There is something deeply terrifying about committing yourself to a goal.
Everybody wants something. And for most of the time, these thoughts are simply that – thoughts. They linger in your mind and lull you into a daydream, tantalising you with a small, beautiful piece of what might be if you would just go for it.
Some people continue daydreaming. Some people snap out of it and put those thoughts away in a tightly locked chest of dangerous thoughts.
And some people decide, “You know what? Why the hell not?”
When we read success stories, we hear about the inception and the happy ending and if we’re lucky, a glimpse of the process.
I’m not here to tell you how to be successful because I still have a long way to go.
What I can do is share with you how I handle the daily process which can sometimes feel like drudgery and the things I do when I start getting cold feet. In my opinion, that’s where all the gold nuggets are.
1. It’s not success if it’s easy
A goal can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, a goal helps you develop a focus for the kind of future you want. But on the other hand, goals are immutably intertwined with the concept of success and failure. For some people, that possibility of failure is just too much to bear and the feeling only intensifies the closer they get to their goals.
Sometimes, this leads to people forfeiting along the way or before they’ve even started. They would rather withdraw by choice than let themselves be hurt by the knowledge that they ‘weren’t good enough’ to reach their goals.
It’s such a bloody shame. It’s a shame because if people would just look at it a little differently, they would see that going after a goal and going through life changing experience is in itself a successful process of self-improvement.
I had many things I wanted to do in the past. But the fear of making mistakes and feeling stupid and unworthy held me back for a long, long time. My entire childhood consisted of me dabbling in a wide range of different things, but never really taking it far. Whenever I felt something becoming too serious, I would pull away and hide behind ‘having to study for exams’ to feel like I wasn’t really running away from anything. Sound familiar?
Fortunately, I came round not so long ago. I took a 6-month-sabbatical from work, decided in the middle of it to just quit my stable bank job altogether (much to the consternation of my very Asian family), spent about one year in a scary-as-fuck limbo of what-the-heck-am-I-doing, dropped everything and went to Nepal for a photography course to kick my engine into a start, found out I didn’t really care much for the technical aspects of photography to be a serious photographer but spent the whole trip making videos instead, went home to make more videos of the local travel scene and somehow stumbled into self-improvement writing – which is what I am doing now.
Look at all the different things I had to do before deciding to start this website. It is never a straight line. It’s not like on the day I handed in my resignation letter, I thought, “I’m going to start a self-improvement website and publish one article every Wednesday.” No, I had to bumble my way through photography, travel and a year of being scared stiff before doing what I do now.
Is this the end of it? Have I finally settled on the ‘right’ thing to do? I have a feeling not. I can feel more change coming my way, but it’s no longer as scary as when I started two years ago.
“Two years? You’ve been away from a stable job for two freaking years and all you have is a no-money-making venture?”
No, you prick. What I have after two years is calmness in the face of uncertainty and a deeper confidence in my ability to weather what’s to come. And it comes, no matter what field, industry or country you’re in. ‘It’ being change.
I understand fear much better now because I’ve lived through it. You know that feeling you have before doing something potentially stupid and you start thinking, “What if something bad were to happen?”
Well, ‘what if’ happened to me. It sucks but growth doesn’t happen when you’re cruising along in a sea of success. In fact I would question if you can call something a success if it were easy.
If someone were born rich, would you say this person is successful for having a million dollars in his/her bank account even though this person didn’t have to work for it?
If a child prodigy skipped 12 years of primary and secondary education to go straight to tertiary education, would you say this child is successful? It’s impressive, definitely, but if the process was an effortless one for the child, is it considered success or is it only natural?
Here’s another example. Person A broke his legs and the doctor said he will never be able to walk again. But after three whole years of physical therapy, Person A can now go for a light jog around the park for 45 minutes. I would call this tremendous success. If Person A never broke his legs, I wouldn’t bat an eyelid if he completed a 10km marathon.
Success is relative to how difficult the process of getting there is. It’s not always about getting a lot of money or having social status or fame. It’s about overcoming personal fears and self-doubt. Without them, there is no such thing as success.
And there’s nothing more liberating than knowing you’ve lived through your fears and knowing it wasn’t all that bad after all.
2. Expect to make a lot of mistakes
In pursuing your goals, you will come upon a fork in the road multiple times. Sometimes the right decision for you might not be the most conventional one.
The downside to doing unconventional things is that there is less wisdom in the area, simply because less people have gone through it. In times like these, people usually say you have to trust your instincts.
I say, expect to make a lot of mistakes, but trust yourself to rise above it.
It’s practically impossible to try new things without making mistakes, so why be afraid of them? You might not like to admit it, but new territory will most certainly come with plenty of opportunities to screw up. Embrace them and make changes accordingly. Those changes you make might even end up as more mistakes, but so what?
Do you know why I was scared stiff for one year after quitting my job?
Because I was preoccupied with choosing the right thing to do. I wasted one year researching and testing the waters and talking to people for their opinions. I did everything I could except doing something.
Mark Manson said it best in this excerpt from his blog below. Click on the image to read the post on his website.
