Setting Goals and Resistance, Part 2

The Problem (For Some of Us) About Setting Goals

I am working on songwriting even as I post this. So far, so good, but man is it hard to get me to sit still!

From How to Be an Adult: A Musician’s Guide to Navigating Your Twenties

The trick for me is to get the IAP and the Willful Child talking calmly to each other instead of having one of them throw a tsunami-size tantrum while the other one nags like a critical op-ed writer. For this is the challenge. As soon as I set a goal––like getting in shape so I can look great in a Betsey Johnson dress—my inner six(teen) year old (WC) immediately rolls her eyes and curls up in bed with a book. Meanwhile, my IAP goes ballistic on the poor reader, screaming, “Your thighs! That bulge above your triceps! Not to mention you’re going to get osteoporosis and heart disease! Get out of bed and do forty laps around the park!”

Eventually I learned to treat these two opposing personalities the way I would treat a cat. Cats (at least the ones I lived with) don’t respond well to direct orders or being scooped up and cuddled. They like to be wooed, approached at a 45 degree angle. Slyly. Gently. Coyly. And so when I am feeling listless, I have my IAP say, ever so slyly, gently, and coyly, “Wow, remember how nice it was to go for a run? You used to bring your iPod and listen to Anna Karenina. That was fun. Hmmm. Maybe if we go back to running, we can download Middlemarch. You could start by just walking, and call Susan on your cell phone… no pressure.” The six(teen)-year-old responds much better this way (though she negotiates for Patti Smith’s Just Kids in lieu of Middlemarch), and there is peace, harmony and fitness in the kingdom once again.

But this diplomacy has been long in negotiation. This should give you hope: in order to meet my second goal (to be the next Beatles) I knew I would have to practice my guitar a lot more. (I am undisciplined about practicing my guitar, and I pretty much always have been.) When I started at age eleven, that directive: “I should practice more!” rang in my ears every time I came home from school and saw my little nylon string guitar safely tucked away in its black pleather case. What did I do? Sometimes felt kind of sick and guilty and stuck the guitar in the nether regions of my closet. But often the desire to make music would come and pull at my heartstrings, and I would pull the guitar out of the case and open my Beatles for Easy Guitar book, sit down on the carpet and painfully play a few songs with especially easy chords. But I’d get so frustrated because the songs sounded nothing like the Beatles LPs I’d put on the record player that I’d slam the book shut in frustration and lock my guitar up in its case, to be ignored for the next few weeks. Still, the IAP had some effect, as I eventually played the guitar for my living.

Setting Goals and Resistence, part 1

Today, Katryna and I rehearsed (and even kind of wrote!) songs for our new CD. So my post is from my book How to Be an Adult: A Musician’s Guide to Navigating Your Twenties. Makes an excellent graduation gift. Just saying.

Setting Goals
Goal-setting is probably not new to you. Who hasn’t at some point tried to achieve something just beyond one’s reach? How does one do such a thing? By working a little harder, a little longer, a little more often, in a focused way. We can set goals for ourselves around almost anything: making it through school, training for a race, mastering an instrument, achieving a social status, winning a chess ranking, winning first prize at a Rubik’s Cube tournament. When I was 22, my goals were: to never have to feel lonely again; to start a band that would be the next Beatles; to write a hit song; to look great in a Betsey Johnson dress; to have a daily yoga practice; to run every day; to keep a daily journal; to (eventually—many years in the future) have a family; to go to Harvard Divinity School and be a minister living in western Massachusetts.

Dealing With Resistance
The problem with setting goals is that as soon as we do, 95% of us come up against the source of all evil: Resistance. [For more on Resistance, you must MUST read the excellent Steve Pressfield’s The War of Art.] Resistance, as I am defining it here, means not doing something you know you want to do, ought to do, love to do, and won’t do––yet have no logical reason for not doing. There is something about the nature of resistance that speaks to the very heart of this question of maturity. We all know resistance in some aspect of our lives; we all know that huge creature slouching toward the mall, if not Bethlehem, this three-toed sloth who sleeps all day in the cool of the trees and rouses itself only to eat and excrete. We all know the frustration of setting a goal—to keep our living room tidier, to jog three miles in the morning, to practice the guitar, to send out that resumé, to straighten out our finances––only to watch as the weeks go by and helplessly observe that sickening refusal in some deep part of ourselves to participate. What is it? Where does it come from?

I have no idea. All I know is that I recognize this sloth in myself, and it baffles me that I have accomplished as much as I have, given its hegemony over me. But I do have some observations.

Of course, if we never set goals, we’d never have to deal with resistance. I tend to see the whole issue of resistance to goals in myself as a conversation between a very willful, creative child and a very ambitious parent with the “Real You” stuck somewhere in the middle.

Sigmund Freud uses the terms “id,” “superego” and “ego” here, but some of us have problems with old Siggy, so I’ve provided some alternative jargon for you. Perhaps your resistance is actually healthy and self-protective. What if the goals you are setting for yourself are the wrong goals anyway? What if these particular goals do not support your true dreams and desires? What if the Real You––your true self before socialization, the unique person you were meant to be during your brief sojourn on this planet—what if this You does not care about glamour and fame and money? The Real You might think your perfect manifestation to be a gardener in the town of Ogunquit, Maine. The Real You might fall in love with an overweight, illiterate cab driver with eyes like Tom Hanks’ and a heart as big as Canada. The Real You might just want what it is meant to want.

Your Inner Ambitious Parent (IAP), on the other hand, is who and what our peers, People magazine, The New York Times and perhaps our actual ambitious parents tell us we should be––what we should look like, how much money we should make and what we should accomplish in our lifetime. Your IAP has been told to follow in the family business, or to be a doctor or a lawyer or something (please, God) that will provide our parents with some security upon retirement. Your IAP might want you to be straight, though sometimes, in some communities, gay. Your IAP wants you to contain your feelings (unless it’s Italian, which means it wants you to be extremely emotive, operatic, and a good cook and lover to boot. Pardon the “boot” pun). In short, the Real You and your IAP might be worlds apart.

Maybe the reason you keep procrastinating on your screenplay or sleeping through your morning workout is that you don’t really want to be an award winning documentary filmmaker or a triathlete. Maybe your house continues to be a disaster area, even though you subscribe religiously to FlyLady , because you don’t really want your house to look like it sprung from the pages of House Beautiful. Maybe this resistance is some kind of divine protection, a cry from the dark saying, “This is not me!”

The Willful Child on the other hand is not that helpful either, though some of us in our teens and twenties champion our WC and follow her on a long goose chase to degradation (see The Prodigal Son and a bazillion other characters in literature). The Willful Child is not that keen on making money, friends, or attending to personal hygiene. She’s fun for awhile, but not for a lifetime. You really don’t want her running the show, or you’ll end up like one of my actual willful children who, on occasion, refuses TV and candy simply because their actual IAP (me) is offering it to him or her. Or in my case, the WC is that same sloth spoken of earlier who doesn’t so much stamp her foot but rather curls up on the couch for an entire season if left undisturbed. Life, of course, is a process of finding that balance between chaos and rigidity. The balance point changes over time, which is why we need to practice balancing a lot.

(For tomorrow: The Problem (For Some of Us) About Setting Goals)