“What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.” – Henry David Thoreau.
As individuals we have to commit ourselves to certain actions in order to live our lives. We need to find careers. We need to produce and trade with others. The basic conduct of commerce is the easiest way for us to live our lives. So naturally we as a society are inclined to a certain base level of materialism.
We are inclined toward achievement and success. Because most people would rather enjoy the kinds of work that they engage in – and would like to feel that the work they have committed to ismeaningful in some way we often engage with difficult tasks. It is only natural that we would strive to achieve big things over small things. There is a basic human instinct toward trying to do the best we can in the field that we have selected. Perhaps we are not all inclined to this kind of ambition, but it is fair to say that many or even most humans are.
Is it wrong to commit ourselves to big ambitions – to giant dreams? Perhaps there is a way in which it can be harmful to the human spirit. We exist in the present and ambitions necessarily are always something achieved over the course of distant years. Additionally they require a sustained kind of focus that seems to drain us of our attention int he present moment. Naturally, we exist in the present and should have a certain amount of dedication to existing mindfully in that state. If our ambitious nature distracts us from present mindedness does this mean that ambition should be rejected outright?
Well, firstly, I think that all things must have a certain degree of balance and moderation involved in them. While someone may be committed to a major ambition or project that requires sustained attention – one will often find that this attention is useless if is constant. If the mind is not allowed a certain amount of leisure, and present minded reflectiveness – meditation – that that sustained focus loses its power. It becomes weak and eventually fails.
But still – if we are destine to exist only in the present does it make any sense at all to commit ourselves to actions that aim toward some distant future end? I believe it does. Purpose is a very basic human need. We design our own purposes, we try to make them as meaningful and as fulfilling as we can, and we pour our efforts and passions into these efforts. When we are lucky, these ambitions and long-term efforts provide us the means by which to support ourselves financially. They also provide us with the feeling of fulfillment and esteem for pursuing a project that is the reflection of our values.
If we abandon the long-term, meaningful, ambitious project altogether we are eliminating the very kind of things which are capable of giving our life over-arching senses of purpose. We are losing the ability to enrich the present moment with the feeling of passionate growth and progress toward a meaningful end which is the expression of some philosophical value.
Such a man is not free to exist only in the present – he is enslaved by whim. He fails to be able to enjoy the present moment because he is overcome with the feeling that his life is without ultimate meaning or value. He has given up on the avenue by which his life can exist have true expression and form. Instead, he enjoys listless wanderings.
I believe existing in the present moment, mindfully, is essential to living a fulfilling life. I am not dismissing this element of human experience.
What I believe is revealed by this examination is that life exists as both a project and process simultaneously. Only through moderation and balance can we achieve satisfactory fulfillment of these two seemingly antagonistic sides of the human coin.
The process of living is what we experience moment to moment. To use an analogy – youstroll in the park to pick up groceries for dinner that evening. The journey through the park, surrounded by a web of sounds and smells and sights – the selection of tantalizing ingredients – the pleasant conversation with a familiar cashier – these are all the process of life. The project at hand however – is dinner. This project structures the process. It orders the steps that will comprise the day.
If process is disregarded in the name of the project – there has been a serious failing. The same is true however if the project is neglected for the process.
What we must seek to do is unify our process and project. We must make them as harmonious as we can. The methodology of our work should reinforce the kind of way we want to live. It should be ethical, it should be challenging, it should force us to live fully and completely – as mindfully and reflectively as possible. And ultimately, that methodology and process should be directed toward a meaningful end. It should be working toward creating value and producing some meaningful work.
A man’s project changes as he conducts the affair of his life. The process is engaged in constant dialogue with the project. Today, I will seek to make a film six months from now. I will begin to brainstorm, I will begin my writing, I will begin my designing, and I will be faced with shooting the film.
I am engaged in a process of integrating my vision into reality. In doing so I am faced with certain objective truths that I must reconcile my abstract vision with. Thus the project changes. Suddenly financing may shift, and I must change my aim.
The project must always remain adaptable to the demands of the process. Where we must refuse to compromise and be willing to fight are on questions of integrity. We must remain true to our message – to our values – and to the important answers to questions of meaning, truth, and philosophy.
So regardless of the changing – ever shifting – nature of the projects that comprise our life’s ambitions, the process should be conducted with the greatest level of integrity and mindfulness that we can manage. This is not an easy thing to do. It is certainly something that we can more completely achieve through the selection of projects that are supportive of the kind of process that we think is fitting to our own life’s experiences. If we select projects that require us to compromise on our values and integrity we will be unhappy. We will be forced to live contradictory to the way we think that men must live.
This is the furthest thing from ideal we can imagine.
The good news though is that it doesn’t have to be that way. We can select projects to commit ourselves to that require us to transform into the kind of person we think is ideal. Projects demand more out of us than we already are. They require us to solve problems and rise to the challenges of the occasion. The kind of problems we must solve, and the kind of strength that we must draw upon are always unique to the particular projects that we have selected.
As Thoreau says, what we get by achieving our goals is not as important as what we become in pursuing them. I don’t’ think Thoreau is saying that what we achieve in fulfilling the work of our projects and ambitions is insignificant. Instead, he is drawing our focus on the critical issue – that what we become in pursuing important and meaningful projects is just as important as the work itself. He is drawing our attention to the balance between process and project.
Everyone will be attracted to different endeavors. It is my hope that we can find a way to align our life’s ambitions with market channels in such a way that we can successfully provide for ourselves, pursue our life’s ambitions, and conduct the process of our life with integrity and mindfulness. This seems to be incredibly difficult and sometimes seems impossible. It is still an ideal worth striving for. Identifying what we are chasing after is a major first step toward achieving it. This harmony, between process, between project, and between financial stability is the thing I know I am chasing.