Too much, too little, and loving what is (A story about goals)

google mindmap on ginormous whiteboard

After numerous setbacks, some regular-usuals that I now know to plan for (hello, holidays!), some spontaneous combustibles that required urgent but unscheduled attention, I wrapped up my goal planning for 2010.

Yes, five weeks or roughly 10% of the way into the year I’m supposed to be living, I’m done planning for it.*

It is an easy, easy slide into self-loathing, just taking in that last sentence. It feels like a sentence, when I start to take it in fully: this is your life, loser, and no one to blame but yourself for it. Little Miss Overachiever. Little Miss Fancypants, with your ridiculous notions of time and how many things you can fill it with, or, if you want to dip into that bucket o’ truth you claim such fondness for, how much shit you can cram into it.

So, you see how I talk to myself when you’re not around?** Not nice. Not even helpful. But this is the voice that runs through my head most of the time, or one of them, and it is this voice, or rather, what this voice is doing to me, that I’m choosing to address this year.

Because two very interesting and highly unusual things happened this year during the penultimate phase of goal-planning. They’re embarrassing enough that I’d ordinarily leave them out, but illuminating enough, at least, I hope they are, that they’re staying in.

For those of you unfamiliar with the values-centered goal-planning system outlined in Jinny Ditzler’s Your Best Year Yet, it starts with an inventory and ends with a map, with a whole lot of excavation, grading and other survey-ish/cartographic folderol in between. The inventory is a look back at the previous year’s happenings, divided into accomplishments and disappointments, the better to get a handle on what’s working (so you can feel good about yourself!) and what’s not, so you can beat yourself with a cudgel crafted from your own sodden, misshapen failures. Kidding! Only, well, there’s a reason Ditzler has you list your accomplishments first. It can be mighty dispiriting to look at that list of disappointments. She is fairly adamant that accomplishments be viewed with pride and the disappointments taken as learning, but right there, that’s suspect to self-loathers: wherefore such inequities of discernment? That’s just bad science, lady!

Interestingly enough, in the five years I’ve been doing Best Year Yet, I’ve never once had a problem coming up with staggeringly long lists of accomplishments that even the meanest stranger would affirm as such, while my list of disappointments has been proportionately far smaller. Of course, they’re big honkers, those disappointments, stuff like “only completed 4 out of 10 goals from last year”; worse, they tend to recur. This may not be a big deal when you’re 20 or even 30, but when you’re staring 50 in the droopy, gray-haired sac, you start to worry. Time is, as they say, at a premium. How much more of it can you count on? How much more can you waste on an outright-destructive or even “benign” insalubrious habit? Is there even such a thing after 45? (I’m really asking: is there?)

My own goal-planning process ground to a depressing halt in December not only because the year had worn me down and the holidays weren’t going to let up, but because when I finished up my list of disappointments, I noted that 11 of them, that’s 11 out of 18, were recurring. And big ones, too, like “didn’t write book…again,” where “again” meant “for the third year in a row.” After completing those two lists, I went on to answer the next couple of questions, but really, I knew I was fucked. The only way around this problem was through it, and that was going to require a lot more time than the week I had set aside. And resources, too, in the form of outside help.

Which brings us to the penultimate session I mentioned about 40 minutes ago in this piece.

Up until this year, I’ve mostly done my BYY plan alone. I ran last year’s by my business coach, but only the final plan, and only the business-related aspects of it***. While it makes me cringe with shame now, I realize that I was doing a lot of obfuscating and tap dancing, more plainly called “hiding” when one is not given to obfuscating and tap dancing. If I was going to change my pattern, someone else was going to have to be given root access to the plan, to help keep me honest about what was going on. One of my friends from Success Team (my weekly mastermind-like group) agreed that it might be helpful from an unsticking perspective to collaborate, so we scheduled a work session for this past weekend.

I was prepared for almost anything. A lot of stuff bubbles up during the BYY excavation and mapping process, and for me, that inevitably brings a lot of crying and pain, especially around the Dreaded Chapter Four, where you look at your limiting paradigms. (Trust me, unless you’re Jesus, you’ve got at least one.)

What I was not prepared for was bursting into tears when I looked at my list of accomplishments, which is just what I did when it was my time to go over them. I’d thought, “Oh, I’ll just read the topline from this embarrassingly long list to save us time.” Instead, something told me to read it in its entirety, all 47 items, and when I the last one, I collapsed in a heap of sobs: all of this stuff I’d accomplished, and still I felt like shit? What would it take? What would ever be enough? If accomplishing all of these 47 remarkable things, and my friend assured me that individually, many were remarkable, but taken together, they were REMARKABLE, if doing all that did not fill the black hole inside me and make me feel loved or safe or worthwhile, what would?

The answer, that nothing would, that no external thing would ever be enough, stared back at me, plain as you like. Hence, sobbing. A lot of it. Fortunately, I have loving and patient friends. Who somehow, when I am feeling like it’s anything but possible, can assure me in a way that I actually can hear and almost believe, that I am enough: that I might be lovable just because of who I am, and not because of any list of things I do.

