Goals Gone Wild


If you've been following this blog at all, you might know that one of the recurring themes here is practice and process over goals and achievements.

 This insight does not come from some great font of retrospection or wisdom that wells up from within me, but it comes from me making some stupid mistakes that forced me to find a better way.

I’d like to share some of these mistakes with you, in the hope that you don’t waste quite as much time stumbling down the same paths as I did.

Many years ago I set out to prove myself by running a marathon. I trained hard. I ran every day - late at night during the week and 5am on Saturdays for long runs.

I pushed through stabbing leg pain that accompanied the the last few long runs of my training and endured the same pain on race day.

At the end of the marathon I felt amazing. I had accomplished something epic, but I did so at a price.

 I couldn't run anymore

A few short weeks after the race, I tried running again, but was stopped short after four miles by the same stabbing leg pain that had harangued me throughout my training.

In the process of striving for my goal I had permanently damaged my back - an injury that persists to this day.

I had accomplished my goal, but I did so at the expense of something that was more important: my health.

Mistake #1: Sacrificing Things that Really Matter

Some people are so driven that will give up anything to get what they want. I’m not one of those people. There are things that are more important to me than winning: my health, my family, my integrity.

The problem with focusing too much on goals and achievements is that they can blind you to the things that really matter. You sacrifice quality to finish a page, you skip your kid’s dance recital do figure drawing, you exploit another artist to make a buck. None of it is worth it.

 Don’t sacrifice what really matters to get something done.

At the same time I was training for the marathon, I was trying to make a movie - my senior film project. My goal was to finish a film, get it into film festivals, and use that to jump-start my illustrious directorial career.

The project was ambitious and expensive. I called in every favor and all the good will from every family and friend I've ever known. The film had pyrotechnics, period costumes, set pieces - fake mustaches. It consumed a good year of my life in production, and in the end it was a beautiful looking mess (my art director and director of photography were amazing).

The success of this film was crucial to my life plans - I had bet everything on it - and when it turned out to be a flop, I was stuck.

 Mistake #2: Demanding Success

Demanding success is problematic for a number of reasons. First of all it raises the stakes. Raising the stakes raises stress unnecessarily. Unnecessary stress is the enemy to creativity, and one of the big causes of procrastination (if you want to know why, read Neil Fiore’s  The Now Habit).

Second, it blinds you to the many ways an experience can be beneficial to your growth. This is probably the biggest problem with an over-emphasis on goals and achievements. But there is another big mistake that’s worth mentioning before I elaborate on that point.

When I finally accepted the failure of my film, it sent me into a spiral of self-loathing and despair that it took me years to climb out of.

 Mistake # 3: Basing Self Worth on Achievement

I’ll defer to Stephen Pressfield on this point. Basing your self-worth on success is what he calls a “hierarchical orientation”.  This means that your self-worth is based on comparing yourself to others and your ability to deliver. Who has the most trophies? Who makes the most money. Who has the most followers on tumblr/facebook/twitter.

The thing about basing your self-worth on success is that your self worth constantly fluctuates depending on how you are doing in the rankings.

Personally, I want to happy with myself regardless of my place on the leader-boards.

 A true story: A man shot himself in the head. His suicide note was a checklist of his life’s accomplishments. Getting things done did not save him from despair, and it won’t save you either.

So what did I learn from these mistakes?

 Lesson # 1 You Are Here to Learn

I can’t emphasize enough how important this point is. It’s at the core of my philosophy of life and guides every decision I make.

The main idea of the learning-based mindset is to evaluate every experience based on what you can learn from it. The beautiful thing about a this is that it allows you to benefit from every experience you have. There are no successes or failures, only lessons.

It’s a far better way to measure performance too. With any target you are trying to hit there may be innumerable things you are doing right and points you can improve on. Having a learning-based mindset helps you to focus on specific information about what you are doing right, and what areas you can improve in. Win/lose gives you no specific pointers to work on.

You are constantly learning and growing. Your treasures are not the trophies that sit on your shelf but the skills you are refining and the self respect that comes from making yourself a better person every day.

It can also save you from wasting a lot of time. Before you begin a project, ask: What can I learn from this? If it isn't something that’s worth learning, then don’t waste time with the project.  Also ask yourself: “What is the quickest way I can learn the lesson I want to learn here?” If there is a quicker path to learn the same lesson - take it.

Recently, I decided to make some poster prints for an upcoming convention. I thought I could sell at least 10 at the convention, so I ordered 10 prints. When I got the order, I noticed I had made an error in printing. At $13.99 per print, it cost me $139.99 to learn a lesson I could have learned for much less.

Lesson # 2 Focus on practice

A natural extension of the learning based mindset is a focus on daily practice. What do I mean by practice?

"Practice" can be an noun and a verb. Both uses are important here.

One is the refining and perfecting of a skill through focused and thoughtful repetition. The other is the establishment of a ritual: a practice.

Establishing a practice is also great for your sense of self-worth. It produces what Pressfield calls the “territorial mindset”.

Rather than base your value on how you compare to others, you base your value on the area you inhabit. For a football player, that territory is the gym and the playing field, for the surgeon, it's the surgery table and the clinic, for the artist, it's the drawing table.

Your sense of self-worth comes from the commitment you make to spend time every day in your territory. But your territory is not just where you do your thing, but the mindset of growth you bring with you.

The drawing table is just the boundary, but you’re only skirting the edges of your territory until you determine to push into the interior and challenge yourself.

 Lesson # 3 Being Persistent is More Important than Being Consistent

So after that lecture on the importance of daily practice, I have an admission to make: I don’t draw every day.

I don’t do a 100%. If that was my goal, I would constantly be failing. But I’ve learned that even 10% is a step forward. Fortunately, I do better than 10% most of the time, but on the days I don’t, I learn from it and move on.

Don’t get caught in the sunk cost fallacy. The mistakes you made yesterday are only useful as information. If you’re going to waste a day watching videos on youtube don’t waste a second day beating yourself up for wasting time watching videos.

 Learn from your mistakes and move on.

Lesson # 4 If You Build It...

 The best thing about the learning-based mindset is that just by persistently creating, you will make awesome things. You will finish books, you will get better at your craft, and you will enjoy every day along the way.

As a final note, I should say that I do sometimes set goals, and make plans and try to hit milestones. But I do all of that in service of a larger purpose. They are targets with which to measure my progress and evaluate my performance, not ends in and of themselves.

To paraphrase the words from a holy book: “Goals are made for man, not man for goals.”

Use every tool at your disposal to grow, to learn and do amazing things. Each artist must find his way to do this and any tool you can use to find success is good one.

Find what works for you and go forth and learn.