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2023: A NEW DAWN FOR GOAL SETTING
Why Our Relationship with Goals and Milestones is Changing
Perhaps you’re feeling slightly sozzled from Yuletide festivities and New Year’s Eve overindulgences. Or maybe you’re fresh and sparky, focusing in on the year ahead. Like many I get reflective around this time of year: What goals did I hit in 2022? What did I achieve? I used to encapsulate my entire being in heavy concrete milestones, categorising each year by a definable landmark ‘achievement’ that I could anchor myself to. ‘This was the year I wrote a book’; ‘This was the year I started my business’; ‘This was the year I got my own flat and learned to live alone’. Success was compacted, it was always measurable, it was black or white, and signed off by those around me, it was so, well, set in stone.
Something in me seems to have finally shifted though. My hopes are more aligned with what’s good for me rather than what’s expected of me. My expectations more akin to simplicity and looking after myself. I sometimes feel sad for that old version of myself and all she was laden with. I was only worthy of compassion if I’d ‘achieved’ and I only granted myself kindness if I had done something to make that year noteworthy. But success earmarked for those things I’ve learned, is fleeting. It’s gone before it’s really there. Like the strands of thinly stretched-out time, as you move away from those achievements they lose some of their sparkle. Are less significant somehow. Someone will always write a better book, buy a bigger house, or fall wildly in love and suddenly the benchmark gets pushed and you can loose sight of what it is you wanted. We’ve perhaps learned to contextualise comparison, but have we learned to centre our own vision of success? Mine seems to get pulled off balance weekly, a new opportunity teases, the seduction of a something that should appeal still. And I quickly lose grasps of what the whole picture is meant to be about. Our hunger for success can distort.
So if another year has come and gone and you’ve still not finished that novel, hit that quota or produced that thing you swore you would, go easy on yourself. Because maybe you’ve had your most successful year yet and you’re just looking at the picture through a borrowed lens.
My friend and the writer, Emma Gannon, has recently spoken about how she’s moving away from ‘a big check lists of big intense goals’ and instead is focusing on showing up in smaller ways, daily. Placing a little ceramic turtle on her desk to remind her of the small baby steps and slow moves towards her goals: ‘I stroke its shinny little head as though it’s a good luck charm’. She notes this unhealthy culture of expecting yourself to ‘smash various targets overnight’ and has made a commitment to swim against its tide, gently.
Another writer, Lotte Bowser has talked about placing your humanity over outward facing achievements. She writes: ‘When you look back over this past year, I hope you see something you feel proud of. I’m not just talking about the new house or pay rise or the other goals you might have reached. I hope you feel proud of the way you showed humility, and learned from your mistakes with grace… or the time you chose to be kind over being right.’
How important is this as a metric of success, to consider the kind, thoughtful and considerate things we did? The grace we showed up in. The compassion we offered.
I never think about these moments, if anything I dismiss them as nothing. But when I did try, something happened. I don’t want to be all saccharine here but there was a warmth inside me that spread and offered some sense from it all. When I think about 2022 as being the year my debut novel published, I don’t really feel anything at all. Is that bad? Is there something wrong or broken in me? Perhaps I’m ungrateful. Or clouded. Too distracted to recognise and hold in my hands the weight of an achievement I wanted so badly. But I don’t think so. I am proud of my novel of course, and at times have been blown away by the response it got. But I think I’m learning that these milestones aren’t the sole pit stops for an evolved sense of myself.
The writer Vicky Spratt wrote a piece on how for the first time in her life she has finally stopped caring about life’s milestones and in doing so is a lot happier in her life. We have this idea that we should be moving alongside our peers in perfect symbiosis, having a baby when they do, getting a pay rise when they do, having a creative resurgence when they do. But how unrealistic is that? And, to Spratt’s point indeed, how dull?
‘If life were a book, milestone markers would make it a really boring and predictable read. If it were a TV series, it would be devoid of jeopardy. The characters would be robotic, living cookie cutter identikit lives. There would be no plot twists or cliff hangers… This year I learned to care less. I am not engaged, not married, and not pregnant… but I know this: I am a hell of a lot happier than when I was closer to hitting any of those milestones’
I won’t be so maudlin as to suggest these things don’t count, of course they do. If my novel hadn’t got published, I would feel disappointed about it. And let’s not pretend either that we shouldn’t want these things, or would seem like better people if we didn’t. We are allowed to want to get married, win an award or get a book deal. We exist in a system that categorises us and places us seemingly on different levels based on certain goals and milestones. But in that sense we’re all stuck in the matrix and what’s truly profound, what truly matters and makes us feel, is often quite disassociated from those things.
Our relationship with goals and with milestones is changing because it has to. The old methods don’t serve us anymore. They’ve made us ego-driven and competitive and therefore weak. Times are changing; we’re purging the old systems of power and control and are making room for the new. Fiona Arrigo, the psychotherapist and spiritual healer talks about stress and how there is no place for it in the new world, no house it can fester in, no corner it can feed on itself and insidiously seep in. To her mind, anything that’s attached to stress will be pushed out, pushed away, whether we like it or not. I don’t want the pressure of ‘achieving’, the stress of ‘overnight success’ the harkening for more more more in a Lacanian ‘Desire of the Other’ that will leave me perpetually hungry.
So in 2023 I am not writing lists or marking up goals, or ladening myself with requirements. I am instead, in the inimitable words of Emily Dickinson, ‘out with lanterns looking for myself’. I am on a different course and I am going to continue to try and carve out a new relational path with what it is I want. I want to meet with myself, slow down and get to know her. And her aims seem to be more involved with softness, meditation, doing less with those who mean more, creative fulfilment, self-connection and gentle, quiet bliss.