All my life I’ve been accused of thinking too much and not doing enough. And rightly so. I have always been crippled by the idea of having to decide on the correct action to take, mainly because I have a stubborn habit of constantly challenging my own ideas, only to realize that they are imperfect, thus not ready to be acted upon.
Obviously this approach to life is not very effective, if at all, because ideas kept in our minds are simply that, ideas. And ideas alone don’t do much except entertain us and give us even more ideas to think about. There’s really no end to thinking, for better or worse.
I once knew someone who approached life in almost diametrical opposition to the way I do. He was a doer par excellence. When he had an idea, he made it happen. I was jealous of him. I would try to show him why his ideas were bad or how they could go wrong but he wouldn’t have it, he just did whatever came to his mind.
Nowadays it’s likely that people would agree more with his approach than with mine. After all, at least he was trying. At least he was doing something. All I was doing was exactly nothing. Except talking sometimes. But that’s basically the same thing.
I’ve always been annoyed by this about me. I’ve watched people achieve amazing things in their lives while I was still pondering in my living room, carefully weighing the pros and the cons, continually paralyzed by possibilities, never deciding on anything. I have also always thought that this was simply a character defect and that eventually, if I didn’t change, I will never actually achieve anything. And though I still believe this, I’ve lately come to realize that though it is noble and worthy for us to take on endeavors in life and achieve them, doing so too recklessly can be useless at the least and dangerous at most.
Let’s take for example, a young man who has huge dreams. Maybe his huge dream is to make a million dollars or maybe his huge dream is to change the world. We are constantly encouraged to dream and strive for big goals, and to pursue them with a near ruthless drive and so our young man is in the right environment, one that constantly encourages him to take on these massive challenges.
It takes minimal experience in life to realize that there is basically a universal equation for achieving goals. The shortest route from A to B is a straight line. Practically, this means that the fastest way to achieve our goals is to be as single-minded and focused as possible. And if our goals motivate us, then we would want to achieve them as fast as possible. Fast also means that we will be putting in enormous amounts of energy and concentration into our goals, which can literally make us feel “high” or as they call it in psychology, “flow”.
So much around us perpetuates this idea of the holiness of goals and achievement, from parents to schools to Steve Jobs to pop culture to self-help books and our friends and family, so fertile is the ground for this approach that it can almost seem like the only way to go about life.
Our own experience, the zeal we feel when we get up every morning with a purpose, a goal to which to direct our energy, a raison d’être, all of this only serves to further reinforce the appeal, intellectually and emotionally, of goal-oriented living.
And off we go, laser-focus in our motivation and action, moving in one definite direction, exhilarated by its energy, our motivation constantly reinforcing itself.
And then we reach our goal.
The best thing that can happen afterwards is that we will be happy and bask in our achievements, taking our minds off of this tunnel vision mode and regaining perspective of life. But rarely do we so that, because goals are addictive. And what usually happens is a crash after a high which only itches until we get ourselves amped up again with yet another goal, barely any time between the two.
The least harmful thing that can happen in situations like this is that we become unable to enjoy life for what it is, we waste our lives pursuing goal after goal and when we are near death, we regret not having just enjoyed it all. We reach the end with a million medals and encyclopedic knowledge and one dying leaf of wisdom, one rusted strand of love.
But that’s only the least harmful thing that can happen. The worst can be a lot worse. When young man decides to change the world, to start a revolution, to do whatever he thinks should be done, he also goes after it with the same single-minded zeal that someone working towards a million dollars does. To achieve his goal he must become consumed by it and in the process, he will inevitably lose perspective. His goal becomes his life mission and without it he is nothing. He become deliberately blind to anything that might be wrong, hurtful or dangerous about his goal and he continues towards it, high on “flow” and endorphins, satisfying himself with the idea that he is changing the world, even reaching the conclusion that the ends justify the means, his noble goal will justify what it took to get there.
It is in this state of mind that leaders have destroyed entire nations, oblivious to everything around them except the vision at the end of the tunnel. Having taken no time to introspect, to re-evaluate, to question themselves, to adapt, to diversify their lives, to cultivate wisdom along the way, to maintain the kind of leisure and pastimes and relationships and idleness that cultivate a wider and wiser perspective of life, they become consumed with their vision, and it becomes their very reason to exist.
There is nothing wrong with goals, with missions and with causes in-and-of themselves, but when those come to define our existence, they can become dangerous for us and for others around us. To pursue goals responsibly we need wisdom, not only passion, and not only knowledge. We need wisdom to think deeply and widely about what we want, why we want it, and what its possible consequences are. We need wisdom to understand ourselves, to deeply introspect and question the very reason that we want to pursue things. Sometimes it’s to become rich and powerful, sometimes it’s to escape having to face ourselves, life, death and all the other uncertainties of life. We need wisdom to know that goals can become as addictive as drugs, that even goals need to be balanced with seemingly useless things like quiet time, art, love, nature, because those further develop our wisdom, remind us what truly matters, give our goals perspective.
To constantly search for a cause, a goal, a mission is a goal in and of itself, and that itself can strip our lives of richness as it becomes our sole obsession. Before we take it on ourselves to die for something, let’s take some time to first learn how to live, for nothing but life itself, for nothing but the glory of walking on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment, experiencing the miracle of life.
Bruna Kesserwani is the regional director of operations of the World Youth Alliance in the Middle East.