It’s easy to get caught up in goal-oriented thinking. Television commercials for the University of Phoenix tout how much better your life would be with a degree. Romantic comedies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall end with the beginning of a relationship. We strive for a big house, a beautiful family, a flush bank account.
Adam Alter discusses some of the flaws in goal-oriented thinking in his recent Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. Most humans are happiest while striving for a goal, but reaching goals can leave us feeling empty.
Consider the protagonist of Jack Vance’s The Demon Princes, who hunts down the villains who killed his family. After defeating the last, he falls into melancholy. He describes himself as feeling “Deflated, perhaps. I have been deserted by my enemies. … The affair is over. I am done.”
We will either fail to reach our goals … or succeed, only to find that our goals have failed us.
The advertising companies that Adam Alter discusses in Irresistible know that goal-oriented thinking will leave us feeling empty, but that is precisely why they nurture these thoughts. Striving for ever more Facebook or Instagram “likes” keeps people logging in, which lets the company keep making money. The corporation’s profit model relies on people feeling unfulfilled.
Most of the corporations shilling things through your telephone want you to feel unhappy. Contented people spend less.
We read Jack Gilbert’s “Failing and Flying” in jail. This poem is a gorgeous paean to process-oriented thinking, opening with the line:
Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
Gilbert then describes a “failed” marriage, one that ended in divorce. But even though the eventual outcome was separation, he and his wife shared many happy years. They had engaging conversations over lunch. He would wake in the morning and marvel over her sleeping form in bed.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that.
Gilbert knows that he was blessed to have lived through so much beauty. He thinks it’s absurd that other people will say his marriage failed. It ended, yes. He fell short of a goal. But he (appropriately) enjoyed the process. He has many years of happy memories, and he would be a fool to let the divorce poison his recollection of them all.
The men in jail have also lost many loved ones, either because they’ve drifted apart over time or, tragically often, because their partners have died. They’ve loved Jack Gilbert’s poems: several dudes teared up at the image of Gilbert finding his second wife Michiko’s hair in a potted plant after she died.
And the men in jail are in jail. From a goal-oriented perspective, their lives, so far, have been failures. No one wants to end up there. When we read Pattiann Rogers’s “The Greatest Grandeur,” I suggested we write our perspective on the best of the world. They looked at me confused. I said, “Well, she’s writing about why nature makes her believe in God. I’m an atheist, but I think the world can be beautiful. So could you write about, I dunno, what makes you want to go on living?”
Three dudes tossed down their pencils. “That’ll … I’ll need to think about that one for a week or two,” one said. His brother died last year. His son cussed him out and moved away. Three weeks in jail, he’s still going through withdrawal. He can’t sleep more than an hour at a time. The highlight of his day is running in place in the cement-walled fourth-floor “rec yard” until he feels sufficiently sick & drained to still his brain, “but they haven’t taken us to daytime rec more than, what, two times a month? There’s a good dude here at night, though. We had night rec three times this week.”
Oops. So maybe that wasn’t the best writing prompt. But one man wrote a beautiful poem about linked cycles of growth – a tall tree starting from a small seed, his own son begun from an even smaller seed, and the poem itself originating as the seed of an idea inside his mind. In his poem,
… the tree that withstood
The storm now given opportunity to transform mere
Feet into stories …
Our growth – the process of transformation – is what matters. We all die in the end. Maybe this alone should be enough to persuade us against goal-oriented thinking. We need to enjoy life as we live it. Otherwise, we’re striving toward nothingness.
Gilbert ends “Failing and Falling” with the beauty of our struggle:
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.