This article previously ran on April 11, 2016.
What if I told you that everything you thought about setting goals was wrong? Forget motivation. Forget deadlines. Forget aiming high. Forget everything that you dream you could achieve in life. Why? Because I promise you that if you’re thinking about that, it doesn’t matter what you achieve. You’re going to be miserable 99 percent of the time.
And no, the one percent happiness does not make up for it.
It’s not easy for me to say this. All my life I’ve been an extremely goal-oriented person, and to me, this “secret to success” is a little strange. I have been working toward goals since I was a kid; it has made me who I am. Oddly enough, in pursuing so many goals, I came across Jay Jackson, who told me that achieving goals was not the answer.
Who is Jay Jackson? Jay Jackson is the assistant principal at a Palo Alto high school. (He will tell you that every day is an adventure.) Before that -- and it might not surprise you -- he was a wrestler. (By the way, he has an unbelievable story about wrestling his way out of being blindfolded at gunpoint, and I will tell you the whole story in my new book Spartan FIT.) On the mat and in the office, Jay learned that the secret to happiness was not in the goal; it was in the process.
Loving the process is the key to happiness.
There are a couple reasons why it’s far more important to love the process than to be always reaching for that goal. First, like I said above, achieving goals only makes up about one percent of our total waking hours. If we get our happiness from achieving goals, then we’re only going to be happy about one percent of the time.
Jay runs into this situation with his high school students all the time. “If getting into the best college is what’s going to make you happy,” he says, “you’re never going to be happy in high school because you’re never going to ‘get into college’ in high school.” Getting into college is something that happens once, near the end of high school; until then, students are thinking they’re not where they want to be. The same goes for any goal; as long as you haven’t achieved it, you’re unhappy. Once you’ve achieved it, you set another goal, and you’re unhappy again.
Related: 3 Strategies for Hacking Happiness
I am always telling people that time is the most precious resource we have in life; if we spend most of it being unhappy, have we really achieved very much at all?
The second reason it’s important to love the process is because happiness makes you more engaged. Jay explained this in the context of physical training. “If I enjoy my training with wrestling or whatever sport I’m doing, and I love it, and I ‘get to practice,’ then I’m going to be enjoying it all along the way.” Success, in Jay’s view, is a byproduct of years of engaged learning and improvement. Happiness with the present moment, over time, achieves the goal for you.
See everything as a privilege.
Third, loving the process makes it easier to deal with failure. Jay related this to academics. If you’re focused on the process of learning, he says, and you get a C in a class, you can brush it off. In Jay’s words, a process-loving student can say, “I know what I did, and I know what I learned, and if I worked hard, then I’m proud of that.”
Jay takes this principle of loving the process and applies it to his own life. Life as an assistant principal is not very glamorous, in Jay’s view, but that doesn’t stop him from being happy. According to him, his days are full of people yelling at him, giving out punishments to kids who misbehaved, telling them to stop misbehaving. “I’m going to find a way to love what I do.” So what does he do? He’ll do things like look up random kids in the school’s online directory, find them in the hallway, say “Hi” and ask them how they’re doing. It freaks them out a little bit, but it keeps Jay engaged.
Whatever it takes.
Jay’s advice is easier said than done. In our society, we are brainwashed to be unhappy. But Jay thinks we can re-brainwash ourselves. If we start saying, “I get to go to work. I get to train. I get to do my taxes. I get to reprimand my kids. I get to take out the trash,” we can be happy pretty much doing anything. If you can learn to see the struggles as a privilege and love the process, you will be happy every day -- up to and including the day you reach your end goal.