Almost from the day we are born, our parents, our schools, and our culture (almost any culture) drum into us the importance of producing results.
With our parents it can be very subtle: They may not always talk about results (and many do), but they are constantly teaching us how to achieve specific results, for example, how to complete our chores. With schools it’s a lot more obvious: It wouldn’t be surprising if many students thought that the purpose of going to school was to get good grades, which are not only considered important in and of themselves, but they are required to get into a good college, which is itself an important result. And when you get to work, virtually all that counts is producing results, which is the surest road to a promotion, itself a desired result.
It isn’t an accident that almost everyone considers producing results the most important thing in life. And yet, I don’t agree.
“I don’t want to be happy if I can’t have
the results I want”
I recently had a conversation with a client in which I told her that it was possible to change the meaning we give things and that we could be satisfied—even happy—with what we have, instead of trying to have something different. In other words, I said I could teach her how to be happy without achieving specific results.
To my surprise she replied that she didn’t want to learn how to be satisfied with anything other than the specific results she wanted. She wanted more money and less weight. Period. She proclaimed vociferously that she wanted to have the specific results she wanted; she did not want to learn how to be happy without them.
I suspect she is not alone; many if not most people would react the same way. That’s how attached we are to the idea that life is about achieving specific results, without which, what’s the point of life? This particular client could not even imagine she could be happy if the results were not exactly what she wanted.
Yes, from time to time we hear people say things like: “The journey is more important that the destination,” but few people really live out of that context.
Are results really that important?
I think we’ve made results a desired end on themselves, instead of seeing them for what they should be: a means to an end. For example, we don’t really want money; we don’t even want the things we can buy with the money. We want the experiences that the things we buy with the money provide.
What if we could have the equivalent experiences without the things (the results)? If we could, we wouldn’t need the money to buy things or even the things themselves.
Many of us think that attaining lots of money would make us happy. But we’ve heard many stories of rich people who are depressed, whose marriages end in unhappy failure, and who even commit suicide. And we also hear stories of people with relatively little money who seem to be very happy. In fact, people return from third world countries telling stories about the children they saw playing in garbage heaps who were laughing and truly enjoying themselves.
Try this thought experiment
In order to make real how empty the achievement of results really is and how the journey really is more important that the destination, imagine the following.
What if the result you wanted was always guaranteed? What if you always got the result and you didn’t have to do anything at all to achieve it? Imagine that all you had to do was imagine what you wanted and it immediately appeared. Imagine you had your own personal genie who granted your every wish. You had all the money you wanted. A big house. The best car. You lost all the weight you wanted and looked the way you’ve always dreamed of looking. You wanted to be someplace and immediately you were there. You wanted to win a game and you always won. In other words, imagine achieving all the results you thought would bring you happiness—without doing a single thing to achieve the results. … Really, please do that right now. I promise it will be worth your time. …
Because you don’t do anything to produce the result, you no longer have any sense of accomplishment. Your abilities, skills, intelligence are no longer relevant. You can no longer feel capable or experience confidence, because you never achieve anything; it just happens. You can no longer feel proud of dealing effectively with challenges, because there are no challenges to overcome.
In order to truly get what I’m saying, you have to make this experience real. Please stop for a moment and really try to imagine what I’ve just described. … Read over the last few paragraphs and make everything I said real in your imagination. …
Okay, how do you feel about this little thought experiment? Are you as happy as you thought you would be achieving all the results you ever dreamed of? Or do you feel empty inside, as if something very important is missing? If you really do the exercise, I think almost everyone will feel the latter.
What do we really want from life?
So what can we learn from this little exercise? That results as such are not an end in themselves; they are a means to an end. And the end is a sense of happiness, joy, fulfillment, and accomplishment.
If you can have that experience from the effort to attain a result, regardless of whether or not you eventually attain it, then you might want to focus more on the journey to the destination than on reaching it. It might seem as if you experience satisfaction from achieving the desired result, but almost of the satisfaction we think that comes from the destination actually comes from the journey on the way to the destination.
Moreover, ultimately, even the events throughout the journey are neither satisfying nor upsetting; the emotional response comes from the meaning we give the events.
If you follow the logic of all this, it is possible to determine our experience of life—happy or unhappy, fulfilled or not fulfilled, satisfied or dissatisfied—by the meaning we give to the daily events that occur as we move toward the results we have chosen. Not only are the results relatively unimportant, even the events along the way are relatively unimportant. Our ability to determine what meaning to give what happens to us gives us the ability to determine the quality of our life, regardless of our circumstances.
Fulfillment is possible even in prison
Let me end with a story I had heard about, but never knew the details of until I read them in a fascinating book by Ellen Langer. (Mindfulness, 25th anniversary edition, pp. 75-76, Da Capo Press. Kindle Edition).
The Birdman of Alcatraz was sentenced to life in prison with no hope of reprieve. All the world was cut off from him; one empty, grim day followed the next, as he stared at the flocks of birds flying outside his window. One morning a crippled sparrow happened into his cell, and he nursed it back to health. The bird was no longer just a bird; for him it was a particular sparrow. Other prisoners, guards, visitors started giving him birds and he learned more and more about them. Soon he had a veritable aviary in his cell. He became a distinguished authority on bird diseases, noticing more and more about these creatures and developing more and more expertise. Everything he did was self-taught and original. Instead of living a dull, stale existence in a cell for forty-odd years, the Birdman of Alcatraz found that boredom can be just another construct of the mind, no more certain than freedom. There is always something new to notice. And he turned what might have been an absolute hell into, at the least, a fascinating, mindful purgatory.
If he can change the meaning of being in prison—a result almost everyone would find intolerable—and find satisfaction in those extreme circumstances, what is possible for you?
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