When I hear something so often, it fades into the background and starts to sound trite. It may hold all the wisdom in the world, but I rarely retrieve that wisdom at the appropriate time in my life and internalize it.
Treat others the way you would like to be treated. The key to happiness is an attitude of gratitude. Time heals all wounds. And on and on. All are very accurate and difficult to access when swept up in the busyness of life and even more so when under duress.
But sometimes, I hear something that I might have heard phrased a dozen different ways, but this time, it really hits. It might be the way it’s said, who said it, or where I was in my life when I heard it.
For this coming year, I decided to do something I’ve never done before. I decided to not only set goals but work out all the behaviors, systems, habits, and math required to reach them. Not that any of those guarantees success, but it definitely can’t hurt, and the framework itself provides a new kind of adventure to embark on. Spoiler alert: building a detailed annual plan for reaching a goal is a lot harder than just setting the goal. I worked on this for over two months, and like any area of intense focus, that finish line started to become all I could see.
I was listening to a podcast during a rare 15 minutes that I didn’t have children in the car and heard Chris Williamson speak about yet another one of these cliché concepts. That the real value in life is always about the journey, not the destination. But here were the three words he said that found special receptor sites in my brain:
Trajectory, not position.
A goal is a fixed position. A fixed position is vital because it provides a reference as to where you are; just a different fixed position may lead you to where you are going. A fixed position is static. It can only exist in the past or the future if we are always moving towards the next shiny thing that will “fix it all.”
A trajectory is dynamic. It doesn’t exist at a fixed point in time because it’s only ever the direction you are headed right now.
And this is exactly why the journey is so much more valuable than the destination. The destination is only but a finite marker in the tapestry of our lives, whereas the journey IS our lives. It’s only what is happening right now. Not what already occurred, nor something that has not occurred yet. It’s the only thing that truly matters.
By simply replacing the word “journey” with “trajectory,” the whole thing started feeling much different. Journeys are often meandering, but a trajectory is more commonly used to describe actual path the object takes. And if you have a specific goal in mind, the hope is that your trajectory is toward it.
And here’s where the magic happens: that feeling — that “now” — of working towards that goal is always better than reaching it. My kids love December. The advent calendar, creating the Christmas list, the visit to Santa, the morning scent of pine from the tree in our living room, shaking the gifts underneath it, and deflecting our threats that elves are noting their every awful behavior. On Christmas morning, there is a mad frenzy of shredded wrapping paper, and then, in a blink, it’s done. The finish line. They still have a great day with all their cousins and play with the new toys, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the entire month leading up to it.
What if all our big goals were like the weeks leading into Christmas? Even if the chocolate in an advent calendar was replaced with hard work and a fair share of suffering. Isn’t there beauty in that as well? When I look back at the most memorable moments of an accomplishment, they are never about the finish line I crossed or the reward I got. They are about what I endured and overcame to get there.
Another frame is the idea of a finite game vs. an infinite one. The finite game is all about one big win. Beating the boss, taking the podium, selling the company. The infinite game is different. It can still have goals and milestones but is being played for the love of the game itself. I like to race bikes, but I ride because I love to ride and feel increasingly more fit (trajectory), not because I have to win an upcoming race (position). I get up in the morning to lift weights not because of a specific aesthetic I’m trying to achieve (position) but because I know it’s one of the best chances I have of life so healthy I may get to play with grandkids twenty years from now (trajectory).
When I start to experience anxiety or sadness, the root feeling is almost always one with echoes of hopelessness. Of not knowing what to do next. It’s usually not because I didn’t reach some kind of goal (position) but because I don’t know where to go (trajectory). But once the trajectory is recalculated, the sun comes out. Things get brighter. I get excited.
The trajectory is often paved with challenges, hardship, and suffering. But I can take solace in the fact that I chose that path and that every one of its attributes is forging my character. The point of the journey is the journey. The destination just gives it a theme. It’s just a marker. An abstract position. This is the year that I sit in the beauty of that path and all that it has to offer.