Have you ever found yourself driving your car faster than the other drivers on the road, but no matter how many cars you pass or how fast you go, there is always someone else ahead of you? It’s like driving in an endless race where you can’t win because there aren’t any rules.
How many of us live our daily lives in the same way, always seeking to win? We strive to beat others in school, at work, etc. We feel less than great when someone else outranks us in school or when we get passed up for a promotion at work (particularly when we think we deserve it more). When we let this “winning” mentality drive us, we find ourselves always competing with others and comparing ourselves to them.
We wish to be the number one in whatever we do, be it business, education/learning, relationships, and more, but we forget we are players in an endless game. For instance, it’s easy to fall into the comparison trap by way of putting out more books (as authors), seeking more sales, inspiring more fame, etc., but to what end? Besides, it’s convenient to think of yourself as the number one based on the metrics and timeframes of your choice.
We look for happiness in the external things. We tell ourselves we will be happy when we achieve x thing by y date. We set goals only to find that when we have achieved them, we are clueless as to what to do next. So, we set another goal. Should we stop exercising and eating right after we reach our fitness goals? Do we want to work at organizations only to get promoted and get paid a higher salary? Whatever happened to the joy of doing the work itself as a means to advance a cause greater than ourselves?
I believe the reason we seek things outside of us — whether in terms of material things, experiences, or even relationships — is because we feel incomplete within. We feel that seeking things outside of us will fill that gaping void. Of course, when we achieve those things, the feeling we get from having those experiences is fleeting. Still, we continue to delude ourselves into thinking the feeling will last, which it never does. We never learn, and this is the reason why some of the most “successful” people are often unhappy. All they have to show for their lives is the artifacts they possess, be it a fancy car, home, art, etc. No amount of stuff you own will compensate for the lack of personal growth, creative fulfillment that comes from doing meaningful work, and from having deep relationships in your life.
In that sense, we are always preparing to live, but never end up living in the moment. We are living now in some future that we don’t even know exists, and we somehow trust that achieving that thing will fill the void in our lives.
One of the challenges with any short-term strategy is it only leads to short-term gains and doesn’t last. For instance, you can use promotions at work to drive sales to reach your quarterly targets. Not only does this get expensive for you to sustain, but it doesn’t inspire any loyalty from your customers or improve your relationship with them, let alone increase the profitability of your business. The same applies to how we manage our relationships in our personal lives.
There is nothing wrong with setting goals as long as they are for our growth and not about unhealthy material obsessions. Having some kind of goal can give us direction and stop us from endlessly pursuing something (like making “more” money), which is a fool’s errand. Goals give us a sense of direction. It gives us something to aim for, but it’s not solely about reaching them. You can think of it as the mile markers in your life keeping you on the right path. It’s not about the destination — it never was.
Here are some ideas for cultivating the “nothing to achieve” mindset.
We need to remind ourselves it’s about the journey more so than the destination. Doing the work is the reward in itself. There is nothing to achieve. We need to show up every day and do the work. I wrote earlier:
My uncle has been a regular practitioner of Yoga for nearly 20 years. When I visited him not too long ago, he advised me to keep doing it every week without expecting any results in the short term. He told me the “results” will come in time, but that’s not why you do it. You do it because it’s good for you.
Can you learn Italian or how to tango (or with any creative endeavor) to a point of perfection? You can always strive for perfection, but take solace knowing you will never achieve it, because that’s not the point anyway and that’s okay.
Having this mindset requires discipline and focus. It requires showing up every day to work to advance a cause greater than ourselves. We need to remind ourselves every day why we do what we do. It’s not the work we do that inspires us, but the cause we work for. That’s what keeps us inspired to show up every day and do the work. I am reminded of the Walt Disney quote:
We don’t make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies.
I’ll share a couple of examples below, but we need to stop playing to win. There is nothing to win in an endless game (especially when the rules can be changed by anyone at any time). There is no “numero uno” in anything. We just need to focus on ourselves — stop worrying about being the best and comparing ourselves to others.
There is no one to compete with or compare to. It’s easy to get into the habit of comparing yourself with others and competing with them, but we are truly only competing with our previous selves. The only thing that matters is if we are better today than we were a year ago and if we will be better a year from now than we are today.
We forget the journey at work is vastly more fulfilling with a service mindset than with a goal-oriented mindset. Sure, you may have competitors, but rather than hating them, look up to some of them as worthy rivals you can learn from. Their strengths may also reveal your weaknesses (and vice-versa).
We need to stop seeking meaning in our lives and instead create meaning. Life is what we make of it. It’s a fallacy to think we need to add things (happiness, meaning, artifacts, experiences, etc.) to our present experience to improve it. Rather, we ought to remind ourselves of our consciousness in every moment. We choose to be happy now, not to become happy in the future.
The other kind of intelligence is about subtraction — when you don’t look outside of you, but rather within. The assumption is you are enough, meaning you have everything you need while the fountain of knowledge flows from within you, and not from the outside in. There is nothing to achieve.
We need to play the long game. Our goals can serve as milestones in the game of life, but the reason we do those things to begin with provides the context for those goals. Keep doing the right things because doing those things is the reward. Along the way, if you fail, get back on the wagon and continue doing the right things. We might not see changes from our efforts right away, but rest assured, when we keep doing the right things, the results will begin to compound over time. Again, this isn’t why we’re doing it — it’s about the journey more so than the destination. The Gita reminds us that all we can do is the work. That’s all we can do. There is no outcome to reach.
Here are a couple of examples that illustrate this mindset. I exercise 5-6 days a week for around 30 minutes based on a weekly exercise plan. I keep a log of the type of exercise I have done each day, including the time it has taken me and the “reps” I completed. I am not doing this to lose weight or to reach some arbitrary goal in the future. It’s just what I do. It’s simply a part of my lifestyle. Sure, I am always trying to do better, but I don’t have any goals to reach, per se. I believe doing the work is the reward in itself. Of course, when you track your progress, it does not preclude you from improving yourself in the long term. You can always do better. You can always work on yourself. You are not competing with anyone. You are simply comparing against your previous self to see where you are going and how far you have come along.
I show up every day and write. I have been doing so for 5 years. Sure, I have a goal in mind, but that’s just there to give me some perspective and to keep track of my progress on a yearly basis. The real reason I show up every day and do creative work is because I believe in being the best I can be and to live to my potential. Anything less is a disservice to ourselves and to others. Besides, I believe the best way to learn is to teach/share (and vice versa). Doing the work every day gives me a reason to learn about things and share that knowledge with others. It’s not about climbing the mountain to reach the top, but who we become during the process. We do the work because it makes our souls grow.
When we are always looking to achieve something (in the future), are we ever living in the present? What if we lived our lives as if there was nothing to achieve? What if we did things simply for the joy of doing them because we believed in a cause greater than ourselves?
There is nothing wrong with achieving things in the short term, but we will never have true fulfillment. We need to find a cause that is greater than ourselves. We may never get there, but we can die trying.
There is no one to compare against because you are only competing with yourself. The only thing that matters is if you are better now than a year ago and if you’ll be better in a year than you are now. There are no metrics by which you compare to others because you define your own metrics. There is no winning in an endless race. There is nothing to achieve.
We will achieve whatever there is to achieve simply by the virtue of consciously living our lives.