Must We Always Be Striving for a Better Life?

Shifting from the 5-year plan to the right-now plan can get us to our most important destination
October 28, 2020 Updated: October 28, 2020
The workshop started with a simple question: “What do you want?” That question was followed with “What is your deepest intention?” And then, “What do you want to create in your life?” Out then came the magic markers, poster boards, glue sticks, glitter, and all sorts of other art supplies. We were to start drawing, mapping, and fleshing out a future life and future self, complete with the action steps that would lead us to our deepest wants and intentions.

From the time we’re very young, we’re conditioned to be strivers. We’re trained to want and keep wanting for more and better. Better versions of ourselves and better experiences for ourselves. This is where we’re supposed to aim our attention.

Truth be told, when confronted with these kinds of broad, future-oriented questions, I often find myself blank, unable to identify what I want for my future in any real detail. I usually use magic markers and glitter to make a picture for my daughter. It’s not to say there aren’t things I want to do and create: I want to spend more time in the desert, I want to build my speaking business, and I want to do more silent retreats. But mostly what I feel in the face of these five-year-plan questions is a big fat “should” with a sprinkle of confusion and a splash of fogginess. The strong sense is that I should have a clear plan and an overarching vision of the future. And that there’s something wrong if I don’t, or don’t even want to participate in the exercise.

But then I remember: We take our progress-oriented, “more and better” mindset and apply it to ourselves and our time on the planet. We relate to ourselves as an object in our model of unending progress. We focus on the future, where we want to get to, what else there could be, and what we are aiming for. At the end of the day, we assume that wanting means wanting for something—or more specifically, something else, something external, and something new and different.

After years of asking myself these sorts of well-intentioned questions, I discovered that they’re not the right questions for me or for many of my clients. The question “What do you want?”—while wonderfully helpful in some ways—can become another demand on us, another thing we’re supposed to accomplish, another bar to reach. We’re supposed to have a to-do list for our future and a plan to get there, and if we don’t, we’re certain to miss out on that future of our dreams.

After thousands of workshops and too many hours spent journaling, talking, meditating, singing, and every other “-ings,” I realized that what I really want is to get to be here. That is, to experience this moment, this—dare I say—ordinary moment. To experience it as enough. The intention I hold is to stop trying to get to somewhere else.

We’re trained to think of time and our life as something that’s moving forward on a horizontal line, hurtling into the future. Progress is our north star. It gives us a place to move toward, and with it, a sense of purpose and meaning. At a deeper level, the idea of progress protects us from our existential fear of meaninglessness, from the vastness that comes with just being here, one now at a time. If we are not heading somewhere else, somewhere better, then we are left simply with this moment, heading nowhere in particular. If now is all we have, then what? Can we bear that existence?

But what’s remarkable is that when we enter this present moment fully, dive completely into now, with no next, and nowhere else to get to, we discover that time feels more like a vertical experience than a horizontal one. With each now, we drop into a kind of vertical infinity that is its own destination.

After diligently searching for an impressive “want” that would warrant a giant poster board and bright green sparkles, I discovered that what I want is far simpler than what I thought I should want. What I want is to be completely where I am, and to stop having to want something else all the time. I want for this moment to be everything, whatever it is. Furthermore, I want to feel a more consistent sense of awe for the fact that I get to be here at all.

I offer my own experience here so that you may know of an alternative to the habitual striving and wanting that we’re encouraged to participate in. But please, if these sorts of intentional inquiries are useful, if they help you gain clarity and move the dial forward in your life, then use them without hesitation. But if you find yourself feeling blank when asked about what you want to be, become, or achieve, then perhaps you can give yourself permission to stop striving to get somewhere better and strive to just be here.

Getting off the five-year-plan highway can feel like getting off the “normal” grid, opting out of the way we do life in this society. But that’s okay. Getting off the striving highway and turning your attention to where you are can lead you to a far better and richer life, which paradoxically, is exactly the kind of life you are supposed to be striving toward.

To arrive here and stop trying to get somewhere else may be the most difficult and remarkable achievement of our lifetime. In a society that values striving above all else, we can add “striving to be in our life (as it’s happening)” to our want list. We can add “here” to our list of sought-after destinations. At the end of the day (and the beginning and middle too), the journey to where we are is the most important journey we will ever embark on. What do I want? Truth be told, I want to be here.

Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, public speaker, workshop leader, and author of “The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World.” For more information, visit NancyColier.com