When I first started my morning “fitness first” ritual six years ago, many people asked me the most ubiquitous question of high achievers:
What’s your goal?
They wondered if I was training for an event, or doing a challenge, or perhaps had a strength or weight loss goal.
Occasionally, I would respond that I was training for life.
But most of the time, I responded with my real goal: Do it again tomorrow.
People looked at me like I was nuts. That was it? What about the larger goal? The big, audacious, SMART goal?
Of course, if you string together enough “tomorrows,” you realize that “do it again tomorrow” is about as big of a goal as you can have. But I wasn’t yet thinking in those terms.
The truth is, I had come to realize that I felt better when I exercised every morning. In fact, I feel best when I exercise at least twice a day. Not just “move” as in walking on city streets, but deliberate, intentional exercise and movement. Most of the time, it gets my creative juices flowing and helps me focus. My morning workouts are time to myself before I start letting the energy of the world into my space. My evening workouts give me a bookend to my day.
In short, I continued to exercise daily because I liked how it felt in the moment. My “goal” was (and continues to be) to feel that combination of peace, accomplishment, creative flow, and workout high.
When I Forget My Goal
Sometimes, I forget my goal and become dejected and disillusioned by my lack of “results.” Gains in strength don’t come so quickly or easily. My flexibility hasn’t magically improve.
The past several months, as I worked daily with a physical therapist on the west coast to retrain my movement patterns, while also doing daily yoga practice, I found myself forgetting my goal more often. I haven’t seen much change in my strength or flexibility. After three weeks back in New York, despite my best efforts to keep up with my physical homework, my squat mobility has decreased, and I’ve had to lower my weights for my deadlfts.
In the moments when my focus gets pulled to those surface results — strength, flexibility, how my body looks — it’s easy to get down on myself as I wonder, What’s the point of all of this?
If you did something every day and didn’t see results, you might wonder the same thing. You might even quit. And nobody would blame you.
This is the challenge of our time: we get so attached to the result we’re after that we lose the joy in the process. If we’re not seeing results, we might discount the effort. Burnout ensues. We wonder,
What is the point of all of this?
The Existential Struggle of Ecclesiastes
This is the existential struggle at the heart of the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), the central biblical reading on the holiday of Sukkot.
Kohelet, the author (traditionally assumed to be King Solomon), seems to have everything: success, wealth, many wives, palaces, wisdom, a kingdom. But he is missing something that gives it all meaning. He has achievement without fulfillment.
For Kohelet, everything is “hevel” — a mere fleeting breath. Shallow.
When we set out on a course of action focused so intently on a goal or result, we set ourselves up for despair.
Maybe we reach the goal, in which case we might celebrate briefly before wondering now what?
Maybe we come close to the goal, only to reset or add on to what we desired, creating a situation where we are constantly pushing the bar just out of reach so we never quite get there.
Maybe our efforts prove insufficient to reach the result we wanted in the time frame we expected, in which case we might wonder what’s the point of continuing?
Either way, life loses its luster. It’s all a fleeting breath. Kohelet points out that we cannot take our wealth or other results with us to the grave. We cannot even leave our wisdom to others. Our bodies will decompose no matter how much muscle we have.
All of our efforts are an attempt to leave a legacy after we die, but we don’t control the legacy, no matter how many books we write or courses we teach or buildings we build. So what’s the point of any of it? It’s all in vain.
This is not a feel-good piece of scripture to read on a holiday that is all about rejoicing. It seems like a strange choice. But Kohelet comes through with a counter to his own lamentation on life.
What is the Point?
According to Kohelet, the point of it all is to find joy in the moment. To rejoice amidst the insecurity and the uncertainty of life, to celebrate even when we are not seeing results.
Kohelet reminds me that what gives our actions meaning is not the result that we may achieve, but finding joy in the process.
That is the goal of any endeavor: learning to cultivate a love of the process.