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Hang onto Your Goals but Lose the Attachment

It’s that time again when leaders review the past year’s accomplishments (or challenges) and write goals for the year ahead. Personally, I love this time to establish a year’s worth of motivational visions; it taps into my inner drive to form clear intentions and pursue the things I truly care about. But when the past year seems filled with goals that never got rolling, how do we sign up again for another year?

A year ago, my husband and I wrote down what the business world calls a big hairy audacious goal: to cycle across the U.S.A. in 2009. This would be an epic adventure, including a rare three month sabbatical from work. Our excitement was infectious: we bought touring bikes, scoured maps, and settled on a route across the South that would include family hospitality (and southern cooking, ooh la la!). But the trip didn’t happen — and here we are in 2010. Excuses stacked up: uncertainties of the economy and our own finances, dwindling free time … but the blunt fact is that we didn’t complete our goal.

How do I feel about that? Initially I was feeling let down, exasperated about another dream postponed, when a little Dalai Lama whispered in my ear: “A positive future can never emerge from the mind of anger and despair.” Good advice for determined goal setters (and achievers) like us, especially when our aspirations don’t take shape the way we’d hoped. Goals can do that: turn from inspirations into obligations, creating stress instead of motivation. But I don’t blame the goals.

It’s not necessarily that we’re too ambitious or too naïve, but that we get fixated on the outcomes we seek (and the specific paths and timelines we set to achieve them). Whether we’re seeking wellness, wealth, power, service to others, or, in my case, my Louisiana grandmother’s crawfish étoufée, we can get too attached to our goals. Physicist Will Keepin writes that when we’re too attached to results, “we rise and fall with our success and failures, which is a path to burnout.”

Of course, aspiration without attachment seems like a paradox: how can we have goals and not get attached to them? Author Robert Rosen says the answer is to create “just enough anxiety.” I’m not sure I want to encourage anxiety, but what’s called for is certainly a balancing act. When your goals elude you, try to let go of attachment to their outcomes and seek, instead, a sense of competence, calm, and recalibration.

While my husband and I juggled the requirements of work and life throughout 2009, I now realize we always had the positive energy of that cycling dream to put everything else in perspective. To our credit, we did take several long rides together: experiences that will serve us well when we eventually make the big trek. I’d even say we’re better prepared, having considered all that the ride will demand. We now realize, for instance, that emotional stamina will be a larger factor than physical exertion: 24 hours a day in each other’s company, long days in the rain, and none of the comforts of home — but we will do it!

Without goals, and the inevitable excitement that arises around them, we wouldn’t keep pace with the changes that surround our organizations and our personal lives. But when goals take us away from the here and now, we’re apt to lose sight of the opportunities for growth that are right in front of us. Often it’s those surprise opportunities that tend to our higher needs such as love, belonging, and happiness.

Happy New Year, dear reader. I wish you a healthy, life-giving relationship to your goals, whatever big hairy audacious sources of inspiration they may be.

Photo by basykes