I LOVE a good goal. I remember taking one of those personality or trait quizzes – which I usually don’t like because they box you in – but this one pointed out I was nearly 90% “goal orientated”. Meaning I will do anything and everything to achieve a goal, often to the detriment of…well…everything else.
As my business coach pointed out this week, every positive, strong trait has a “shadow”: another side which it’s good to be aware of. It can be negative, or it can simply be the flip side of something you do or a quality you have.
In my case, the flip side of my goal orientated self is driving so hard to achieve something that I sort of collapse once I get there and don’t take a moment to enjoy it. Or I get so focused on the goal I can forget about the good people around me or the unplanned things I learn along the way. Instead of pausing to readjust, I’m already planning out the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing. MORE GOALS. Picture taken, check! Let’s gooooo!
I saw this in a new way this week, when I had the privilege of leading not one but two retreats on my favourite island of them all.
With the first group, most of my plans for the days came to pass. We ate the planned meals and went to the pub for lunch and took the ferry to Iona on a beautiful sunny day and went for walks and sat at the table for sessions and wrote down thousands of wise words and notes (and a few foolish ones too). The cliffs behind the house changed every hour – sun, and clouds, and mist, and rainbows. It was a beautiful time and I loved seeing what each person created or noticed or began to change.
With the second group, at least half of my brilliant plans were scuppered. Flights were cancelled, ferries changed. People took trains and buses instead of cars, or vice versa. The rain was relentless and we were soaked more often than not. We tried to go for a sea swim at least four times and finally decided we’d had one simply by walking down the road. The pub was over full because of the rain so we made our own soup at the house instead. We put the fire on every night. The cliffs behind the house were covered in endless clouds and rarely visible.
And still, it was a beautiful time, and we’re better people for knowing each other and seeing how we react to what the world gives us.
Turns out my plans weren’t the sole determinator of what made the retreat great: it was the people and our attitudes and approach to what we were given.
On the first day of retreat, for both groups, I told them, “Our theme is The Next Big Thing…and you may come away from retreat knowing exactly what that thing is and how to do it and what you’re doing to get there. But equally, you may come away not being very clear yet. You may have some ideas and some scribbled notes and ideas, and you might even feel more confused about it than before because you’ve started but aren’t there yet. That’s okay. Don’t put the pressure on retreat, or on yourself, to set rigid expectations which must be met.”
I had an inkling of it at the start already:
The journey is the way.
Still make goals, for sure. My goal orientated self is going to plan things out even if I try not to. And when retreating to an island it’s really wise to plan meals and buy food and put in a stock of wood for the fire and remember to bring a lighter. But it’s also wise to listen when the wind and rain howl, and go back to bed with coffee instead of driving to yet another location which might work for a sea swim.
Because there might be a deeper goal than the apparent one you’ve set.
I saw this very clearly one day on retreat, when we went for a walk I’d never taken before on the island. Usually when I take a remote walk like that, I screenshot the walk instructions in case I don’t have phone signal. This time I forgot, so here I was leading three other people confidently towards the sea…and it turns out the walk was directly the opposite way from the sea coast.
We wandered through bracken and through bog, got zapped by an electric fence, stood dithering at the edge of a rushing river, and then I got signal and discovered we had set off in the wrong direction in the first place.
So we went back. We retraced our steps (or squishes) through the bog, the bracken, and along the sea coast. We found the start of the originally-planned-walk and walked past the old cottages we were meant to find, and talked deeply and laughed about being a band and created an album titled “Where The Road Bends Right”. (We don’t have an actual band, and we have more choreographers and marketers than we do singers or actual musicians, but we have a damn good album title which comes from our walk instructions.)
There are three stones (handily named “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost”) we were meant to see, which mark the end of the walk and time to turn around and go back. But we were running out of time due to the false start, and there were other retreaters on their way to the house after a long journey, and we wanted to be there to welcome them. So we stopped, and turned back, and didn’t “finish” the walk.
I was a little bummed for a moment that we didn’t reach the walk goal. I have a book of walks on Mull, and when I finish one, I tick it off as complete. And if I don’t fully complete the walk, I don’t tick it off. I wait and do it again and then it’s complete. (Once I walked for almost seven hours and didn’t get to tick the walk, because I’d walked along the coast to the left, rather than the right. It was a wonderful walk and made my life better but it wasn’t the one I’d planned.)
I didn’t get to tick off this walk in the book. I’ll need to go back another time.
But it actually didn’t trouble me so much. Because I was with three other people who all understand that the journey is the way. We all stood for a moment at the gate leading to the rest of the walk, and said well, we could keep going, but we don’t know if the holy trinity of stones we’re looking for are right around that corner, or a mile onward, or in another direction. And there’s a huge bog right in front of us, and people arriving soon, and it’s okay if we don’t completely “finish” this walk today.
So we turned around, and kept planning our great band (including song names, like “Don’t Go Through The Gate” and “Follow The Wall Downhill”). We got back to the house, put on the kettle, poured the whisky, lit the fire, and cheered when the rest of the retreat group arrived. We sat on the sofa and told stories and I laughed so hard I couldn’t finish stories…
…and it didn’t matter that we’d not seen the three rocks which marked the end of the walk.
I will see them, one day. My goal-orientatedness, combined with how often I visit Mull and my sheer stubbornness, means I’ll march down the hill (where the road bends right) and see the rocks and take a picture and send them to the retreat group….but I’m also okay with it if that never happens.
Because there was a greater goal, higher than “reaching the three rocks”. It was to connect with people and get away from my daily routine in front of a computer and ask good questions (and have good questions asked of me) and laugh and rest and get fresh air and learn from those who think differently than I do.
All of that we achieved.
This all feels really relevant right now, because we are nearing the verrrrrrry end of the finish line for my first book, The Accountant Marketer. The book was my Last Big Thing and I’ve long had the goal of finishing it, having it printed and available for sale, and most of all sharing things about marketing which will help accountants to work with more clients they love.
The goal is almost complete. But what a lot I’ve learned – about myself and accountants and book writing and editing and publishing and patience and my own self-sabotage and determination – along the way. I’ve also written the core content of three other books which will become part of my next goal.
So the goals never end. They keep coming, and coming, and coming.
Here’s to enjoying what we learn and see along the way – and to not getting TOO obsessed with just the goal for its own sake.
What goal are you working on right now? What’s coming up in the journey?