In case you’re wondering, I don’t really intend this as a series of how-to posts about setting goals. There’s lots of great advice already out there–I saw plenty of good ideas in blog posts around the beginning of the year–and most of us have lived long enough to figure out things that work well for us. I’ve seen people limiting themselves to one or two large goals at a time, repeating similar goals from year to year, setting short-term, attainable goals throughout the year, and so forth.
But what still interests me are the cultural assumptions about goal-setting that continue to get repeated, despite evidence they don’t work, and the counter-intuitive things that do seem to work. False assumptions could include, as mentioned in my other posts, that you have to write your goals down ahead of time or tell someone about them in order to achieve them, or thinking things should take less time than they do, or that our schedules are more flexible than they are. And things that do seem to work would include quietly going about accomplishing even unexpressed goals that are intrinsic to who we are and what we want, and allowing the time things really take.
Also, since it seems that to attain a goal we have to really want it–not just want the outcome, but welcome the work and the process of achieving it–I’m interested in how to achieve that integration: how to be genuinely eager to work at a goal, rather than just thinking that we ought to want it. (That does make it sound like these are how-to posts, after all. But I’m exploring these ideas as I go along, rather than giving you a list of things I already know work.)
Should versus could, punitive attitudes versus optimistic ones, and fear versus love:
Recently on NPR’s news-quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” they quoted a cultural guide for foreigners visiting the U.S., and the radio contestant had to guess which of several statements Americans don’t sincerely mean when they say it. The correct answer–the thing visitors needed to learn not to take literally, was “Let’s do lunch.”
Similarly, my brother Tracy read somewhere (feel free to fill me in on the source, Tracy) that whenever we say “I should” do anything, the word “should” is a cue that we won’t do the thing mentioned. We use the word “should” whenever we talk about things that we think we ought to want, but actually have no immediate plan for how to accomplish.
This has made me alert (and self-conscious) when I find myself saying things like “I should take the kids to the dentist.” And when I tell someone “We should get together some time,” it’s made me feel guilty that there may be an element of insincerity to what I say. And I have sometimes been hurt in the past when I realized that someone’s repeated statements that we “should” get together weren’t going to translate into action. But before I make anyone paranoid about casual figures of speech, I should say (and in fact, I really am about to say) that I’ve decided to be forgiving of myself and others about casually saying “we should,” because I know that I sincerely would enjoy spending time with people I say that to, even though I don’t always have a specific plan for how to do so, and even though, if I delved deep enough, I’d be forced to admit that I really might not have the time.
(By the way, I once heard Judith Martin give a reluctant, fascinating defense of American manners when she was talking about this book of hers, and I’ve been meaning to order it ever since. (And–since I’m discussing fulfilled and unfulfilled intentions–I did just stick it in my Amazon cart–but now I’m thinking I should (“should”) look for it at the library first.) One of her points was that what people in other cultures take for American insincerity stems from our need to spread ourselves thin in a large social circle, since Americans are so much more mobile than most people have ever been, and befriend so many more people. That made me feel a little better about my inability to keep as close to the many people I care about as I could if I had “but world enough and time.”) (If you follow the link to the poem those words come from, you should know that I’m all for being “coy” with men like that. But that could open up a whole new topic, but–no. Not right now.)
Dean just read the above and wanted me to point out that other cultures have their own linguistic “escape hatches;” for example in Arabic cultures they’ll say “Insha’Allah” (“God willing”) meaning that things might not go as planned and there’s nothing any mere mortal can do about it. (And then I might add that the concept of Insha’Allah can be frustrating to Westerners, if they’re, for example, waiting for a paycheck.)
But getting back to the pitfalls of “should” statements, on the other hand I really do sometimes end up taking my kids to the dentist after several reminders to myself that I “should,” and I also occasionally follow up a statement such as “Let’s do lunch,” with a query about the friend’s availability. So I don’t suppose we need give ourselves an electric shock every time we say “should.” But if we listen to when we say it, it could help us identify times when we’re considering a course of action, but might not be ready to act. And it might also help us discover where a sense of duty or guilt might be intruding on or replacing feelings of interest and possibility.
Here’s another interesting tidbit from my mom: she heard about a study in which people who asked “Will I [do such-and-such a task]?” were much more likely to accomplish the task than people who said, “I WILL do such-and-such.” I guess expressing an idea as a possibility (“Will I?”) keeps one’s mind open to a question, whereas saying “I will” closes off the question and makes it sound final and accomplished, even though it isn’t really accomplished yet. Those are just my guesses as to why people behaved as they did, but it makes sense to me that asking, “Will I?” would create a feeling of possibility rather than a feeling of duty. “I could do such-and-such; it might be interesting; I wonder what’s involved,” just sounds more motivating than, “I will (and “should”) do such and such, but I haven’t yet, and quite likely that’s because I’m a lazy good-for-nothing.”
Next time: punitive attitudes versus optimistic ones, and fear versus love.