Many of us are taught early on in life to set goals and try to be the best we can be. We strive to get good grades, win the Little League championship, win over the girl, get your driver’s license, go to a good school, get a good job, etc. As I set new, more challenging goals, the competitiveness increased. But I’m not sure my happiness increased proportionately with each new accomplishment. I do know that my stress level increased with each new goal, as I set the bar farther and farther ahead of my grasp.
I know that goals and competitiveness can be good, at least healthy goals and competitiveness. Healthy goals and competitiveness spur greater accomplishment, but the unhealthy goals and competitiveness fuel stress and dissatisfaction.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve spent more and more time thinking about goals, competitiveness, what’s healthy and what’s not, and what life is all about. In the end, it comes down to a question that we all need to answer–what does success mean to us?
I went to a funeral last year for a great man. Somewhere between 500 and 1000 people attended his funeral on a very rainy day with at least half of the people waiting outside in the rain during the ceremony. This was clearly a man who meant a great deal to many people. He built a big company, he was a great philanthropist, and he had been a mentor to many people who went on to have successful careers. He raised three terrific children, and was happily married for a very long time.
I also went to another funeral last year. At this one there were about 100 attendees. This man had been an accountant who lived a very middle class life. But he had, along with his wife, built one of the closest families of four adult children, their spouses, and 10 truly adoring grandchildren, that I’ve ever seen. As I sat through the second man’s funeral, I thought, “Is this man any less successful than the first man?” This second man was truly happy and content and raised a great family that loves to spend time together. In my mind, both men were wildly successful.
During the course of my life, I’ve come across a number of things that turned out to be particularly meaningful to me. One of the things that stayed with me is a poem called “The Station” by Robert Hastings. This poem resonates with me, because it tells us to stop focusing on the goals, and just enjoy the experience. If you just live life to its fullest – experience all that you can along the way – you’ll end up content and with true success. The poem begins:
Tucked away in our subconscious minds is an idyllic vision in which we see ourselves on a long journey that spans an entire continent.
We’re traveling by train and, from the windows, we drink in the passing scenes of cars on nearby highways, of children waving at crossings, of cattle grazing in distant pastures, of smoke pouring from power plants, of row upon row of corn and wheat, of flatlands and valleys, of city skylines and village halls.
But uppermost in our conscious minds is our final destination – for at a certain hour and on a given day, our train will finally pull into the station with bells ringing, flags waving and bands playing.
And once that day comes, so many wonderful dreams will come true.
The poem goes on a little bit and then continues:
“Yes, when we reach the station that will be it!” we promise ourselves. “When we’re 18, win that promotion, put the last kid through college, buy that Mercedes-Benz, pay off the mortgage, have a nest egg for retirement.”
From that day on, we will live happily ever after.
Sooner or later, we must realize that there is no station in this life, no earthly place to arrive at once and for all.
The journey is the joy.
The station is an illusion – it constantly outdistances us.
As Robert Hastings says, life is about the journey – not the destination. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t set any goals or compete. It still brings me pure joy to win a pick-up basketball game; the way I play, you’d think it’s the 7th game of the NBA Finals. But I do think that it is important to really understand what your goals are and what you’re competitiveness is all about. If they help you enjoy the journey, go for it! If they are all about the destination, possibly you should think some more.
I hope this stimulates your thought. That’s my only goal. We all need to figure out what’s right for us. I look forward to your comments and reactions.
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a 3-part series by Dave Sackman, LRW’s CEO, on the topic of success. This is the third post in the series. You can read the first post in the series on the definition of success and the second post in the series on being curious.