. These are the kind of goals that make you an interesting person. Someone might say, “I would like to paint a set of paintings for all the tarot cards and get my own tarot deck printed.” Someone else might say, “I would like to convert my pickup truck to use giant tires so it can drive in mud.” After a few of these, if pressed to continue, you might say, “Obviously, I also want . . .” and continue with a list of goals that don’t seem interesting at all. For example, someone might say, “Obviously, I also want my own TV show, a swimming pool, and a million dollars.”

If you have a few minutes, try this exercise yourself. On a sheet of paper, write the heading, “I Want:” and list two or three things you wish you could do, be, or have. Then write the heading, “Obviously, I Also Want:” and list several other things you wish for, especially things that seem so obvious and predictable that you would ordinarily hesitate to mention them. Write that list now, or at least imagine it.

Now, here’s what it means. The focus here is not on the first list, but the second. Any wish you can express with the adverbs “obviously” and “also” is not likely to be something you really want. It’s a desire that was planted in your mind by your surroundings. Saying “obviously” with a wish is almost like saying, “I think anyone would want this.” And why would they want it? Because you are imagining that their surroundings would imprint this desire on them the same way your surroundings imprinted it on you.

It doesn’t matter whether that’s true or not. I’ve heard people say, “I think anyone would want” about some things that actually hold meaning for relatively few people, such as, “I think anyone would want to drive in a Formula One race,” or “I think anyone would want to live in Venice.” These statements nevertheless tell you something about the person who says them. This is a person who feels pressured toward goals that aren’t really that interesting to them. If you are able to say, “obviously” about any goal or wish you express, there is a very strong chance that it is something you feel compelled to attempt rather than something you really want.

There is a similar kind of power in the word “also.” The goals you really want are so interesting to you that you cannot help but imagine that they are interesting to the people around you. And indeed they are, if only because they are part of your adventure of life. If you are particularly eager to do something, it is not an “also.”

Certainly you will achieve many of the goals and wishes from the “Obviously, I also want” list. It is important, though, not to turn these goals into your big goals in life. If you will have to work long hours over a period of years toward a big goal, make sure it isn’t the kind of goal that you would describe using the words “obviously” and “also.”

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