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Confessions of a recovering goal addict

03 November 2017 - By Katie Cowan

For much of my life I wanted to be a doctor. It seemed to be the hardest thing I could be. It would pay well, and everyone would know I was a good person without having to tell them all the time. My brother, father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all doctors. And the posters in my high school gym told me that girls could do anything. So becoming a doctor also met a dual purpose of fitting in at family gatherings and honouring feminism.

These are terrible reasons to become a doctor. Yes, even feminism.

Becoming a doctor was a terrible goal for me. You will note that none of the reasons up there include, say, a fascination with biological science, or a love of interacting with countless strangers every day. The things I like doing, am good at doing, and find meaningful to do, are almost all absent from what doctors do. But for a long time being a doctor was my goal, and so I had to do it.

That mentality, right there, is a big reason why goals are not the healthiest way for me to navigate my life. And this is a mindset disproportionately common among lawyers.

I was recently asked for advice on good goals to set for one’s first 100 days as a lawyer. The question made me wince. The first 100 days as a lawyer are usually a whirlwind adjustment period. Trying to learn as quickly as possible what is expected and how to do it, and figuring out where and how you fit. It is not an ideal time for specific, rigid, goals because it is a time of complexity, uncertainty and change.

But that impulse to make a complex thing certain is oh so painfully familiar. I would have asked that question when I started practice. I was so good at goals. I was so good at sitting at a café with a notebook and pen planning my life, my career, what I wanted to achieve and how young I had to be to do it. The lists, the notes, the blind faith that if I achieved this ridiculous thing at this ridiculous age then everything would finally be all right.

There are people, I’m told, with strong senses of self-compassion and self-awareness and moderation. For these people goals are a great tool for navigating life. They can take something off their to-do list without having done it, simply because the goal no longer fits with their needs or values. For them, a failure to achieve something is not evidence of worthlessness, but instead evidence that the goal had not been realistic, that maybe the next goal should better account for X or Y. These same people have an enduring sense of quiet pride when they achieve a difficult goal. They actually enjoy it.

I do not understand these people. Where is their perpetual self criticism? Where is their despair?

Because, when I do not achieve a goal I set, my brain is not kind, moderate or realistic. It tells me that my failure to achieve the goal is evidence that I am inherently bad. Obviously, I am lazy and ridiculous. And this happens just as badly when I fail to vacuum as it does when I fail to publish any academic papers before I am 25 (both, for different reasons, unrealistic goals in the first place).

Most people will say that the problem here is simply that my goal is not realistic. But that is not the problem – the way my brain deals with goals is the problem. Because the berating also happens when I achieve goals. To my dumb brain, achieving a goal is evidence that the goal was not difficult enough, and I am obviously not worthy of any sense of accomplishment. My brain then shifts the goal posts to something impossible. Why have I not published 25 papers before reaching 25?

The problem is not goals, but how my brain (and many young lawyers’ brains) works. I, and many of you, do not operate from a sense of enoughness, of worthiness. We feel constantly like we are making up for deficits and defects. And the bit of our brain that commands goals and compliance (I call it the “Angry Man”) does not respond to logic.

Because, while I have yet to publish an academic paper, I have done things. Often much younger than most people do them. Yet if you were to have a private conversation with my brain, it would persuade you that I am a dumb excuse for a human who is inept and unsuccessful.

I am working on growing a less distorted sense of self, but there is a way to go. And what I have learned is that while anxiety and all-or-nothing remain the dominant modes of my brain, goals hurt more than they help. No matter whether I achieve them or not, they are a means by which my brain proves I am bad and lazy and worthless. And I am not those things. Also, the goals my anxiety-riddled brain thinks are important are always about being impressive or measuring up, and not about what I want or think is important.

The funny thing is the Angry Man deceived me into thinking that the goals were what had yielded me my success. He used them to keep me in line, telling me that if I did not operate according to goals and tick boxes and relentless measuring of self against things not done, I would melt into a puddle of sloth and inaction. That felt like truth.

But it was not true. The times when I have released my grasp on goals have been when I have done my best, most authentic, most constructive work. I started the podcast when I did not have goals. I started my own practice that way too. It turns out the Angry Man’s goals do not help me get where I want to go; they just make enjoyment and “enoughness” impossible.

So I have decided I am done with goals for a while. Instead, I take my notebook and my pens to the café and think deeply about what I want in my life, separate from what anyone else thinks or expects or would be impressed by. And I come up, not with goals, but with directions to face. This new way of navigating life is still young, and far less certain, but I like it a lot better.

I did not know myself well as a teenager. I just knew I wanted people to like me and be impressed by me. But once “doctor” was my goal, it felt like a crushing failure to change course. Even when I learned from a human biology paper I took in first year how much I hated working with facts and microscopes instead of ideas and arguments.

So, if the above rings at all true for you too, let me tell you: if you have successfully graduated law school and gained a job as a lawyer or in a law-adjacent field, you can safely assume you are not at risk of turning into a sloth puddle if you stop living life by your to do list for a little while. It feels like you are at risk, but the better evidence is that you are an inherently driven, engaged, person. Deciding to have goal-free periods, face directions, or follow the moment for a while simply will not change that. But it might just free you up to enjoy the process a little more.


Katie Cowan katie@symphonylaw.co.nz founded Christchurch litigation services provider Symphony Law Ltd, and also set up The New Lawyer fortnightly podcasts at thenewlawyer.co.nz for new and prospective lawyers.

Last updated on the 1st December 2018