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The Fallacy of Goal-Setting

We live in a culture obsessed with goal-setting. Graduations. Degrees. Jobs. Promotions. Buying a house. Having kids. Retirement. From the moment we start school till we’re ready to retire, we are told that having a clear vision of the future is the key to living a successful life. To a certain extent, this is true. After all, having a destination in mind when working towards our goals gives us something to aim for as we navigate through life. That being said, modern society has taken this mentality a bit too far.


The problem with always having somewhere to get to is that when we finally arrive, we’re too busy trying to get to the next level to appreciate what we’ve accomplished.


I’ve witnessed this dilemma time and time again during my decade-long career in the fitness industry. People finally reach their target body fat percentage, but it’s not as fulfilling as they envisioned, so they set a more extreme goal. They are so blinded by the idea of their future goal that they fail to realize the significance of having reached this present milestone. This vicious cycle continues indefinitely. In some rare cases, this attitude leads to some astonishing physical feats that almost defy the capacity of the human body. Sadly, for the majority of the population, this ambitious road leads to injury, pain, and the psychological trauma that comes with feeling like we’re never good enough.


The culprit(s)


Why can’t we just be content in the present moment, while enjoying the journey towards our next goal? The way I see it, there are at least two contributing factors. First, it takes one tap on our phones to transport us into a virtual world filled with people who are better-looking and more talented than us. We’ve all heard the truism that comparison is the thief of joy, but it’s human nature to compare ourselves to our peers for social validation. If we base our self-worth in how we compare to others, then we’re shit out of luck, because there’s always someone out there with more talent, skill, and/or genetic advantage than us.


Then there’s the advertising industry—the people companies pay to convince us that we’d be happier if we buy their products. Marketers are experts at pointing out our imperfections and persuading us to consume. This perpetual pattern of buying products and services to improve our self-confidence is like the proverbial carrot dangling from the stick—our best self is always one product away!

It seems like we’ve run into a paradox: we need goals to move forward in life, but constantly chasing after the next thing is a form of self-deception that ultimately leads to frustration. What’s the solution?


Acceptance


The key to being content in the present moment is accepting our reality for exactly what it is. Instead of relentlessly working towards the next thing, the practice of acceptance requires us to stop and reflect on our current situation. I deliberately use the word “practice” because we’ve been conditioned to think, judge, and act a certain way by our society and our own self-narrative. It takes practice to remind ourselves that it’s okay to be where we are right now. Maybe we’ve always wanted to run a full marathon, but it turns out that we experience knee pain while running. That’s totally fine. We still have two legs and a mind that’s creative enough to come up with thousands of other physical activities to keep us healthy. Most of us have a million reasons to be grateful, regardless of our circumstances.


A common objection to this attitude of acceptance is that it stunts our growth and promotes mediocrity. Why make plans for the future when we’re perfectly ok with the present? The point is not to accept our current situation and make the conscious decision to not do anything about it. We can still have a vision for a better future and make plans for self-improvement. The difference is that we are not basing our happiness on our future accomplishments. It is possible to be content throughout the entire journey without being overly attached to the outcome.


It’s important to understand that, just like any other worthwhile habit, cultivating a practice of acceptance will not be easy. We will have days filled with frustration, self-criticism, and doubt. This is when acceptance matters most, because these negative emotions are a necessary part of the human experience. As we navigate through the inevitable struggles of life, we owe it to ourselves to stop and appreciate the many things that make existence totally worth it.


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