Lover of Goals
The goals are so detailed and the end result so desirable that my daydreaming becomes identity.
I love the destination so much that just thinking about it gives me pleasure.
A Hidden Downside
I have noticed a curious and frustrating pattern grow out of my daydreaming.
The more I love the destination, the more I can picture myself achieving it, the harder it becomes to deal with the messiness of reality.
In my mind, I have already achieved the goal, and so the struggle is an unexpected surprise.
My identity has already accepted the fact of my future victory, and so every imperfect step causes annoyance.
I find it much easier to avoid this cognitive dissonance, and focus my mind back on what is easy, effortless, and in my control. Often, this means retreating back to the comfort and pleasure of my plans.
3 Real-Life Examples
Let me share 3 real-life examples. These are times when my vivid daydreaming or planning of the perfect future state left me (counter-intuitively) less able to cope with the messiness of reality.
The kitchen counter—Some people that know me might be surprised that my aesthetic preferences run strongly towards minimalism and clutter-free rooms. I enjoy the order, calmness, and visual focus that this style can produce.
The reality, though, is that when it comes to keeping the kitchen counters clear in our home, I might be the worst offender. If I have a bowl of cereal before bed and notice that there are other dirty dishes in the sink, I just toss my dish on the counter and walk away. If the sink and the countertops are clear, however, I’m almost certain to put my dish in the dishwasher and feel good about my choice — but why the difference?
This blog post—When writing any blog post (this one included) I go through two very distinct phases. The first phase is when I am pondering the idea in my head. I know roughly what I want to say and vaguely how I want to say it. This is the fun stage! As long as the idea stays in my head, it sounds perfect.
The moment I start writing, the mirage disappears. Suddenly I can see how much work I have left to do in making my idea clear and interesting. And I feel acutely the gap between the writer I am and the writer I hope to be. My efforts feel clumsy and disconnected from the identity I have for myself.
Being a more patient father—One area that comes up again and again when I assess myself for how well I’m living out my values is the area of patience with my children. I am never as patient as I hope to be. Each day I resolve to be more patient, and from the comfort of my shower or my bed or my morning devotions, this resolution seems so clear and I can practically picture myself as the coming of the next Mr. Rogers.
I’m familiar with a phrase — “the fog of war” that describes the high degree of uncertainty experienced by many soldiers in battle. Now, parenting has virtually no parallels to war (I love being a parent), but there is some element of this “fog” that I do experience when all 3 children are operating at peak energy. In the fog, I sometimes feel disconnected from my ideals — my patient identity clashes with my struggle to be patient in the heat of the moment. When that happens, I, to some extent, pull back from being present with my kids. It’s always easier to begin the journey of patience tomorrow.
Day-Dreaming is Fun (Maybe Too Fun)
In all 3 examples, it is significantly easier and more enjoyable for me to be in the planning/day-dreaming stage:
- I can imagine how I will come up with the perfect process to keep our counters completely clutter-free. This process will be so well thought-out that it will involve virtually no effort, no trade-offs.
- I can daydream about how my next blog post will practically write itself. And then, when it’s read by tens of thousands of adoring readers, many will say that it delivered a rare life-changing nugget of insight.
- And parenting… Yes, I can return to my wishful thinking of becoming Mr. Donghia, everybody’s favorite neighbor. My kids will respond to my patience with an eagerness to please and a large heap of affection.
Day-dreaming is fun because it involves no trade-offs and no real chance of failure. And best of all, because our dreams can be so vivid, they become part of our identity and give us the (unearned?) pleasure of already becoming the kind of person we hope to be.
In my mind, I can think of myself as a minimalist, a successful blogger, and a father noteworthy for his patience.
The Solution I Have Found
It’s common advice to be told to visualize your goals. I’m sure there is a useful place for this wisdom, but in my experience, there’s a real danger in crafting an identity for your future-self that is too vivid and too strong.
I believe the solution to this problem involves letting go of grand ambitions and taking up smaller, humbler ones.
I have had to let go of my identity (as self-deluded as it may have been) as someone who will be successful at whatever I set my mind to.
I am actively replacing that identity with one that is defined by the things I love and enjoy.
I Assume I’m Average
Instead of assuming I’m something special, I just assume I’m average.
This is remarkably freeing.
When I’m not busy trying to live up to my own lofty expectations, I’m freer to do what I enjoy doing for its own sake…or, in other words, doing what I love.
By falling in love with the process, and not the destination, I feel better equipped to handle setbacks and struggles. My identity isn’t wrapped up in being perfect (I already assume I’m average), but I’m just an ordinary guy with a particular set of things I enjoy.
Instead of a minimalist (a lofty label to live up to), I can simply enjoy leaving things a little cleaner and brighter than when I found them.
Instead of aiming to be a successful blogger, I can follow my curiosity wherever it takes me, enjoy the process of discovery, and allow the chips (as they say) to fall where they may.
Instead of trying to be a super-dad, I can enjoy the energy of my children and pursue the more modest goal of uprooting impatience every time I see it. Like a guy pulling weeds to make the garden more beautiful.
I am learning to love the journey and found, to my surprise, that the real pleasure is along the way.