Starting Right

If you know of BMC’s shabby work in Bombay, you’d know that every year during (and after) the monsoon season, it’s common to see potholes on the roads, which makes it incredibly difficult for drivers and pedestrians alike to use them, which leads to congestion among a host of other issues. Of course, after the monsoons, the local government will have their staff fix those potholes temporarily, only for them to resurface later, but they won’t spend the time and effort to do it right from the start. Strangely enough, they are somehow okay with spending the time and effort to keep fixing things ad infinitum, which (to their ignorance and to our disadvantage) is more expensive for them, but they never seem to have the willingness to do things right to begin with (which is far cheaper in the long term) to their benefit (and to ours).

Surprisingly, we always have the resources to keep doing (fixing/repairing) things forever, but never doing them quite right at the outset. The same thing is true for companies hiring consultants. Somehow they always seem to have the time and money to hire them to keep fixing things in the short term, but these same organizations (even with good intentions) might not have the willingness to do things right for the long term (which is what a good consultant would want anyway).

Setting goals is limiting
This brings me to a related point of how many of us will do whatever it takes to achieve our goals in the short term (such as reaching short-term sales numbers at all costs, losing body weight in 3 months, working longer hours now with the hope of working fewer hours later, etc.), with the thinking that when we do, then we can keep it going in a way that’s more manageable. Of course, what is left unsaid in these situations most of the time is that we are willing to suffer (in the short term) until we reach these outcomes, but why?!

This idea is predicated on the mistaken belief that getting to the destination (achieving the short-term goal) is more important than the journey (process); it’s not. Some would confidently say that success always comes at a price, but I’d argue it isn’t true success if it comes at a price (because it shouldn’t have to). And if it comes at a price, it isn’t worth it.

Let me share an example. I’ve seen a few acquaintances (and some friends) talk about wanting to lose weight quickly. When I asked them the reason for doing it in 3 months (which is some arbitrary number they share), they lacked a concrete response. When I asked them a followup question, which is what happens if they ended up achieving their health goals in 2 or 4 months or even longer, to which they had no proper response either. Without knowing why you wanted to do something, you might as well be running a fool’s errand.

On the other hand, if you’re someone like an actor (let’s say) and you need to lose/gain weight for a role in x months before your shoot, then it makes perfect sense to set these time-bound goals, as there are others involved in terms of time and money, but for the vast majority of us, there really is no urgency of realizing these outcomes (in terms of setting arbitrary goals like these, much less achieving them), regardless of how close or far we might be from them.

The other thing is even if you set some arbitrary goal and and you end up achieving it in your desired time frame, then what? Will you stop eating right, now that you’ve achieved your ideal weight? If not, then why set such goals to begin with? Why not start right at the outset (by thinking right) instead of trying to figure things out differently later. Why not start out the way you intend to carry on?

Setting such (short-term) goals is akin to tying yourself to a leash and torturing yourself (for no reason) until you realize it. You’re sacrificing your present in some way or the other with the hope of achieving a future outcome. You’re subconsciously telling yourself, “I’ll be happy when I achieve x….” Even if you end up achieving it, it wouldn’t mean much (if anything), because what’s the point if you didn’t enjoy the journey all along?!

Here’s the thing. We make up these arbitrary numbers in our head for no apparent reason other than we feel we ought to. We are somehow conditioned by the world to set such random goals and we’ve managed to learn to feel a sense of accomplishment from achieving them only to realize there is nothing to achieve and there is nowhere to arrive at, but unfortunately, this lesson is only learned by the fortunate few.

There is no shortage of people on this planet who have set (mostly work-related) goals for themselves at various points in their lives only to realize that accomplishing them didn’t make them feel any different (happier). If anything, they felt unhappy because they were so fixated on reaching their goals that they lost sight of the process. They forgot that the purpose of life is to give, and not to get. No amount of getting will make you feel any different (better).

If you’re not able to do things right from the outset, you might not be able to do things differently later. But why take that route to begin with? By making short-term choices, not only do we have to keep thinking constantly, make more (and worse) decisions, but its also more expensive in terms of time, effort, and money.

Case in point
I had been trying to fit into my old clothes for the past few years and had been unsuccessful despite following popular health/fitness advice for the most part that I began to question myself if it was ever going to happen.

I suppose the turning point for me was when I had a couple of pints of ice-cream on a weekend, I realized I wasn’t the kind of person who did that. It was only then that I shifted my focus from what I did (reach ideal weight) to who I was (make long-term choices about health), not only did I manage to lose a bunch of weight, but it happened so quickly and effortlessly without me having to “do” anything.

Of course, I showed up every week and did the work (in terms of nutrition and fitness (the order mattered)). Then, it became about who I was and not something I did. I didn’t need to be motivated to reach a random goal. There was no outcome for me to reach, even as I was tracking my progress all along (which is different than setting a goal). Not only was I able to fit into my old clothes, but I went a couple of sizes past them that they were loose and I had to get them altered, so I could wear them (!). I managed to do something in a few months by virtue of who I was, which I hadn’t been able to do in years with all of the effort put together.

Paradoxically, when you shift your focus from what you do (reaching arbitrary short-term goals) to who you are (taking a long-term approach), not only do you end up going past your arbitrary goals quickly, but more importantly, you are able to do it joyfully and sustainably. You no longer tie yourself to a leash where you’re always focused on some arbitrary future. This reminds me of a quote by Laozi:

A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.

Contrary to what most believe, the challenge isn’t in the doing of things, but in the thinking of it. When you take care of the thinking, the doing will (literally) take care of itself. Then you don’t have to “do” things because you are the kind of person, who naturally does these things by virtue of who you are. When you know where you’re going, you’ll find a way to get there. I couldn’t agree more with Nietzsche:

He who has a why can bear almost any how.

Final thoughts
Remember, who you are is much greater than what you do. In other words, what you do is simply a manifestation of who you are. Focus on your internal self, and the externals will take care of themselves. This isn’t just true with personal growth, but even the work we do, and the relationships we have.

When we start right from the outset, we are focused on the present. We are not thinking whether or not we will reach our outcomes, because there is no outcome to reach. Why you are doing something has shifted from what you do to who you are. This way, we’ll likely make a significant progress joyfully and sustainably over a period of time without setting any goals. I’ve found this to be a better approach in every which way compared to the typical short-term way of doing things. Imagine what your life would be like if you applied this in every facet of your life.

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