Imagine, for a moment, that your life is like a treasure hunt.
It’s not much of a leap, really. Like any good treasure hunt, you have a map to guide you. In life, the map is your corner of the universe. Some of the areas on the map you know quite well. These areas are the places and people and things that you’re familiar with and that are part of your daily life.
Other areas of the map are foreign to you. These yet-to-be-explored regions are home to the milestones in life that you can imagine reaching, but that have eluded you thus far. This undiscovered portion of the map is where your hopes and goals and dreams live. These goals are like little pieces of buried treasure that are hidden somewhere out on the map, somewhere that you hope to get to soon.
One day, a particular goal grabs your attention and you decide to set out on a treasure hunt.
Searching for Buried Treasure
You begin the long hike toward your treasure and encounter a challenge or two along the way. Already the actual path is starting to look different than the buried treasure that you had been imagining. Things get worse when you finally arrive to the spot of the treasure.
This whole time, you had been imagining a chest filled with gold. After uncovering the treasure, however, all you can find are a few scraps of silver and some antique relics. These items are valuable in their own right, for sure, but they were not what you were thinking about this whole time.
You say to yourself, “This doesn’t look like the treasure I was envisioning! I must be on the wrong path. I wasted all this time!”
After thinking for a few moments, you wonder, “Hmm… maybe I should switch goals? I bet there is bigger treasure elsewhere.”
Theory vs. Practice
I've certainly experienced situations similar to the treasure hunt described above. Perhaps you have too.
I'm talking about situations where the goal we were excited to pursue—getting a degree, starting a new exercise routine, making a career change—turns out to look very different in practice than in theory.
It's natural to feel a sense of disappointment or confusion or frustration when this occurs, but I think the deeper problem is rooted in how we approached the treasure hunt in the first place.
Goals as a Compass
The problem with a treasure hunt is that most people spend all of their time thinking about the treasure. The fastest way to get to a particular spot, however, is to set your compass and start walking.
The idea here is to commit to your goal with the utmost conviction. Develop a clear, single-minded focus for where you are headed. Then, however, you do something strange. You release the desire to achieve a particular outcome and focus instead on the slow march forward.
Pour all of your energy into the journey, be present in the moment, be committed to the path you are walking. Know that you are moving unwaveringly in one clear direction and that this direction is right for you, but never get wrapped up in a particular result or achieving a certain goal by a specific time.
In other words, your goal becomes your compass, not your buried treasure. The goal is your direction, not your destination. The goal is a mission that you are on, a path that you follow. Whatever comes from that path—whatever treasure you happen to find along this journey—well, that’s just fine. It is the commitment to walking the path that matters.
“Letting go of how it might come to pass.”
“As far as I can tell, [success] is just about letting the universe know what you want and working toward it, while letting go of how it might come to pass. Your job is not to figure out how it’s going to happen for you, but to open the door in your head and when the doors open in real life, just walk through it. Don’t worry if you miss your cue. There will always be another door opening.”
–Jim Carrey 1
Choose your goals and then forget them. Set them on a shelf. Trust that your direction is true and pour your energy into walking the path. Good goals provide direction to your life. They allow you to commit to a journey. They are like a rudder on a boat, directing your energy and attention in specific direction as you move downstream.
We all have a map to explore. Choose a path and then walk it. 2
This quote is from Carrey’s popular commencement speech for the Maharishi University of Management.
Thanks to Charlie Gilkey for prompting ideas of the known and unknown portions of our universe, to Thomas Sterner for originally sharing the idea that goals can be like the rudder on a boat in his book The Practicing Mind, and to reader Ryan Song for sharing the Jim Carrey quote.