I like to have something to work towards. People often say I “work too much” or that I’m a “Type A personality.” I don’t think that it’s much more than that– I just really like to see what I can accomplish. I like the sensation of progress, the way that thinking, learning, and doing take on a purpose that they didn’t have before.
Buddhism teaches that “attachment is the source of all suffering.” And I’ve thought about that for long enough that I’m pretty sure I believe it. But if I was really Buddhist, or pretending to be, I would seek to relinquish my goals, because wanting and not getting is where pain comes from.
I dislike pain as much as the next person, but I don’t feel like wanting and not getting affects my state of mind much at all.
Have you ever watched a kid play on a jungle gym? Watch the games she plays.
Can I get to the top?
Can I get to the top without using both hands?
Can I jump from the top?
How long can I hang by my arms?
How long can I hang upside down?
Look at me, Mom! Look at me!
Limit-Checking: Fun and Good For You!
In a limited sense, these are competitions: How fast, how high, how long? But if you look at them carefully, you’ll see that what she’s actually doing is getting a feel for her abilities, testing her limits.
Obviously, having gotten to the top of the jungle gym, jumping is possible. Gravity only works one way. But does she have the nerve? Will she hurt herself? Will the other kids laugh? These are the limitations she’s feeling her way through. She doesn’t want to break a leg, so she’ll try from the lower stages first. If all goes well, she’ll work her way up.
So what happens when she gets to a limit? Most likely, she stops. Whether she stops for all time or just stops for a while is unknowable.
I’m like that about my goals. Trust me, I’ve discarded many more goals than I’ve achieved. And why not? It’s like turning off a TV show that got boring, putting down a book you don’t like. You’re not giving up, for heaven’s sake, at least, not in the moral outrage sense of the term. You just did a limit-check and decided it wasn’t worth pushing. Why is it so taboo to talk about this?
In some ways, this is the micro-version of The Humble Art of Living Conventionally.
You know how you never really know what you’re capable of until you try? Well, finding out what you’re capable of requires that you try things. Does trying canned beets mean you have to have that for dinner every night for the rest of your life? Of course not. You’re just trying them. And maybe you’re a bit taken with them (so… purple!) so you try them in a bunch of different ways that week. How many ways can I find to eat beets?
Quite obviously, the point isn’t to make an exhaustive, encyclopedic list of every possible edible use for beets. You’re going to come up with four or five, and then you’ll call it good.
This seems so reasonable when we talk about beets. Why does it seem so weird when we’re talking about our professional goals?
Best in the World (Sure, Okay.)
There’s this guy I know who’s always talking about being “in the top 10% in the world” in whatever he does.
First of all, how would you even identify those people? Rank them? Know when you reached that target?
Second, in everything? Even in two or three aspects of your life, you’d have trouble getting there. Not that it isn’t a neat goal. It’s just that it’s impossible. And what do we say about impossible goals around here? Don’t put yourself in the position of breaking promises to yourself.
Besides, the Buddha had it right. You want something really bad and it sucks all the joy out of it. Even when you win, you’ve conditioned yourself that the only possible time when you’ll be happy is sometime in the future, when you’ve reached your new goal. So if you never have fun, and you never get happy — um. What’s the point?
True. You found your limits, you faced them down, ran them over and moved beyond them (or so the tale goes.) But there was a lot of suffering associated with that path.
The thing about limit checks is that they’re endless. It’s not just that there’s a vast number of things you could maybe do if you tried, and even more that you could learn to do if you gave it a little effort.
But there’s also the way that you try something, and maybe you’re bad at it. But then you come back in 6 months, and somehow, you’re ten times better than you were! Wow!
When you’re always trying things, the sheer number of things that it turns out you can do always far outweighs the number of things you can’t do. We really are remarkably capable, and it’s fun to revel in all the ways that we are so capable. So like the kid on the jungle gym, don’t be afraid to see what you can do.
Trust me, even when you merely check your limits, you’ll find you’re smarter, stronger, and more capable than you suspected.