From fitness ambitions and big races, through to career and life choices, success comes down to the same few principles: setting goals that are not too big nor too small; staying focused and loyal to your intentions; avoiding distractions and taking things one step at at time. Tapping into the single-minded determination that leads to success. I get it. I believe in it; it works.
But there’s a catch: focus too much on reaching the destination, and you might just miss the journey.
Pregnancy got me thinking this way. I’ve been pregnant since forever, or so it seems – and from the very beginning, I’ve been desperate for it to be over. Why? So that life can go on again; so that I can stop getting bigger and bigger and start to regain control of my body’s size, shape and function; so that I can start a new phase of life as a mum of two; and, perhaps most of all, so that I can re-learn how it feels to be me, without the trappings of antenatal depression or morning sickness or the back and pelvis pain that have been constant companions these last eight months. I haven’t felt at ease with myself in pregnancy; not at all; but I’ve kept despair at bay by keeping the end in sight and believing that, from the time of the Baby’s Arrival, life will resume. But what a terrible, terrible way to think.
Eight months is a long time to wish away – and that’s just the start of it.
I already notice myself looking eagerly ahead past the coming months of anticipated sleeplessness and dysfunctional fatigue; the painful phase of early breast feeding; the aftermath of the birth; the physical re-habilitation: in my mind I’m already hurrying towards a point, several months away, when the circumstances of life look likely to be a little more conducive to dusting off some old ambitions and resuming the life I lived ‘before’. And that’s one way to approach life. But I’m starting to see that, by focusing too much on what’s coming next, I’m shutting out the journey; and the journey is never just the means to an end. The journey is life and it’s passing me by. Unlived in. Wasted.
This isn’t just about my approach to pregnancy. I can recognise the same trait coming through in my approach to all of my plans; my ideas; my dreams; from training goals to life ambitions. My preoccupation is often – too often? – about the destinations: the achievements to be gained; the places to be reached; the anticipated relief of arriving at the other end of each turbulent voyage and setting my feet on solid ground. This is how I have planned my way towards every big goal I’ve achieved in my life so far: from completing an ultramarathon or passing an exam to launching a business or starting a new life in a new country, I have planned; prepared; worked hard; visualised and driven my ambitions into reality.
Now, I’m not saying that achieving goals is incompatible with enjoying life along the way. But I am beginning to understand that the two don’t necessarily go easily together.
Just as too many distractions can keep you from reaching a destination, fixing your sights too firmly on future achievements can be a bad thing too. The destination is never a certainty, after all: the only thing that’s guaranteed is that Life is Now … and that, for better or worse, most of our time is spent on the journey.
My natural inclination is to arrange my life around reaching the destinations that excite me: my thoughts revolve around the big questions of ‘where do I want to be next? What do I need to do to get there? And what will it be like when I arrive?’ But I’ve come to notice that some of the happiest, most joyful people I know are the people who can truly love the journey. These past few months have felt quite joyless to me, and I recognise that as a consequence of spending too much energy anticipating what I hope is to come, and not enough appreciating what is.
Learning to love the journey doesn’t mean giving up on goals.
But it might mean keeping a softer hold on them; being open to life as it happens; accepting that yesterday’s dreams aren’t always the key to happiness today – and understanding that it’s not always wise to sacrifice today for tomorrow. Right now, I’m rushing headlong towards a new phase in life, and it’s a perfect opportunity not to repeat the same old mistakes. Every new beginning brings thoughts and hopes for the future, and there are a thousand exciting choices up ahead. But – whatever direction I end up heading in – one big priority is clear.
However exciting and motivating the goals may be, they should never overshadow the journey.