Conventional wisdom emphasizes the importance of setting goals. As individuals, as institutions, as businesses, we take for granted that the path to success is lined with goals to which we can aspire and use measurable data to determine if we’ve reached them. But that’s the fundamental problem with goals–once you’ve reached them, then what? For us as individuals, we often find ourselves subjected to an unexpected and disappointing “let-down” once we’ve reached our goals because we suddenly find ourselves without something to look forward to. We had mistakenly assumed that the joys of achieving a goal would last and that our lives would be perfect “once I . . .” or “as soon as . . . ” But the truth is that it was that consistent aspiring and moving closer to the goal that made us the happiest and kept us the most inspired.
I don’t believe in goals anymore. I will never again set goals and go about achieving them. Instead I have a new way of thinking about achievement that was sparked by James Clear’s book Atomic Habits. Instead of setting goals, which have an end point, we should instead put systems in place that will put us on an upward trajectory on whatever path we desire. Pursuing success with that system can become a permanent part of our lives. For example, instead of setting a weight loss goal and working for a few months toward achieving it and then being “finished” when we reach it, we should put systems in place that work toward our overall health including permanent lifestyle changes with regard to nutrition and exercise. These systems should be permanent–something that we can maintain for a lifetime. Not only will you meet and surpass a goal you might have set otherwise, but you will maintain and even transcend your own envisioned success.
This brings me to the point that I have been thinking about a lot lately when it comes to my teaching–both of my dance students and college writing students–which is what I call teleological transcendence.
Teleology is the concept of having a defined and ultimate goal in place that one actively moves toward. One great example is an acorn that has the potential to develop into an oak tree. We can imagine the seed as having a natural teleology toward becoming an oak tree. But many scientists tell us that that’s the wrong way to look at it. The acorn never imagines itself becoming a tree and never actively “aspires” to become a tree and, actually, its work is never finished. It just does its thing, one day, one cell at a time and a tree eventually emerges from the incessant growth.
Our pedagogical journeys–our learning paths–are similar. We should never focus on the end result because there shouldn’t be one. To have one static and measured end result in mind by definition limits our potential achievements. Teleology assumes an end point–a moment of completion. And although we think we’ll be satisfied when we reach that moment of completion, we will find ourselves tempted to stagnate, to rest, and inertia sets in.
Instead, we should aim to take full advantage of the positive side of inertia (“an object in motion . . .”) and remain in motion permanently. We should put a system in place that leads us on a never-ending trajectory. We should live within the process of a permanent becoming.
As famed ballerina and ballet teacher Suki Schorer says in her stunning book Suki Schorer on Balanchine Technique, “One lives the process, not the outcome.” Of course a dancer would understand that. Dancers are notoriously never satisfied with their achievements and are driven ceaselessly toward perfection. So many of us find the greatest possible joy on that path.
So, next time you’re tempted to set a goal and work toward it, consider how much better you can do. Consider how much success and joy and excitement could come your way if your path of development were to be permanently unfolding instead of defined by the fits and starts of measured goal-setting. Put a system in place that will lead you toward your goal and then surpass it. And you can look forward to a lifetime of achievement and excellence.
Follow a path of teleological transcendence. Your end result, your moment of completion will never come to you, but the joys of achievement will likewise never end.