It’s silly when I think about it. What was I expecting to get from other people? If I didn’t know what I wanted to do, other people would have even less clue what I should be doing. If there’s one thing I wish I had done differently, I wish I had gotten started on something sooner instead of spending the whole time shaking on the spot.
No matter what you do, you’re going to be scared anyway. So why not be scared doing something rather than be scared doing nothing?
I was scared when I paid a huge sum of money from my savings to go on that photography course in Nepal. There was no guarantee how it would turn out. I was scared when I made videos no one would care about. I was scared putting my name and face online while writing articles in hopes of helping other similar afraid, lost souls.
But at least this time round I was doing something.
Whenever I see Nike’s famous tagline Just Do It, it never fails to make me smile. It has a whole new meaning for me now.
Doesn’t mean I buy their expensive stuff though. Bata is good enough for me.
3. Opportunities can be red herrings
Some people think travelling for work is fun. Some people think getting grants to fund a startup is exciting. Some people think getting a promotion at work is a good thing.
I don’t think travelling for work is fun. I think just hearing the word ‘startup’ is enough to give me ulcers. And I think a promotion at work does not always necessarily lead to better things.
There is no right or wrong in opportunities, only how you feel about it.
When you choose to pursue a goal that matters to you, you have to keep in mind that you’re the one pursuing this goal, not other people. It doesn’t matter how many people think how amazing an opportunity is – if you are hardly excited by it, it’s not for you.
Is working directly under the Prime Minister of a country an incredible opportunity? I would say so. I’m sure some people would sabotage a lot of other candidates for the chance to work under the most powerful person in the country. But do I consider it an amazing opportunity for myself and for what I want in life? Heck no.
As you go along the motions and work little by little to make your dreams a reality, you will see many different kinds of opportunities knocking on your doorstep.
Don’t be fooled by them. Most of the time, opportunities are red herrings designed by life to test your level of focus and your commitment to your goal.
If it’s something that you want, go for it. But if it’s something that looks ‘kind of attractive’ and ‘could be interesting’, it’s probably not it.
The right opportunity in my opinion is something that you fully understand and something you can feel right to your bones that it’s right.
It’s something that doesn’t need convincing. It’s something that you’ve worked at for months or years and the moment it flits in front of you, you recognise it for the animal that it really is – your opportunity.
I’ll give you an example. I have several skills in my arsenal – I can write, draw, Photoshop and edit videos. But I have chosen to focus on writing.
One day a friend comes up to me and says, “Hey Lisa, I have a friend who will pay $5,000 if you can come up with 10 different designs for his scarf collection. I told him you’re really good at designing. Wanna do it?”
Can I do this job? Sure I can.
For a designer, it might be a good opportunity, especially if the client knows other potential clients and can bring more business.
But is it good for my writing?
If I take this designing job, I can kiss my writing and my website traffic goodbye. My aim for now is to consistently post articles every week on my blog and up the frequency once I have enough buffer articles. The designing will be a full time project and my writing will most definitely suffer in the process.
I can do this job, but I won’t.
Now imagine someone telling me that my articles are worth compiling into a book. But in order to convince this person that I can really do it, I will have to come up with 20 more articles within 2 weeks.
Will I do it? YES. YES OF COURSE.
If an opportunity makes sense to everyone except you, it’s still not an opportunity.
Opportunities don’t have to make sense to anyone but you.
You do you.
4. Take time to enjoy the process
Oftentimes, we worship success so much that the only thing we see is the end result.
If your goal is to have a lot of money, you might see yourself spending money on all the things that you want like a vacation with your family, or getting the latest gadgets without worrying about an empty bank account at the end of the month. If your goal is having a successful business, you might picture yourself being the proud owner of a thriving business and reaping the benefits of a positive cash flow every month. If you dream of becoming a celebrity, you might picture yourself already famous and appearing on popular magazines and websites and getting thousands of fan mails. Sorry if I’m not getting any of your daydreaming right – I hardly know anything about becoming a business owner or a celebrity.
The downside to always keeping your eyes trained on the end result is you forget to appreciate the now.
Human beings are adaptable creatures. That means no matter what state we’re in, good or bad, we will eventually learn to adjust and the state of happiness or unhappiness will become the new normal.
Imagine a couple that just got married. Give it a few months and it will have become a normal thing for both of them.
It’s the same with your goals.
Successfully reaching your goal will put you in a state of great happiness – for a while.
When the euphoria dies down and the novelty disappears, you will discover that your life is normal again and you need something new to focus on.
While it’s good to be focused on a goal, we should not do it to the exclusion of living in the present. Life is too short to be looking forward to some arbitrary point in the future. When you place great expectation of happiness in the future, you relieve yourself of the responsibility to find happiness right now.
So if you’re miserable now, you can say, “I’ll be happy when I have money/a girlfriend / a promotion.”
But it’s such a waste of now.
Working hard towards your dream does not mean you have to be unhappy with your current state. If you can find ways to be happy with the work that you have to put in now, then reaching your goal would be a nice bonus instead of being the sole reason for your happiness.
For instance, I would like publish a book someday and get speaking engagements at events to buffer my income.
