THE PATH YOUR DREAMS ARE ON - 6 February 2014
Moonset on the Eastern Sierra - Mono Lake, California
I watch TED talks for their thought provoking content. Most of the time when I watch those videos, I think of their application to what’s going on with me at the time. After watching a video, my mind drifts from one idea to the next. I think that’s how creativity works—your mind wanders a bit aimlessly until you settle on an idea.
We talk a lot about where we’re going as individuals. We talk about setting a course for our dreams. We talk about how to overcome adversity when working towards goals, like the path you’re on will be full of alligators and traps and other crazy things. We always talk about getting somewhere. In effect, we talk about the destination and how to get there. But we rarely talk about what’s going on at the moment. Essentially, we look past the path we’re on, where we are, and look into the distance where we’re going as if that was the only thing that matters. I think that’s a mistake.
Of course having goals, pointing yourself somewhere, is important. But it isn't the only thing. When you reach those goals, finally climbing to the top of the peak, does that really make a big difference? After reaching the peak, what do you do next? What happens to that feeling of accomplishment? It’s fleeting.
About 10 years into my USAF career I was at Test Pilot School when a thought came to mind: “What am I going to do next?” See, when I started my career I wanted to get into Test Pilot School. It was my only long term goal. Then when I met that goal and had another 10 years to go before a regular retirement, I realized I had no idea what to do next, what path to take, or where to set my sights long term. I struggled in that state for a few years, trying to figure out what to do. If you’re like me, you’ll see short term goals materialize with a clear long term goal to point the way. Not having a long term goal made selecting my next assignment quite frustrating.
For some people, reaching the goal is never enough. It just means that it's the end of that path and it’s time to shoot for another. For some people, reaching the goal is the only consideration. The path they take may not be where they want to be, but the goal is their excuse. After all, if the goal is good then everything else doesn’t matter and will fall into place. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
The brain has a complex reward system with various chemicals that get released when goals are met. The elementary school version of this process is: we reach our goal, chemicals are released, we feel good and want more. This can be highly addictive stuff. Even if you know your goal isn’t very good for you, reaching it still rewards you with that good feeling and makes you want more.
What if we transformed our attention from what’s at the end of the path to the path itself? What if the focus of our attention was where our next step was being placed? What if we changed our primary attention from getting to a specific location to what leads us to that location? Focusing on where we place our next step might seem overly simple, but I can assure you it’s not. Just think how hard it is to wake up the day after you committed to early morning workouts before going to work. It’s hard. Simple short term goals are hard.
When I was getting my engineering degree 35 years ago, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do in my adult years. I wasn’t even versed on methods to create such a life goal. Most of us aren’t educated on such things, as far as I know. I can’t remember who, but someone gave me their life goal, actually their life purpose. Inspired, I transformed it into mine: “To live a life that makes a difference.” I still use the same words today. Even with this as the big picture goal, there are a lot more detailed immediate goals important to everyday life, such as doing well on that test, getting my engineering degree, graduating #1 in training, yadayada. All of these were made within the context of living "a life that makes a difference.”
To me, these goals are dreams of who or what we want to be. They are not idyllic locations we strive to get to. Instead, they are the path right in front of us. We should interact with those dreams day to day. And, we should feel rewarded for being precisely on that path. After all, it’s not about the destination. It’s about how we get there.