Peter McGraw shares his thoughts, solo, about an experiment he is conducting with his life. What do you think? Join the Solo community and share your thoughts: https://petermcgraw.org/solo/
Listen to Episode #188 here
Solo Thoughts 11: Exploring Goals, Wants, Auditions, And A Call To Surrender
In a solo episode of Solo, I share ideas that I’ve been thinking about, often obsessing about without a guest. I invite you to share your reactions about this one or any other episode by joining the Solo Community. You sign up at PeterMcGraw.org/solo. This episode was prompted by three things. 1) My ongoing attempts to tackle my anxiety. 2) I’m considering new ways to live my life, especially how I work and what I work on. 3) An incident I had trying to tape an episode that suggested that despite the progress that I’m making in terms of my lifestyle and anxiety, I still have a lot of work to do.
I’m sure you’re familiar with that old dance, 2 steps forward and 1 step back. If you’re a frequent audience, you’ve known me to talk about my moderate struggles with anxiety, especially my tendency to ruminate in the middle of the night. My anxiety’s not debilitating, but it could be better, especially because I recognize that my fears are largely unfounded at this stage in life. Rationally, I know that most things I worry about never will happen, and when they do, they tend to be minor and things that I’m well equipped to deal with.
However, rationality doesn’t seem to matter at 4:30 AM. That’s the thing about anxiety. It’s emotional and often maladaptive. Compared to my ancestors, my world is much less scary. Survival is not an issue, and yet those fears persist. I’ve made some strides in this area by repeating the insights that I have and having them take hold during a series of mushroom trips, and I feel like I’m starting to win this battle.
If you’re tired of hearing about my psychedelic journey, I can’t help myself. They’ve been profoundly important. Just take solace in knowing that you’re only getting a fraction of the actual action. I find myself in a three-way tug of war between my monkey mind, which is not well adapted to modernity, my need to be vigilant, a remnant of a survival mechanism as a younger man with financial and housing insecurity, and my rational self who recognizes that these anxieties are too often unfounded.
The second event that prompted this episode is a lifestyle experiment that I’m conducting, an experiment that’s not going well. I’m in an interesting place in life, a liminal moment of sorts. Liminality is the in-between moments where people are neither in their previous state nor a new one. Liminality in time marks the span of transitional periods in a person’s life like the moment a clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve. The time may be short such as a graduation ceremony or long such as adolescence.
I’m sitting in a lull between two endeavors, writing a book on an ambitious deadline, which was a magnificent task. One, I hardly believed that I pulled off. I worked with great focus and intensity. I equipped a friend that I worked an entire year in four months. I’m glad it’s done and I don’t want to work like that again ever.
The other endeavors forthcoming promoting said book. There’s a saying in publishing, “Publishers print books and authors sell books.” Now, I would rather write than sell. However, I believe that this book will help some singles who are struggling with their relationship status. I also suspect that some people will be upset by the book. Perhaps a bit of controversy will stoke some media attention. In this lull, I have my professor duties. I’m teaching a PhD seminar at the moment, but otherwise, there isn’t a big project that I need to work on, and yet I’m still compelled to work and work hard.
After 30-plus years of grinding, with the last 15 in particular, having a very tight daily rhythm designed to maximize productivity, I can’t seem to shut off or even slow down. After all, my schedule agrees with me. I’m up early and out the door to a coffee shop where I focus on writing. Most days, I take a late morning workout as a break, then another creative session in the afternoon unless I’m teaching, and another session in the evening unless I’m out or entertaining. Rinse and repeat day in and day out. Even on holidays, even when I travel.
I was in Bogota for what was supposed to be a vacation, aside from one week of intense book edits. I wanted to make that trip a vacation, yet I failed. I fell back into that daily routine. The trip was great, but I didn’t vacation, and that bothered me because it suggested that I lack control in my life. I couldn’t even take a break when I wanted to, and as a check on this logic, my friends were disappointed too. They would say that I deserved a break.
Something else was an issue in Bogota. I immediately started working on the next big thing. What book might I write next? That’s a problem because I’m not even that good at writing books, and there I was brainstorming, writing down ideas, talking to friends, and trying to figure out what’s next. I simply couldn’t let things be. Now I’m not unhappy with my life, but this lull, this liminality has revealed a lack of control. It prompted me to begin contemplating whether I want to continue working the way I do and to ask a question. If I do, what do I want to work on?
A brief digression. I highly doubt that I would have the luxury to contemplate such a change if I were married with kids at this age, it is much more difficult to make this change when you’re in the middle of growing a family. People often need to wait till they’re retired or empty nesters to even consider this change.
In this forthcoming book, I argue that singles have more optionality than married people. Optionality is the ability but not the obligation to make a decision. It’s a simple argument I make. The relationship escalator crowds out opportunities and requires the cooperation of someone else. You merge living situations, money, and lifestyle, and your escalator partner often has wide-ranging veto power.
