Monday, January 17, 2022

Letting Go of the Myth of Progress


Me in the Kitchen

I was meeting recently with some friends on Zoom. Because of the latest Omicron wave of the pandemic, so much of our social life has gone back to virtual meetings for the time being, and the topic we were discussing was what our goals and dreams for the future were, once this Omicron wave subsides. I thought it was a fitting topic for the beginning of January, when so many of us set goals for the upcoming year.

I used to be one of those people. Although I didn't make New Year's resolutions per se, at the beginning of each year I typically took some time to review the past year's life events and accomplishments, and then wrote up a series of goals for the upcoming year. 

In true Type-A fashion, these were not vague wish statements such as: "I hope to exercise a little more this year." No indeed. I wrote out goals that were specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely, or SMART goals. Examples of this type of goal is: "I will walk for a minimum of 20 minutes a day, 6 days per week." Or, I will sustain an average of 9,000 steps per day each week."*

My goal list usually consisted of 5-7 main categories, each broken down into subcategories, with goal statements under those. For example, the categories might be: Work, Health, Creativity, Social Life, Family, and Travel. Under Health, I might have subcategories such as Fitness, Food, and Work-Life Balance, and then under each one of those, I would develop SMART goals, often with associated timelines. I have written about this goal-setting process and some of the stumbling blocks here

A Sunny Day at Mount Washington

So, anyways, when I was thinking about our discussion question in advance before meeting on Zoom, I was stumped. I had set no goals for 2022. I felt no desire to set goals for 2022. Was it because the past two years taught me that there is no point in setting goals, because as soon as we make a plan for travel or to get together with friends and family, another wave of COVID comes along with new public health restrictions that kibosh everything?

No, I am still a great believer in goals and plans. I would not have had the interesting life I've had if I'd been goalless throughout my life.

I used to visualize my life as a trek up a mountain. Each time I reached a summit, I would see another peak appear in front of me, and then I'd shift my aim to reach that next peak. My life was a life of endless striving, always going for the next big thing. My personal myth of progress.

Notice the past tense. Now that I've retired, have I given up? Am I just sitting here waiting for death? Certainly, in my younger years, that was how I dichotomized it -- move forward making progress, or sit still and fail/die. 

Abby with Stick
As I've settled into retirement, I've come to see a number of things quite differently. For example, I've stepped away from the academic life, which in the first few years of retirement included doing research, giving talks, publishing, reviewing manuscripts, and supervising students. It's time. I don't miss it. And I don't feel like less of a person because I'm no longer striving toward that next scholarly peak or adding another line to my CV. I climbed that mountain and now it's behind me.

I have been sitting with something Rob said to me. "Why are you always wanting to rush off somewhere else? We live in a beautiful part of the world in a perfectly nice house. Can't you just be content to stay here and enjoy what we have?"

His comments lay bare my myth of progress. If I always have my sights set on the next destination (summit, accomplishment, goal completion), do I even have time to notice where I am right now? That is Zen wisdom, to live in the moment, because the moment is all we really have. 

So I said to my Zoom friends, "I didn't set goals for the year. I think I'm letting go of striving and the myth of progress."

But does a leopard change its spots? Maybe the real truth of it is that work obligations used to suck up most of my waking hours. Now that I'm retired and able to spend time walking trails every day with Abby, cooking healthy meals, sleeping enough, spending time with friends and family, hanging out with Rob, writing, skiing, painting, doing yoga, and so on (and hopefully travelling again soon), I actually have the life I always wanted. I don't have to set goals to get here. I'm here.

Christmas 2021 Photos 

One brother and all three of my kids were here with their families for Christmas this year, and we had a wonderful time together. The good life.

With Daughters

Christmas Dinner








Son and his Fiancee


* Why 9,000 rather than 10,000 steps a day? Because I had read a research article somewhere that evaluated whether the popular press had settled on 10,000 steps because it was a nice round number or because there was research evidence that 10,000 steps was, in fact, the best daily walking target for most people. The conclusion of the article was that, for most people, any increase in daily steps yielded health benefits, and specifically for women over 60, an average of 9,000 steps per day yielded the optimum health gain for the time spent (with daily steps beyond 9,000 still beneficial, but at a diminishing rate).