I have not published a book and I do not have speaking engagements. But while I look forward to that in the future, I enjoy reading books and articles and talking to people and brainstorming new ideas for my articles right now. I love commenting on other people’s blogs and communicating with other authors via email.
Even on days when I am completely uninspired (like yesterday, which explains why this article is one day late), I made a nice experience out of it.
I had positioned my work space in front of an open door that overlooks the garden, put on nice soothing music and made myself a huge pot of tea so I always have something hot to drink while I write.
The scenery changed many times in front me. At first it was scorching hot which was perfect because I had just hung my clothes out to dry. And then it became breezy and I watched with pleasure as my clothes swayed along to the gentle breeze. The flowers and plants in the garden nodded gently in my direction as I periodically took my eyes off my bright computer screen to stare at something green.
And then without warning, it rained cats and dogs and the sky turned completely dark. Instead of getting stressed out about my laundry, I decided to turn on my lovely warm table lamp and made myself a huge cup of steaming hot coffee while enjoying the rain.
To be honest, I am a hopeless romantic and it’s easy for me to find beautiful things even in the most dire weather conditions. You know how British simply people love to complain about their gloomy weather and their 10 days of summer? I love it – cold rain, gray skies and all.
If you learn to love the work you do right now, your goal will stop being such a scary thing. If you lose yourself in enjoying the process right now, before you know it, you’re already there.
Don’t put all your hopes and fears on your goal in the future. Learn to be happy in the here and now. It makes all the difference in the world.
5. Detach yourself from the outcome of your goal
This might sound counter-intuitive. After all, the point of having a goal is to reach it at all cost.
But it’s important to view your goals from a bigger perspective.
No one knows all the cost associated with reaching a goal set some time in the future. What if you’re not willing to pay the price when the time comes for you to pay for it? What if in pursuit of this goal, at some point you will have to stop seeing your family and can only see them once every three months? What if you have to sacrifice values you hold dear?
Sometimes, a goal cannot be met for many reasons.
The more you can detach yourself from your goal, the better it will be for your emotional well-being.
For instance, right after I graduated from a university in the UK, I wanted to stay on in London to find a job. I worked hard for months but the only thing I could get was a job in a small business at minimum wage. In the end I decided to come back to Kuala Lumpur because there were better opportunities here.
At the time, I felt like this great, big loser. Regardless of the circumstances, I blamed everything entirely on myself for not being good enough. I wondered for a long time why I was so stupid and unimpressive. Why didn’t I do more things when I was in university? Why didn’t I try harder? Why didn’t I do a lot of things differently?
While I was drowning myself in self-pity, I forgot a lot of things.
I forgot that I actually graduated with a second upper from a decent UK university. I forgot that I was extremely active in a student society as the Vice President. I ignored the fact that the job I got in Kuala Lumpur was a coveted one, while many others failed their interviews. I ignored the fact that I had multiple job offers from blue chip companies in Malaysia. I was so busy focusing on what a loser I was for not being able to stay on in London that I forgot to be grateful for all the amazing things I had going for me back in Kuala Lumpur. In a sense, I was a true loser for not realising what I had.
Eventually I came round.
Nowadays, I try to practice gratitude for even the smallest of things, like having coffee on a rainy day.
It’s not something I can explain without getting all mystical, but good things happen to people who are grateful for what they have. It’s as simple as that.
Another good thing that comes out of emotional detachment from goals is it becomes less intimidating. In failure, you are more able to see things from a bigger perspective. Instead of seeing it as you not meeting your goal, you get to see it as how far you’ve come and how many skills and lessons you’ve acquired along the way.
Anyway, who’s to say it’s the end of the road for you? At the end of one goal is the start of a new goal. There’s no rule saying you can’t have a new one just because you didn’t reach your old one.
Goals become this big scary thing because we put too much emphasis on them. As if failure is not an option.
But goals are very much like other important things in our lives – family, friends, relationships, careers, money – they should not be how you define yourself.
You are more than just your job or your spouse or the family you came from or the kinds of people you hang out with or your religion. You are not your car, your phone, the holidays you take, the stunts you pull, the places you eat at.
You are more than your goals that you reach or did not reach. A goal is simply another occupation to make life interesting. If you reach it, great. If you don’t, it’s really not a big deal. It just means you’re supposed to be reaching a different kind of goal – a goal of understanding some sort of life lesson, whatever it may be.
You are instead defined by your values.
It’s who you are on a daily basis that matters, not when you’re ‘successful’, whatever that means.
This is part of the reason why I love the movie from Pixar called Up. If you haven’t seen it, there will be spoilers in the paragraph below.
A couple had always wanted to go on an adventure together, but they never did due to other commitments. In a sad turn of events, the wife died before they could on a trip together. While the husband lived out the rest of his days being grumpy and miserable, the wife had spent her life treating the entire marriage like an adventure of its own, evidenced by the beautiful pictures she collected in an album she gave to him before she passed.
She could have been unhappy about not being able to go on a trip with her husband, but instead she chose to appreciate the good things in her life – her love for her husband. Everything else was just a bonus.
So next time you find yourself stressed out over something that might or might not happen in the future, remember that everything you need, you already have it now. You have you.