My singleness has helped me realize incredible opportunities in life. I’ve traveled from Peru where I clowned with Patch Adams to Palestine to investigate comedy in a place you don’t expect it. I visited and taught at universities around the world, including London Business School in Dubai. I’ve written books, pitched TV shows, unsuccessfully, of course, and performed at a professional comedy club all while staying healthy and having great platonic and the occasional non-platonic relationship. My life’s rarely easy and it’s not always good, but I’m grateful to live remarkably. Digression over.
I realized that I’m not that far away from being able to semi-retire. I’m close enough that it’s reasonable to ask whether I want to do things differently, certainly to consider thinking about how to live life on the other side of mandatory work. A change could involve a major project, switching up my work schedule even whether I should move somewhere else. I’m starting to realize that for me to grow, I probably should live in another country. I’ve been thinking, journaling, and reading about new perspectives and possibilities.
I’ve also started disrupting my precious rituals and routines, not massively, just easing into being a little less regimented, less scheduled, more improvisational. It might be something as small as leaving the coffee shop after finishing an important task rather than grinding along for another 30 minutes, an hour, or an hour and a half. In some, I’m trying to figure out whether I want to make changes moving forward, and what these changes may mean for my lifestyle and projects, and frankly, it’s quite unclear and unsettling. One clear thing is that my wants and desires are at the heart of my anxiety and should be central to any change moving forward.
I’m a recovering goals addict. Goals have been instrumental in my success in my life. That’s not surprising. Goal-setting often leads to success. When people decide to lose weight and set a goal to do so, they tend to shed those pounds. Establishing smart objectives that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound markedly enhances the likelihood of success. Yet I’m beginning to believe that goals no longer serve me as they once did.
I write about the downside of relationship goals in my book. There are three potential drawbacks for singles who have the goal of riding the relationship escalator. Drawback 1) You feel less than. One problem with goals is that having one creates an agreement with yourself to not be satisfied until the goal is achieved. You are in deficit until that fateful day.
Drawback 2) Goals create liminality. The single with a goal to ride the escalator someday can’t come soon enough as indicated by the prevalence of the dating apps of the phrase, “Don’t waste my time.” Waiting may involve savoring anticipation and excitement. It’s wonderful to have a vacation looming in the future. However, waiting often implies a lack of power.
Consider the common queuing scenarios to be wasted time. In line at the grocery store, a visit to the doctor, they call it a waiting room after all, or anxiously anticipating your turn to board a plane. The goal to ride the escalator, waiting for the one, looms over Someday singles. Hence their name, Someday. Waiting for a person to complete you and missing out on all the benefits of partnering up and settling down can make waiting even more agonizing. Liminality can be aversive.
Drawback 3) Be careful what you wish for. The last problem with goals is setting them is making a bet on a brighter future. Some goals such as weight loss, when accomplished, lead to positive outcomes. You have more energy. You feel better. You look better. Other goals, however, are a forecast, a prediction, a hope, a dream. Unfortunately, research reveals that people are notoriously bad at predicting the future or how they’ll feel about it when it arrives. This can certainly be the case with marriage. It’s hard to know how a life partner may change. In short, we think accomplishing our goals will make us happy, but that’s no sure thing.
Knowing the goals have their downside and may no longer serve me raises the question, “What to do instead?” One solution is just to give up goal setting as a strategy, which ought to erase the disappointment and the liminality and attention to the future. One that’s not guaranteed anyway. That’s a straightforward answer, but difficult to enact. Give up this thing that’s helped me succeed in life. My entire adulthood, since I was a sophomore in college, has been to ruthlessly pursue objectives. I used goal-setting to climb the academic ladder, which helped me achieve the very security that makes retirement a possibility.
One thing to do when giving up goals is to instead focus on processes, the rituals that I’m already engaged in. For example, an author may give up the goal of finishing a book by a certain day, but still set aside a process of writing three hours a day until the book is finished. Both result in a book being done. However, the solution of focusing on process assumes you know what outcomes you want that process to maximize. That doesn’t help as I question what outcomes I want or whether I want to continue with the same processes in life. Do I want to continue to rinse and repeat day in and day out, whether it’s a holiday or I’m traveling?
There’s another issue adjacent to goal-setting, wants. Wants are like light goals. There are desires. Wanting the weather to be a certain way, hotter or colder. Wanting a politician or a sports team to win. Wanting a coworker to agree with you. We have varying degrees of control over these wants. It’s easier to persuade a coworker than it is to change the weather or get your person elected president. Constantly wanting with its ups and downs, good weather and bad weather, makes life interesting, but unduly difficult and distracting.
A problem with wanting is the negativity bias. While getting what you want feels good, not getting what you want feels worse. The notion of relinquishing wants and living a simpler life has been a philosophical puzzle spanning cultures and eras. Socrates probes the distinction between genuine needs and fleeting desires. Centuries later, Siddhartha Gautama also known as the Buddha identified desire as the root of suffering, suggesting that enlightenment can be attained by letting go of such yearnings. Epicurus advocated limiting desire to only what is necessary for contentment.
A Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu spoke of the value of being desireless and connecting with the natural flow of life. Related to this idea of wanting was an insight I had during a mushroom trip. The following thought came to mind. I’m done auditioning. I have no idea what prompted this idea that I’m done auditioning, but if I had to guess, it had to do with the submission that I had made to Harvard Business Review about singles in the marketplace.
