Oblique Objectives

“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”

Woody Allen

It never fails to impress me how some fulfil their objectives. After setting a goal, achievers seem to march blinkered until they reach their destination. They don’t stop and they refuse to be sidetracked by distractions. There’s a part of me that’s envious. In a way, I wish I worked like this. But I don’t.

I make plans, of course. Who doesn’t? From mundane day-to-day targets, to more grandiose dreams. I usually manage bring in the washing, but on the larger scale I rarely get things done in quite the manner I expected. Woody Allen’s quip rings true in my experience. In a grand scheme there are too many moving parts, too many variables to consider. Not least my own caprice! In my book, this is no bad thing: if we only experienced the expected, life would stay limited. Indeed, would you even get off the starting blocks? All the best things I have done have come from unexpected angles.

Oblique Objectives

When I first moved to China, my goal was to train full time in martial arts. Instead, I discovered a passion for travel and a love of learning language. Studying abroad, in turn, allowed me a route back into formal education. When I returned to England, I intended to continue with Chinese linguistics. I was set on this path. I applied for SOAS, Oxford, and Edinburgh. As fourth choice wild card, I applied for Theology and Religious Studies at Bristol too. I didn’t expect to get into Bristol. My personal statement was geared towards Oriental Studies. Somehow, though, I got accepted. All it took was one visit to Bristol to realise that was where I needed to be, after all. 

It’s funny, whenever I arrive at the destination, unplanned as it may be, the overriding impression is this was always the goal anyway. Any sense of the original intention that led me to that place seems faint and insignificant. This being the case, recently I’ve had to reconsider how I set goals. How can I motivate myself to achieve an aim if I know that this probably isn’t the outcome I’m going to get anyway?

Flexible Goals

My new method doesn’t obsess over how – or even to focus on clarifying in detail what. I focus instead on feeling goals: the whys. Anything can help solidify the whys: images, scenarios, imagined sounds. Anything that generates an emotion I’m aiming for helps.

As an example, in the spring I was going for a job as tea buyer at a speciality tea company in London. The job involved a lot of travelling and in my visualising of that target, I saw myself riding a dirt bike up a mountain trail. I made every sensation acute. I felt the wind on my face, the vibration of the engine in my chest. The sensation of having my stomach left behind as I accelerate and, peaking the crest of a hill, I pictured the vista that opens before me: tea terraces, temples, pagodas. (In short, the quintessential Chinese idyll.)

I didn’t get the job. I was under qualified. Punching above my weight, I was lucky to get as far as I did. But, it wasn’t the job I was after. It was the picture. I wanted the feelings associated with those images: freedom, exploration, and discovery to name a few. The great thing about targeting emotions is there is no one way to realise them. With one route barred, I made a new map. (In fact, the original vehicle to get those feelings – a corporate work environment – was no doubt ill-suited the journey anyway!) It looks like I’ll be in Moscow for the winter. I’ve adapted my plan accordingly. I’m investigating two options for the spring thaw. I could, either to make my way back to Europe by motorbike. Or, more challenging (and appealing), get to Beijing by the same means. The goal of exploring tea terraces are also in the pipeline.

Maybe these plans will come to naught. Maybe, again, I’ll have to rethink them. But that’s not the point. I’ll just adapt again. Having a desired emotional outcome in mind leaves me open to that adaptation. It leaves me flexible, and open to unexpected destinations, in a way that fixating on a static goal does not. After all, it’s in the opportunities that come at me from oblique angles where I often find what I was looking for all along.