Pressure and Goals

Due to some frustrating combination of nurture and nature, I’ve been very hard on myself for my entire adult life. Likely due to fear of failure or mediocrity (which, granted, I have arrived at in many ways), I have pushed myself to succeed at most things I engage in. And with countless hobbies or pursuits, if I can’t succeed, I often become disinterested or dejected.

I’m now well aware of why this is unsustainable. Too much pressure causes things to crack. I have definitely cracked a few times. While I feel as though this is firmly centered on me, this pressure has also harmed loved ones around me. My aspirations inadvertently cause others to feel pressured, which strains my ability to show others my appreciation or care for them. Sometimes I come across as competitive with others. But my mindset is that I am often competing with myself to do more, or seeking to carrying out my days in progressively more meaningful ways.

Some recent life events have caused me to examine the assumedly inextricable relationship of pressure and goals and the drive they serve in my life. I ended up taking a break from pushing myself and daydreaming up future goals. I was just sort of coasting. After several weeks of this listless mosey, I realized that being goal-less is about an unhelpful as being over-pressured. So in the course of self-reflection, therapy, and a ton of journaling, I’ve spent some time recently to (re?)center my goals, expectations, and principles on myself. I’ve arrived at some tentative thoughts about moving forward: one truth about myself, and two approaches to help myself manage this truth.

Truth: I am a goal-oriented person that overly concentrates on growth.

Prior to this year, I strove to establish measurable goals in my life. These gave me purpose, direction, and motivation. My goals provided structure for my regular routines, my regular routines built successful habits, and my habits allowed me to manage challenges in my life. The downside of these goals is that they cause inordinate amounts of pressure at times. These goals make it hard to settle, or they make anything less than perfection seem like settling. They also make failure painfully obvious.

But what is failure if not a means to understanding something in a new light? Failure toward a goal is another opportunity in itself. As hackneyed as it is, the journey toward the goal is rich with meaning and learning, often moreso than accomplishing the goals itself.

The past few weeks have taught me that I’m at my best when I have some goals to work toward and look forward to. I just need to manage them and grow with them better. And so, here are two approaches I hope to use.

Approach 1: Embrace shoshin.

Shoshin is the “beginner’s mind” perspective. I could (should?) write up an entire post on why I’ve loved (and fallen out of love with) so many different hobbies throughout my life. I really, really love the beginner’s mindset that comes with diving into someone new and exciting. It’s infectious.

But the early onset of passion often leads to demands for improvement, which then leads to preconceptions of “perfection.” This is antithetical to shoshin and it’s something I’m bad at. Shoshin involves this eagerness and intrigue that comes with being new at something, but it also bears a responsibility to dismiss preconceived ideas about something. Shoshin and openness are nearly synonymous to me, and it’s the latter that I want to improve on. Being a beginner and having a beginner’s mindset means to feel comfortable living in this beginner space for a long time (or forever).

In order to hold challenging, exciting goals for myself, I need to equally embrace eagerness with openness. A goal is only interesting if failure is a possibility–that’s what makes the accomplishment of the goal so rewarding. Practicing shoshin would mean for me to pursue my goals, but also accept the infinite possibilities the goal and the process of pursuing the goal could have in store. All are valid, all are meaningful.

Aproach 2: Examine expectations.

The preconceived ideas of a goal and its process of accomplishment often drive my desire for the goal itself. Expecations can be good–they can direct your efforts, give you ways to measure progress, and determine whether the goal is a worthy one. However, it’s important to be aware of your expectations. Like assumptions and biases, an unexamined expectation can often undermine the actual aim of a goal. To examine expectations of my goals, I plan to do two things:

  • Find out what my expectations are. This seems obvious, right? But I often have subconscious hopes and desires that end up manifesting as expectations. I’ve told myself countless times, “Once I do X, I’m sure that Y and Z will be true.” This has played out in college, job applications, exercise plans, diets, etc. Often times these expectations aren’t ever acknowledged until the goal is done, and yet the expectations aren’t met. It’s important for me to acknowledge and identify when I’ve latched onto these and I’m secretly hoping they come true. Unmet expectations from an accomplished goal are the ingredients for undue disappointment.

  • Ask why I have expectations, and determine if my goal would make me reasonably expect them. This is the big one for me. Once I’ve recognized what my obvious and not-so-apparent expectations are, I need to question why they are expected in the first place. Does the accomplishment of my goal result in the expectation coming true? Is the expectation parallel or perpendicular to my goal? Is accomplishing the goal the expectation, or is the expectation part of accomplishing the goal? This is an important distinction to make for me. I want to make sure I’m working towards a goal because I want to accomplish the goal, instead of just expecting something entirely separate to then become true or attained.

I’m trying to change my perspective to better recognize when a goal no longer serves as a goal, but as a means to (hopefully) reaching some kind of unexamined expectations. In order for me to maintain healthy control over the pressures I apply on myself–because I know I will continue to pressure myself–I need to make sure that my time spent is toward the goal, and not wishing for the expectation. Of course, expectations are not always bad. But I need to make sure they’re aligned with what I’m actually trying to do and not what I subconsciously hoping for.

Some 2021 Goals:

With these two approaches in mind, I hope to have an exciting and accomplished remainder of 2021. I know that I’m going to push myself out of my comfort zone to try new things. But I want to maintain a beginner’s mindset with everything I do and really appreciate things for what they are and whatever my experiences turn out to be. And when I experiencing something or working to accomplish something, I want to recognize the expectations that serve me, and dismiss the expectations that amplify the pressure, heighten insecurity, or cause strain to others around me.

Here’s are some experiences I’m thinking about for the spring and summer.

March - First bicycling century (100 mile ride).

April - First (unofficial) bicycle “race” to see if I enjoy competing with others. But mostly to see if I can actually finish.

May - To be determined!

June - Hike the Tahoe Rim Trail again, but take it much slower this time. I want to really soak up the trail life I’ve been missing.

July - Bicycle ride from Seattle to Portland, hopefully in one day.

August - Also to be determined!

September - Visit family on the east coast.

I think I can do all of this with manageable pressure, openness toward new experiences, and healthy expectations. But that’s a goal in itself, so I’ll stay open about it either way it goes.

Featured Image: One of the best goals I’ve ever accomplished–catching the sunrise on Mount Whitney. June 2019.