As you know, I’m a business school professor and I want to write about this topic. The HBR website said that the submission would be evaluated within eight weeks. That’s a two-month wait, and I’ve heard stories of people who never get a response. It felt like an audition. One I was not excited about. Frankly, with my goals and wants, much of my life feels like a series of auditions trying to impress and receive approval from others, especially gatekeepers. Whether an article pitch, a TED talk, or a book proposal, I constantly feel like I’m trying to impress. “Pick me.”
Auditioning is about wanting something but needing someone else to give it to you. There was a time when auditions were essential to my survival and subsequent achievement, job interviews, doctoral dissertations, and so on. My dating life feels like a constant audition, with me trying to impress would-be dates. “Pick me.” One caveat about auditioning, I’m not willing to give it up altogether. Moving forward, I’ll happily audition when it matters. Robert Downey Jr. doesn’t need to audition anymore, but he’ll audition to be Ironman because he wants to be the next Ironman.
Related to giving up goals, wanting, and auditioning, the world works in mysterious ways. I came across an old idea in a new package. This time not from a mushroom trip, but from a book I stumbled upon. The book is called The Surrender Experiment, written by Michael Singer. It’s his memoir. The memoir is built on how Singer approaches his life to surrender to what the universe wants for him. As you might guess, this has led him to a remarkable life. Otherwise, no publisher would have wanted to publish his memoir.
Singer’s logic is as follows. We, he, me, you are a tiny part of a vast, powerful universe. We have a will and we can exert a tiny bit of influence on the universe in order to get what we want, but it takes a massive amount of effort to make a small dent. Rather than fight it, Singer suggests surrendering to it. That is the easier, happier path. Since the universe is so vast and powerful and our influence on it is so small, it’s futile to try to force things to go our way. It’s easier and happier to simply surrender to the flow of the universe and trust that it will lead us to where we need to be.
He explains this in the book as follows. “What if we could just let go of our own desires and let life happen to us? What if we could trust that the universe is unfolding perfectly, even if we don’t understand it?” This is the principle of surrender. He goes on to say, “Surrender is not about giving up our dreams. Rather, it’s about letting go of the need to control how we achieve those things.” It’s about opening ourselves up to the possibility that the universe has a better plan for us than we do.
As you might imagine, these are new ideas for me and a very different way to go about living. Singer’s logic is that if we surrender to the universe, we’ll be happier and more fulfilled because we’re not going to be constantly struggling against the flow of life. Instead, we’ll be able to relax and enjoy the journey. By way of analogy, imagine you’re trying to swim upstream against a strong current. That’s exerting your will. It’s very difficult and exhausting, but if you let go and float downstream, the current will carry you to where you need to go.
Surrendering is like letting go and floating downstream. I’ve taken to heart that message and experimented with it. I’ve been trying to pay attention to what the universe wants me to do, and I’m getting nothing back. I thought I did. I got an email from a friar about speaking at a church conference in London and I thought, “Maybe this is it.”
As I investigated further, however, I found out that said email was just a scam being played on professional speakers. I’m in this lull, in this liminal space, working but not working like I usually do. Unsure about what to dedicate time to besides exploring what to dedicate time to. It’s all very interesting and strange. Feels like a moment of growth, but as you know, growth often has growing pains.
The final thing that prompted this episode was an incident, a failed attempt to do an episode for the show. A guest had a technical issue that shut down and postponed an episode I was eager to release. Frankly, it’s not a big deal, but I let the incident make me anxious, even angry. I wanted to do that episode because it’s going to be a fun, inspirational conversation. I had also built my day around the conversation, putting off a trip to the mountains. Another thing, the episode cue that I had was getting short and this was going to put pressure on my schedule. Now I needed to hustle to get another done.
It was this disproportionate emotional response to this minor incident that got me thinking again about goals and wants and how much they influenced me. Let’s be honest. I set this goal. This is my want. I’m upset that I might miss dropping an episode, yet I’m the one who decides when to drop an episode. I create the schedule, and yet I’m the one who gets upset when I can’t keep up. I’ve not surrendered enough.
Doing a lifetime of habits is not easy to do even with the help of books, journaling, and psilocybin. The irony of doing a solo episode to talk about a lost episode, one that will help me hit my goal is not lost on me. Nevertheless, this process has been very useful for me to get me to reflect and think about what I should do moving forward.
In closing, I realize that I’ve raised more questions than answers. There’s research that reveals two modes of thought, deliberation versus implementation. It’s also known as exploration versus exploitation. I am clearly in exploration mode. I don’t know where it will lead, but I feel like the important realization is done, recognizing that I no longer need goals to be successful in life, and if I can be more like the Buddha and set aside wants, I can be less anxious and more open to what the world is telling me to do.
As I was preparing this episode, I received an interesting email. A Harvard Business Review editor sent me an enthusiastic message, asking me to submit the article that I pitched. Maybe the universe is telling me something. Thank you for tuning in. Let me know what you think. How do these ideas apply to your own life? Join the Solo Community at PeterMcGraw.org/solo and tell me. Cheers.