This blog co-written with Carolyn Jones
Sometimes you hit the target. Sometimes you smash it. Sometimes you take a shot, and it rebounds on the crossbar. Sometimes it’s so wide you wonder whether it was even a shot worth taking. But that’s the thing about goals. Whether the ball hits the back of the net, or whether it ends up in the crowd, every attempt teaches us something. We learn from every try.
In 2010 I set out to read 50 books by the end of the year. I fell short by seventeen. I tried the following year, and I missed the mark again. And again. And again. And again. And again. In 2017, I finally reached the goal and read 51 books. But the celebration was short-lived. It took another four years before I was able to do it again. And when I did, I exceeded it by 10 books. But that’s the other thing about goals; they aren’t meant to be easy.
Sofia Segovia says that “life [does] not make promises,” but “sometimes it [offers] opportunities”. While the years of unmet goals sometimes stack up taller than the instances of achievement, there are countless opportunities to be offered and accepted. I am still just as filled with all the pages from all the books that I did manage to read in the years I failed to meet my minimum. Those pages taught me so much. Gave me so much. Guided me through so much. I learned about myself. I learned about the world. I learned about the parts and places within the world that pull up on the strings of my passions, like something lost being dredged from the depths of forgetfulness; a wreckage salvaged from the abyss. Rescued from oblivion. Those pages helped me through innumerable moments of misery, loss, trauma, sadness, and depression. I stood tall. I fell short. I fell hard. I managed to stand back up. I fell even harder still. And I found that all the pages that I held had been upholding me all along.
We try. We learn. We think. We grow. We make good art. We write a great story. We realize the bigness of small things. And whether we make the goal, we move forward and we move on. Like the clanging persistence of a pinball constantly pivoting the trajectory of the way we think, what we garner in the process remains present and undeterred.
It’s easy to think about all the things we didn’t, and perhaps won’t ever, do. All the books that go unread. All the goals that go unmet. The happiness we didn’t have. The wealth and success we didn’t achieve. But those “are matters mostly out of our control,” Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Canor explain. Instead, it is “the work, that we choose.” It is the work we set before ourselves. The tasks we are willing to take on, and the effort we are willing to exert in the attempt that decide who we are and what we will become.
Rollo May says that we become “fully human only by [our] choices and [our] commitment to them. He says that our “worth and dignity” are attained only “by the multitude of decisions [we] make,” and “These decisions require courage”. It takes bravery and courage to challenge ourselves, to decide to push toward some desired end. To see through the clattering and stagnation. To realise that we need to change. To decide to try, and to commit to seeing it through.
We may not meet the end we tried for, but regret is the metric of something unreal. Calculations of the things we can’t change. A fixation upon the mathematics of all the events that cannot be other than the way they have been. If these are the means by which we measure our worth, we will always be found wanting. The true testament to our quality is in accepting the humaneness of our scale; the fortitude of our fragility. As Marin Popova says it is in “the presence, persistence, and grace with which we face reality on its own terms” that we achieve something that can never be lost.
Thanks again to Carolyn Jones for cowriting this essay with me, and for literally everything else.