Setting goals can guide us through the maze of modern life, but the process of working towards those goals can be more important than achieving them.
It is only those who know neither an inner call nor an outer doctrine whose plight truly is desperate; that is to say, most of us today, in this labyrinth without and within the heart. Alas, where is the guide, that fond virgin, Ariadne, to supply the simple clue that will give us the courage to face the Minotaur, and the means to find our way to freedom when the monster has been met and slain?”
Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces
Suppose you are out skiing, and when you got off the lift, you mention to the person who rode up the lift with you that you plan to ski down to the lodge where you’re going to meet up with some friends for lunch. “No problem” this person replies, and suddenly he waves to a helicopter above, that upon his signal, swoops you up and speedily deposits you at the ski lodge. You protest vigorously, but the pilot is incredulous. He says, “What’s your beef, my friend? It was you who said the objective was to get from the summit down to the lodge!”
The helicopter pilot would have a point if getting to the lodge were the only issue. If it is, flying down the slope achieves exactly what skiing down achieves. Both have you start at the top and end up at the lodge. The helicopter even has notable advantages: you don’t get cold, or tired, or wet, for example.
There is only one problem with this. The goal of getting to the lodge was meant to structure the process of skiing. That process was the true “goal.”
You have to value “down” over “up” or you can’t do downhill skiing. Aiming at a specific goal (the lodge) allows you to “orienteer” one way to go down the hill. But the true goal is just to ski, not reaching the goal (the lodge).
In precisely the same way, the true goal of goals is to orient you toward your values so you can live a valued life, moment by moment. A successful ACT patient put it this way toward the end of therapy: “I just want to do this because that’s what I want my life to be about. It’s not really about any outcome. I want to be alive until I’m dead.” Goals can help you do exactly that. But be careful! Your mind will often claim that the true goal is the goal itself (after all, evaluating outcomes is what this organ evolved to do), and it will suggest that you should cut corners (like violate your integrity, or ignore other valued aspects of your life) to get there. That defeats the whole purpose, and if you succumb to cutting corners, accomplishing your goals will only mock you.
Steven C. Hayes & Spencer Smith. Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
* In a series of posts I call mythology Monday, I look at quotes from the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell and consider them alongside extracts from books and papers on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and related publications.