05 January 2011

Living With Intention, and Without Goals

Over on Brazen Careerist, I was alerted to a post by Leo Baubata of Zen Habits in which he suggests that "the best goal is no goal." It is a provocative statement, to be sure, and one that is apropos the beginning of a new year, when many people resolve to accomplish this or that through the next twelve months. Leo argues:
I’d set a goal or three for the year, and then sub-goals for each month. Then I’d figure out what action steps to take each week and each day, and try to focus my day on those steps. Unfortunately, it never, ever works out this neatly. ... Your weekly goals and monthly goals get pushed back or side-tracked, and you get discouraged because you have no discipline. And goals are too hard to achieve. So now what? Well, you review your goals and reset them. You create a new set of sub-goals and action plans. You know where you’re going, because you have goals! Of course, you don’t actually end up getting there. Sometimes you achieve the goal and then you feel amazing. But most of the time you don’t achieve them and you blame it on yourself.

Here’s the secret: the problem isn’t you, it’s the system! Goals as a system are set up for failure. Even when you do things exactly right, it’s not ideal. Here’s why: you are extremely limited in your actions. When you don’t feel like doing something, you have to force yourself to do it. Your path is chosen, so you don’t have room to explore new territory. You have to follow the plan, even when you’re passionate about something else.

One must, I think, understand Leo's problem and prescription for living without goals with a Zen mind. It is not the goals themselves that are problematic, but rather, our attachment to them. Those who follow my work know that I express this using other words in my advice to leaders, and have developed it more fully and rigorously in my doctoral work on Valence Theory and practice of organizational therapy and healing.

Rather than goals and vision - notably, a sensory metaphor that connotes distance and separation - one must always be guided by values and tactility. Values represent one's deep-seated beliefs that guide her or his day-to-day practice of being in the world; tactility answers the question, "whom am I going to touch, and how am I going to touch them today?" Tactility is expressed in the effects we each, individually and collectively, enable and bring about in the world. Effects are markedly different from goals: a goal can be though of as an endpoint of activity; effects exist on a continuum of interactions through which each of us continually navigates. Ironically, they are often initiated by "accomplishing" goals (and may - or more often, may not - be what we actually intended to happen). It is the difference in value-based intention that provides the key distinction between mindful effects and often blind adherence to goals without appreciation of secondary or tertiary consequences.

By living one's values mindfully, guided by an intentionality towards the effects we wish to enable and bring about, goals become not only arbitrary but entirely unnecessary. More significantly, far more good in the world can actually be accomplished by each of us, and all of us.

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