If there's one thing we can count on in life, it is this: We won't achieve every goal and dream that we desire. Some disappointment is inevitable. The job I want goes to someone else. The person I love doesn't have the same feelings for me. The college course I need to pass I fail. The car I crave costs too much. The part I want in a play is won by another. The university I long to attend turns me down.
Even when we do get what we want, there's something else we can count on: What we have sometimes slips away.
I get fired from my job. My spouse divorces me. I flunk out of college. My health gives way to sickness. I cost my team a victory with a last-second mistake. My best friend moves to Europe. My business goes bankrupt.
That's the trouble with having goals and dreams, your Inner Defender complains. When you don't get them, you feel miserable. Maybe the people who don't dream are the smart ones.
To address this concern wisely requires a shift in perspective. Once again the issue that matters isn't what's going on outside us; rather, it's what's going on inside us. The pain we experience isn't caused by our pursuit of a goal or a dream. It's created by our attachment to the outcome. Even when we can't change what's going on outside us, we can still change what's going on inside us.
The way, then, to increase our positive experience of life isn't to give up dreaming. The way is to develop involved detachment.
Pursue your goals and dreams with both total commitment to success and total detachment from results. How can this be? Think of the way a lioness stalks her prey. Crouched low, eyes focused, muscles twitching, her whole being concentrates on one goal. But what if she misses? Does she stand there depressed and miserable as the zebra scampers off? Does she spend days offering excuses, blaming the shifting wind, complaining that zebras don't play fair? Does she let that failure ruin her day? Her year? Her life? Hardly. A moment later she's got her eye on that antelope over there. That's involved detachment.
Here are five effective ways to develop involved detachment:
1. Focus on the Process, Not the Outcome.
Your Inner Critic expects you to reach every goal, to achieve every dream. But your Inner Guide knows this truth: All you can do is your best. Consistently giving your best effort not only maximizes your chances of achieving your goals and dreams, it can also minimize your misery if you fail. You can only control what you can do. To expect any more is stinkin' thinkin'. When you've done all you can to achieve a goal, the outcome then belongs to destiny.
2. Maximize Your Options.
The more choices you have in times of trouble, the happier you are likelier to be. With options in your life, you'll rarely be devastated by one blow of bad fortune. If you apply for one job and don't get it, you're set up for misery. If you apply for ten jobs and you don't get one, you still have nine other possibilities to lift your spirits. Another illustration of the value of seeing options occurred when I met a friend for lunch. He had been depressed for months after his wife left him for another man, but on this day he couldn't have been more cheerful.
"What gives?" I asked.
"I thought I'd never love again," he said. "But driving through town today, I started noticing how many beautiful women there are in the world. Suddenly, life is looking a whole lot brighter."
3. Change Addictions into Preferences.
Victims have to achieve a desired goal or dream in order to feel good. Like addicts, they allow for no other options. If they get exactly what they want, they are happy for the moment. If they don't get what they want, they are miserable. Creators have a healthier outlook. They certainly prefer to achieve their goals and dreams, but (like lions) they aren't going to sink into misery and depression if they don't. A Victim says, I have to have a date for New Year's Eve. A Creator says, I'd prefer to have a date for New Year's Eve. A Victim says, I should have lost ten pounds last month. A Creator says, It would have been nice if I had lost ten pounds last month. Don't misunderstand. These Creators are just as committed to their goals as are the Victims, but the Creators are far less addicted to a particular outcome. They know when to let go of an unattainable goal. As a result, their emotions remain far more balanced and much more positive.
4. Stop Pretending to Know What's Best.
We humans display a certain arrogance when we get upset at the way events turn out. How do we, with our limited perspective of life, pretend to know what's best? The truth is, what looks like a mistake, failure, or disaster today may very well be a blessing tomorrow. Haven't you had something "terrible" happen to you, then some time later said to yourself, "Thank goodness that happened or I wouldn't be where I am today"? In The Road to Successful Living, Louis Binstock tells a story about the American artist James McNeill Whistler that illustrates this idea perfectly. Young Mr. Whistler was a student at West Point preparing for a career as a soldier when his chemistry teacher asked him a question about silicon. Whistler stood and began his answer by saying, "Silicon is a gas." (It's not.) The teacher immediately told him to sit down. Only a few weeks later, Whistler was discharged from West Point, which must have greatly upset the young student. Years later, however, long after he had become a successful painter, Whistler enjoyed recalling his fateful mistake in chemistry class thusly: "If silicon had been a gas, I would have been a general." Whenever we appear off course from our present destination, we may, in fact, be on course to something even better. We just have to be willing to detach from our first desire and embrace something new that may be even better.
5. Accept, Learn, and Move On.
Being attached to an outcome we're unable to create brings on emotional distress. When you have unsuccessfully exhausted every option you can think of to achieve a goal, there are only three wise things to do: Accept what is, learn your lesson, and ask, "What's next?"
I saw this principle illustrated while waiting for a plane at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. Two men rushed up to a locked gate door. The taller of the men screamed at an airline employee, "Our connecting flight was late. Open the door and let us on the plane. We have to make that flight!"
"I'm sorry, but I can't do that, sir," the employee replied.
"I can see the plane," the shorter man said, looking out a window. "It's just sitting on the runway."
"I know, sir, but I'm not allowed to let you out there once the plane has departed the docking area. I can get you on another flight that leaves in about an hour."
The taller man began screaming again, waving his umbrella all about. The shorter man looked out of the window at the plane, looked back at his companion who was shouting at the airline employee, shrugged his shoulders, sat down, and took out a book. For the next hour, the taller man hollered at one airline employee after another. Then, still red-faced with anger, he stormed aboard the next plane. The shorter man closed his book, stretched leisurely, and calmly boarded as well. Both men had achieved the same result, but clearly one, by accepting the reality of his situation, had created a much more pleasant experience for the hour they both had to wait.
The next time that life deals you a bad hand, remember that you always have a choice about how you respond. You can go into a fury about the unfairness. Or you can calmly accept your cards, play the hand as best you can, learn what you can, and then say, "Next."
When we learn to be totally involved in creating our goals and dreams yet totally detached from the outcomes, we have taken a major step toward creating a more positive experience of life.
In this activity, you'll have an opportunity to work on developing involved detachment.
Write a journal entry in which you explore detaching from a situation that is now creating disappointment or emotional pain for you.
To focus your mind, take a few moments to consider a situation about which you are unhappy. This situation doesn't have to be your greatest problem in life. It can simply be something bothersome.
Remember that effective communication answers the important questions someone might have about your topic. Before writing, make a list of questions that you will answer in your journal entry. Use the four E's (Example, Experience, Explanation, Evidence) in answering your questions.
Wherever appropriate, apply any of the five strategies presented in the text to create involved detachment:
- Focus on the process, not the outcome
- Maximize your options
- Change addictions into preferences
- Stop pretending to know what's best
- Accept, learn, and move on
Relax, think, and write.