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Living Without Attachments

Stephen Shapiro gave an energetic presentation last night at Bellevue Community College on Success 101: The Goal-Free Approach, in which he highlighted some pitfalls of being too attached to the achievement of goals, and instead emphasized the importance of enjoying the moment(s) ... essentially: don't focus so intensely on the destination that you don't enjoy the ride.

In promoting the themes from his book, Goal-Free Living: How to Have the Life You Want NOW!, Steve made a strong case against goal-full living, given the extrinsic origins of many of our goals (pleasing our parents, teachers, society ... the mitote described by Don Miguel Ruiz), the sacrifices that are often made to achieve goals, and the fleeting joy -- if any -- experienced when they are achieved.  And, of course, once one goal is achieved, it's time to set another one ... reminding me of lyrics from Breathe, on Pink Floyd's album (er, CD) Dark Side of the Moon:

Run, rabbit, run
Dig that hole, forget the sun,
And when at last the work is done
Don’t sit down, it’s time to dig another one

In fact, I suspect Breathe would be an excellent theme song for Steve's book, as I often found myself drawing parallels between mindfulness practices (such as following one's breath) and the goal-free perspectives that Steve was advocating.  In the book I consider the "bible" of everyday mindfulness, Wherever You Go, There You Are, Jon Kabat-Zinn emphasizes the importance of letting go of any goal in meditation, and simply paying attention to what is, one breath at a time.

Steve shared eight "secrets" to goal-free living:

  • Use a compass, not a map: have a sense of direction, and then let yourself wander and try new things on the way to fulfilling your aspirations
  • Trust that you are never lost: every seemingly wrong turn is an opportunity to learn and experience new things
  • Remember that opportunity knocks often, but sometimes softly: while blindly pursuing our goals, we often miss unexpected and wonderful possibilities
  • Want what you have: measure your life by your own yardstick and appreciate who you are, what you do, and what you have ... now
  • Seek out adventure: treat your life like the one-time-only journey it is, and revel in new and different experiences
  • Become a people magnet: constantly seek, build and nurture relationships with new people so that you always have the support and camaraderie of others
  • Embrace your limits: transform your inadequacies and boundaries into unique qualities you can use to your advantage
  • Remain detached: focus on the present, act with a commitment to the future, and avoid worrying about how things will turn out

During the Q&A period, Steve acknowledged that setting and achieving goals may work for some people (someone asked about Olympic athletes setting goals); alluding to the Myers-Briggs personality typology, Steve noted that judges tend to be goal-oriented, and perceivers tend to be what he called "river people" who go with the flow ... and ideally, become the flow (FWIW, I'm an ENFP).  It's the attachment to the outcome of goals that he warns against, and I suspect a more accurate and evocative -- but perhaps less provocative -- title for his book would be "Attachment-Free Living".  He also distinguished between a goal, which derives from the Old English word for "obstacle, boundary or hindrance", and an aspiration, which derives from the Latin word for "to breathe upon" ... and to which he infers the connotation "panting with desire" (and, not surprisingly, he recommends the latter orientation over the former).  [This connotation fits in very nicely with the subtext for my blog -- Ruminations on inspiration, aspiration and perspiration.]

Another question had to do with the applicability of Steve's approach to business, where setting goals and measuring results against those goals is the norm.  Steve shared some stories about negative consequences arising from excessive goal-orientation, as well as stories about positive consequences arising in an atmosphere where explicit goals (e.g., sales quotas) were either not set by an employer or not followed by an employee (some of these stories can be found on Steve's article about Goal-Free Businesses).  This theme corresponds to some of the causes of employee disengagement that were raised in the book How Full Is Your Bucket that I blogged about recently. However, I'm still not sure how a company, especially a large organization, can provide a fair and motivational compensation policy in a goal-free way.

Interestingly, Steve and I share a common business heritage: we both worked at Accenture, during roughly the same time period, although he advanced much faster and frther in the hierarchy than I did ... and his regrets about his strong goal-orientation during that period formed part of the motivation for writing this book.  He also shared the story of how his friend Doug Busch, vice president and chief technology officer of Intel Corporation's Digital Health Group, has pursued a goal-free approach throughout his career ... which I found particularly interesting, given my own experience of the extremely strong goal-oriented culture that pervades Intel (another former employer).

Other highlights of Steve's talk included his encouragement to establish a one-word New Year's theme rather than more elaborate resolutions (e.g., his last three themes, in chronological order, have been "flexibility", "platform" and "impact"), his definition of decidiphobia ("fear of making decisions") and the antidote of just make a decision and learn from the consequences (reminiscent of the Love and Logic approach to [self?]parenting), and his suggested exercise to wake up tomorrow and pretend you are someone else (ideally, some personal hero, a person who exemplifies the kinds of qualities you want to manifest in your own life). 

On this latter point, a member in the audience shared a story about how she had regularly failed English tests, and one day, acknowledging that she had nothing to lose, decided to pretend she was Condoleeza Rice when she went to take a test.  Much to her surprise (and delight), she scored 90% on that test, placing her in the highest achievement category.  This provided an inspiring, positive and conscious example of the flip side of the kind of negative, unconscious self-programming described by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink, wherein he reports on a study that showed that simply being asked to identify their race on a standardized test resulted in a 50% decrease in test scores for blacks.  In fact, it was so perfect an illustration of this notion of "fake it 'til you make it", I wondered whether the telling of this story was pre-arranged (not that it matters all that much -- it was powerful and very relevant).

I almost didn't go to this talk, since I expected there would be a fair amount of overlap between Steve's book and a book I read 10 years ago, Living without a Goal: Finding the Freedom to Live a Creative and Innovative Life, by James Ogilvy (co-founder of the Global Business Network).  Synchronistically, when I revisited the original posting for the event, in an email from the distribution list for the local chapter of Fast Company's Company of Friends network, I discovered that Steve has a blog (where he has, among other things, some interesting things to say about goal-free blogging).  I discovered a blog entry about someone who found new meanings and applications in re-reading his book, even though she'd read it many times before (she was a reviewer for the book); I posted a comment on the blog, noting "when the reader is ready, the author [re]appears" ... and, in yet another instance of preaching what I want to practice, I found that by posting the comment, I realized that it would be good for me to hear what Steve had to say, even if it included some review of themes I've encountered elsewhere ... and I was not disappointed.

[And in yet another instance of synchronicity, Steve Pavlina, whose blog I only discovered yesterday, via a provocative post on "Comments make me orgasm" on Noah Kagan's blog (to which I couldn't resist posting a comment), has some interesting things to say about goal-free living ... and, in fact, Steve Pavlina's post is the first thing that pops up in googling goal free living after the Amazon entry for the Steve Shapiro's book.]

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