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Lying in a Hammock, or, Having a Single Goal without a Purpose

Jul 31, 2009 • blogging, general

Every week our team has a team meeting. In our manager's office, we sit around a table and talk about our projects, our concerns, and whatever else we want to talk about. Recently, during one of my colleague's turns, he talked about his goals. Apparently he'd made some goals about video tutorials, and I can't remember exactly what they were, just that he was reporting on them, his progress, what he needed to do to achieve some of the substeps of his goals.

Listening to him made smile, because here he was, evaluating the progress on his goals in a detailed manner, as if talking about a project he knew intimately and worked on every day, whereas I couldn't remember any of my goals, not one.

In every company I've worked for, goal setting has been an annual event, a couple of months before the annual merit increase. It's an activity that I procrastinate, like most other employees do, until the afternoon it's due, and then I come up with a list of reasonable sounding goals that fit into a nice grid, with a few milestones and steps, separated quarterly.

I endure the business speak about the goals being "SMART," which people always emphasize with smugness, and then I save and send the document to my manager. And since I'm not required to do much with the goals until the next year, they soon evaporate into the air. Which is why I listened to my colleague in awe. How did he remember his goals? Has he been carefully tracking his progress toward achieving them? Has he already achieved some goals on his list? Why do I not have any idea what my goals are?

As I drove home after work, I thought about the goals I should have. I do have some general goals in my mind, but they are nothing extraordinary. Read more, exercise more, budget more prudently, help out around the house, and so on. But one goal I have keeps coming back to me with more importance than the others: write a page a day. It seems like such as simple goal, one that wouldn't take much time. It doesn't seem particularly important compared to the other goals on my list. But when I listen to myself, this is the only true goal I have.

I have no real purpose behind the goal. Sometimes I think by writing every day, I'm honing my writing skills for some future assignment, the details of which I'll learn later. At that point, everything will be clear: the late nights, the endless editing, the typing and typing and typing. Or perhaps I'm building up a brand and a readership base, so that I may be a key player in some future twist of events.

But really, writing may turn out to be only a maniacal obsession, one without purpose. The purpose of writing may only be … writing. In that case, the activity itself is the goal, which means I'm living in the moment, rather than postponing fulfillment for some distant achievement.

In most business contexts, the goals and purposes behind every activity, especially copywriting, are clear: you want your customers to take action, usually to buy your product or service. In fact, just this week I listened to a podcast by Jason Van Orden on this topic. In the Community Building Blueprint, Van Orden traces the steps for achieving action in reverse order. To get customers to act (which is your goal), you need influence. To have influence, you need trust. To earn trust, you need a relationship. To form a relationship, you need repeated engagements. (Jason defines engagements as "regular interactions that deepen the mental, emotional, and physical investment that the market has in your brand." Please try to refrain from throwing up from the business speak.) Before you can engage, you need the customer's permission. And before you get the permission, you need to get their attention.

I'm not sure why he stopped at attention, because I was really getting curious to see how far back he could trace it.

Putting that logic in sequentially forward order, Jason says that after engaging in meaningful social media, building relationships, and gaining trust, you can then leverage your influence to encourage your followers to use your service, buy your product, or hire you as a consultant.

You can listen to the videocast, watching Jason draw this upon a whiteboard like a university instructor here. I admit that although I poke fun of his business speak -- the calls to action, branding, the "relationships and trust" -- I can't discount the accuracy of his model. It should no doubt describe my clearly formed plan to reach my goals, right, especially as it relates to my writing and this blog?

In thinking about action and influence, I pondered what I could possibly influence people about, or get them to act upon, and why, so that I could justify the time I spend writing posts and recording podcasts, but I came up blank. Although I write posts encouraging people to embrace online media over print, or to become link journalists on Writer River, or to check out podcasts, ultimately I don't care if you "accept the call to act."

To put it more bluntly, if my blog has influence, I have no agenda. There's nothing I want you to buy. There's nothing I want you to believe. There's nothing I want you to do. I don't care if you listen to me or reject me. If you subscribe, unsubscribe, or keep on clicking somewhere else, that's okay. I'm not worried about "my brand." Whatever course of action you take, I still go to work in the morning and come home in the evening. Certainly blogging might be leveraged for influence and action, but it's not my goal.

My goal is simply to write a page a day. I'm not always good at it. I may not always publish the page. It may be total crap. But most of the time I do it. And I don't try to look too far into the future for purpose.

The problem with goals is that, whatever the goal, it puts you into a future state of mind. You're always working toward some end state of achievement that forces you to live in the future. When you're always looking forward, you become blind to the present.

But many activities don't need goals and purpose -- such as riding a bike. I have a cruiser, which I bought for comfort. When I go on a ride, I'm not training for a future triathlon. I'm not trying to become healthier. I'm just riding the bike for the fun of it. I'm listening to my iPod. I'm weaving through the striped road divider. I'm looking at the river or grass beside me, occasionally stopping to explore new areas.

I have the same mindset playing basketball. I'm not playing to hopefully make a team somewhere. I'm not training to dunk the basketball. I'm just playing for the fun of it, because I like the feel of the ball in my hands, the sense of elation when I shoot a perfect three pointer, or drive past a defender to the basket. When the game is over, I go home, and I don't remember the score.

And when it comes to my relationship with Jane, I also don't have clearly defined goals, with a plan for influence, built upon trust, gained by repeated engagements, for which I first attempt to secure her attention. Anything that calculated is phony.

Learning to live in the present, I once read, is actually a major factor in happiness and life satisfaction. I think many of us have forgotten this. Our culture is too goal-driven. We force ourselves into postponed enjoyment of life. We trick ourselves into thinking that happiness comes only after we achieve our goals.

Although I do make goals (mostly to prevent laziness and degeneration), sometimes I just want to live in the present. To remove the long-term purpose and instead enjoy the moment. To enjoy doing something for purely personal enjoyment of doing that thing, without worrying about anything more.

When you live in the moment, completing the activity itself is the success. And because writing is so multifaceted in effect -- the effect both on me and others -- having an open purpose doesn't limit the results. I'm not narrow-mindedly searching for a specific achievement to happen. Instead, I'm open to unconsidered possibilities, if any of those possibilities decide to unravel. And if not, I'm happy just to type and type and type.

It feels right to conclude with "Lying in a Hammock," by James Wright. It is my favorite poem.

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year's horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.