The Death of a Goal Setter: Why I’m Rethinking my Definition of Success

The Death of a Goal Setter: Why I’m Rethinking my Definition of Success

I am a goal setter by nature.

Get straight A’s – check.
Move to California – check.
Meet and marry the man of my dreams – check.
Have a family – check (well, actually, in progress. But certainly off to a beautiful start!)

By all intents and purposes, if you look at my life on paper – heck, if you look at my life on social media (the carefully crafted and selected photos I allow you to see, I should say) – it looks like I have the epitome of a successful life. Not just by societal standards, but also of my own self-imposed standards too.

But if I’m so successful, how do you explain that pit in my stomach at the end of the day, the one that whispers, “Hey, you’re not a success! You’re not done yet! You’ve barely scratched the surface! You have so much to do, and you really haven’t done anything yet.” It tells me I don’t live in a big house, nor do I even own one, so I’m not a success yet. I don’t drive the car I dream of driving (sorry Kia Sorento, you’re awesome, but you’re no Tesla), so I’m not a success yet. I haven’t achieved “success” in my career, so I’m not a success yet. I don’t make a million dollars a year, so I’m not a success yet.

The voice tells me all the ways that I am not a success yet, and nothing about what does make me a success: the fact that I have a beautiful daughter, a beautiful home in a beautiful setting (hello, Malibu?! Come on!), a vibrant marriage, a sea of friends I would bend over backwards for (and jump in front of a bus for – seriously, I’m so blessed). The voice neglects to tell me that success means happiness now. It doesn’t tell me that success lives in savoring each moment. It doesn’t tell me that living in the future is just as bad as living in the past. It not only allows my past to dictate my future, but it also looks at my future and shakes its head at me, looking down at and tapping it’s watch and saying, “You must catch up! Time is running out!”

But what good is time if its moments cannot be savored? What good is a success that can only be felt when something outside of oneself is acquired? Surely that cannot be the definition of success. I certainly don’t want it to be.

So why am I living my life as if it is?

I was listening to a podcast on NPR called Invisibilia. It was called Future Self, and it told the tale of a principal in a low income area who took it upon himself to use hypnosis techniques to help his students believe they could achieve their goals, no matter their economic background. It worked really well, until it didn’t. For two kids in particular, the pressure of having to achieve those goals became too great, and ultimately, they took their own lives. I realize this is an extreme example, but so many people are living with the idea that in order to be happy, they must achieve something greater than they already are. And while I’m all for setting the bar high and reaching for the stars, I cannot deny that it can oftentimes feel like a weight against my chest. The more we strive for something we aren’t yet, the more we wish, hope and even work toward something we don’t have yet, the further and further away from success we feel. The further and further away from being grateful for the present moment and all that we do have, all that we are already, we get.

I wanted to move to California, Malibu specifically. I set that goal in 2004. And I did it by 2008. Getting a visa to live and work in another country is no small feat. So why isn’t that feeling in the pit of my stomach gone? Why don’t I feel like a success?

I wanted to meet the man of my dreams and marry him – and have the perfect wedding (which we did) – and the perfect marriage (we don’t, but what we have is so much better than the short sighted perfection I once desired), a beautiful family. I got all of that.

So why is this feeling still here? Why do I still feel like I’m not enough?

I think it has something to do with my habit of marking things down on my goal’s map, adding new things, and feeling like a failure every time I don’t reach that goal by my self-imposed by-when. Not enough checks, Lauren. Not enough money in the bank. Not the car I want in the driveway. Not a big enough house. Not the perfect body I was supposed to have after giving birth.

I “suppose” myself to death. And despite knowing better, I harp on what I’m “supposed” to be and have versus devour and be grateful for the things I do have, and for who I am.

That’s not true, actually. I am grateful. And I do think I’m pretty awesome. But just as soon as I feel gratitude (and give myself that pat on the back for being a good human), the feeling is overtaken by that feeling in the pit of my stomach that whispers again:

You are not enough. You are not enough until you…(insert goal here). And once you achieve that, what then? A new goal. A new thing to strive for. Another reason why I’m not enough until.

Right now, despite trying otherwise, I only seem to feel accomplished at the end of the day after doing the worlds best juggling act while balancing porcelain plates on my head: if I can check off my entire to-do list, somehow, that makes me feel accomplished. Successful. But here’s the catch: only for a few seconds. Because then I look to the next day’s list of to-dos, and that feeling of dread washes over me again: how will I get it all done? And if I don’t get it done, I feel like a failure.

The horrible thing is that while I’m getting this sacred to-do list done, while I’m trying to achieve these goals, I’m not present, and I’m certainly not happy. I always catch myself holding my breath. My hands shake with anticipation as I rush about, deciding in nanoseconds what to do first. Cupboards are open as I go from emptying the dishwasher to getting distracted by a thought and sending an email, back to the dishwasher and then to the chopping board to start chopping veggies for dinner. And the dishwasher is still open.

There is no space. No space to be. No space to relax into the moment, to enjoy it. The sound of my fingers typing on the keys. The smell of the cookies baking in the oven. The feeling of the cold tiles underneath my bare feet as I put the clean dishes away. The sound of my daughter’s giggles from the living from as she happily plays with the babysitter while I try to get my work done. The feeling of her arms wrapped around my legs as she attempts to rugby tackle me while I’m cooking dinner, begging for me to pick her up and squeeze her (and demanding that I give her my thumbs so she and I can walk the perimeter of the house).

So what’s the point of getting my to-do list done if there is no room for enjoyment in them? Relaxation? Happiness? It doesn’t make sense. My definition of success. The one I have bought into. It doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t feel good. It makes me feel empty.

And while I’m aware of it, just because I’m writing this post doesn’t cure me from my disease. I’m certain that after I finish typing this up, I’ll likely fall right back into the tantalizing calls of my to-do list, my goals sheet, my messed-up view of success. I will fall into the comparison game. But hopefully now that I’m aware that something needs to change, I’ll be able to stop, breathe, look around me, become present, and then move on.

That is my hope for myself. And if you’re anything like me, stuck in the throes of an archaic definition of success that seems to cause more pain than happiness, that is my hope for you too.

You are a success. Right now. As you are. Take it all in: What does your present moment feel like right now? What are you doing? What do you smell? What do you see? What are you feeling? Take note. Savor it. Enjoy it. And know in your heart that that, my friend, that awareness? That is success. Everything else is just noise.

Your friend,