It seems so simple, but trust me, it can take a long time to “get”, even if you know it. Even if you’ve paid your shrink thousands of dollars and wept your way through boxes of her Kleenex to learn the same thing. Learning is not necessarily “getting”; if you’re lucky, I think, you “get” it with enough time before you die to know some kind of peace. I felt one huge shift like this in the past 10 years, when I had my hospital bed epiphany. I had a second one this past weekend, looking at that long list and bursting into tears. I have a little more peace, but I’d also like to get a little more of this music out of me before I die, you know?

The other Very Interesting and Unusual Thing that happened revolved around money and happiness. It also involved a goodly amount of sobbing, and is involved (and possibly significant) enough to cover in depth another day.

For now, know this: next year when I sit down to do my Best Year Yet plan, I expect the list of accomplishments will be far shorter, while the list of disappointments will likely be about the same length as it’s been in previous years, only with a much, much higher percentage of new things I’m disappointed about.

And that, my friends, is an accomplishment in and of itself…

xxx
c

*Hopefully. Because I finished the wrapping-up yesterday, late in the day, and am feeling rickety about it. Plus, you know, shit happens, Q.E.D.

**Obviously, you’re very much around, as you’re reading this. What I mean, which you probably already gathered, is this is the dim chatter that forms one layer of my soundtrack. This is the stuff that goes on that I generally don’t write, or if I do, that I erase before publishing.

***Your Best Year Yet is a whole-life planning system, based on the idea that achieving balance is largely responsible for achieving happiness, and possibly for achieving goals themselves, at least in the “life well-lived” sense. Also, it’s worth noting here that even my coach said my plan was probably overly ambitious. I made changes to it based on her feedback and those changes did work: the four out of ten goals were largely accomplished because of those tweaks.

Yo! Disclosure! Links to the books in the post above are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on them and buy something, I receive an affiliate commission. Which I hope you do: it helps keep me in books to review. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt’s excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.

Image by jurvetson via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license. For maximum enjoyment, view in original, huge size.

5 comments

  1. Although I was head-nodding in appreciation and empathy through your whole post, I’d like to say that, ironically, the amount of respect you afford yourself JUST in committing to all this hardcore life-planning and introspection is completely inspiring!

  2. I just found your blog through an old post on the blog When I Grow Up. I really identify with this post and the process you discuss here. I have not done this program, but I feel like I go through some similar emotions most days of the week—I save the sobbing for once or twice a year, but the struggling with myself, despite accomplishments and wondering when it will be ENOUGH, sounds suspiciously familiar.

    Arrg. Why is it so hard to just exist and appreciate being alive? Why must we always be comparing, quantifying and analyzing? Trying to figure out what things are holding us back is a really useful thing, but I find sometimes the need to always be changing and improving gets exhausting and makes it impossible to ever just stop and appreciate what you have and what you’ve done, and be HAPPY. Thank you for writing this post and giving me another opportunity to think about this.

  3. What a Very Heavy Epiphany. Breathing deep over here for you. And as I was reading through, I wanted to tell you that my copy of Your Best Year Yet is being delivered today. So yes, I am way behind the whole planning my best year in line with the actual calendar thing.

    But also that I ordered the book (and have others on my to-be-ordered list) because of you and being inspired by your process and the way you share it. Which I guess I’m thinking of as something that’s kind of accomplishment list-ish, and maybe means I’m missing the whole point. Except it’s more than that because there are little things that don’t get measured on any list but that I (for what it’s worth since I’m complete stranger) think of as part of the enoughness, suchness of you. Anyway. Another deep breath.

  4. Thank you for a great post! I did Chris Guillebeau’s annual review process this year (something kinda like it anyway) and I had a similar combination of recognizing my accomplishments and crying. Thank you for reminding me that I must chill and also that I’m not alone in having such a ridiculously skewed perspective on my own accomplishments.

    Also–a quick thought on not getting a book written. I work on lots of business books in one way or another. Consider creating yourself a book team instead of trying to go it alone. Whether it’s a group of peers who also want to write books (academics do that a lot to turn their dissertations into books) or whether it’s help you hire to do research or re-read your old writing and organize ideas for you or a writing partner or coach, the book will be easier if you bounce it off some other big brains!

  5. This is certainly one of the most profound blogposts I’ve read. I wept when I read it. To watch someone realize the truth of their own neurosis is wonderful and very humbling. I have many things to say about it, but that will have to wait for another time, I’m afraid.

    I will say this, though. You are so deliberate and dogged about exploring other ways of living, that I hope you will turn that single-mindedness to the issue of your self-loathing and the self-talk that abets it. Here’s a tool: consider saving the self-hating talk for later, and proceed without it for a half-hour, or until that chapter is finished. Consider the alternatives. Over at Brazen Careerist, another “failed” writer has been talking this week about failing to write her book for the last three years. Except that she accepted a six-figure advance and spent it, without turning in word one. So, yes, you’re a failure, but at least you didn’t make off with six figures of someone else’s money while being one. Give yourself some credit.

    Among the most profound statements: “Learning is not necessarily ‘getting.'” This is the curse that comes along with great intelligence: the ability to rationalize one’s own neurosis and self-delusion. We smart ones are most definitely our own worst enemy.

    I’m grateful to you for writing this, Colleen.

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