Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Present Perfect

We've arrived at resolution season again!

Historically, I'm a goal setter. I'm also a goal breaker. I think that most of us set unrealistic goals during childhood. I'm going to be a professional baseball player or an astronaut or a rock star. Supposedly, though, we eventually learn to set realistic goals and make realistic plans for reaching those goals. So we decide to become an accountant and go to business school for an accounting degree. Or we decide to become an engineer and go to school for an engineering degree. We might decide to learn a trade, so we work up from apprentice to journeyman to (hopefully) master in our chosen trade. Point is, by 36 years old, I'm supposed to be able to look into the future, see something that I want to do or own or be, make a plan for getting there, and then execute that plan.

I have learned over the years that I never truly understand a goal until I reach it. To me, long-term goals are a bit like a romantic comedy. In a romantic comedy, usually the male protagonist has to work to convince some girl that he's the one. When we make a long-term goal, we're doing a similar thing. We go through all kinds of awful things to achieve the goal of buying that Mercedes or that huge house in the suburbs. Romantic comedies always end too soon, though. What happens after the wedding? There's a reality to living with one person day in and day out, that you're not ready for until you do it. Then you find out if you can keep doing it. Livable or not, though, there's a world of difference between the beautiful white dress and the socks on the floor. That Mercedes is eventually going to need maintenance, repairs, body work, and replacement. When the goal is to achieve something, we forget about what might happen after we reach the goal.

My goal this year is to stop setting goals.

Kind of.

Don't misunderstand me (or DO misunderstand me -- it's up to you). I don't mean that I'm no longer planning for the future or that I'm actively trying to sabotage myself. I actually see this as a step toward reaching the kinds of things that I used to set goals for. We set goals because we want to be happy, but reaching a goal only provides temporary happiness, until it's time to set and reach a new goal. 

Here's the thing. I can set a goal to be 175 pounds by this time next year. But I don't want to reach 175 pounds so much as I want to have reached that target weight. I don't want to get rich; I want to have gotten rich. I don't want to exercise every day; I want to have exercised every day. In other words, I'm less interested in the future tense and more interested in present perfect tense. I don't think I'm alone in this, either, otherwise I wouldn't spend my time writing about it. I think that I'm not the only person who would rather have the results of hard work than the actual hard work. Even people, like myself, who really do value hard work, if given the choice between doing something they don't really want to do or just having the benefits of having done that thing, would probably take the benefits (up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B,A, start -- am I right?). I may value hard work, but I'd rather kick back and have a beer with friends, all things considered.

So at the risk of being far too clever, I've realized that my desire for a present perfect life hampers my chances of creating a perfect present. By placing emphasis upon some future accomplishment, all of the present moments in between here and there become the means to an end. We've heard people talk like this before. 

"The next two years are going to be nearly unbearable, but it'll be worth it in the end."

Will it?

So at the beginning of a new year, instead of taking stock of what I want or where I want to be -- the implicit assumption in both of those cases is that I don't have what I want or I haven't reached where I want to be -- I'm going to pay attention to what I love about what I already have and where I already am. I am already living in a present perfect reality. I have already reached somewhere. I have a wonderful wife, great kids, fantastic family and friends, and a range of interests that never leave me bored. Instead of focusing on where I might go from here, I'm going to focus, every day, on where I am. Instead of looking toward some halcyon future, where my work has paid off, and I've become a successful whatever-it-is-that-I-can-be, I'm going to focus on the present. As new opportunities arise, do I take them? Sure. New positions come up all the time at my company, and if a good one pops up, I need to think about where that takes me. Understanding that the future is coming and planning for some of the possibilities it brings is not the same as placing more importance upon a future goal than on present realities. Additionally, there are certain practical realities that I won't ignore -- how much should we spend on groceries this week, what's the price of gas doing to our budget, how close are we to our yearly family medical deductible, those kinds of things.

I'm headed in a direction, and I'd love to think that it's a good one, but I won't find out until I take the ride. And I'm going to enjoy it.