If the only part of achieving your goal that is enjoyable or rewarding is the end result, you’re in for a rough ride.
Hear me out: obviously, we all love getting great results. Winning is awesome. I’m not being sarcastic—I genuinely agree that getting what you want and what you worked for is terrific.
So, what’s the problem, then?
Well, as trite and cliché as it might sound, it turns out the journey actually is as important, if not actually more important, than the destination. This unto itself is not a problem.
No, the reason this is a problem is that so many of us get so fixated on the end result and don’t enjoy the process. Just to be clear, I am wholeheartedly including myself in the “us” of which I speak.
If you’re a driven and ambitious person, you most likely are pretty results focused, like a greyhound is rabbit focused. This is also not a problem. This makes you a highly attractive candidate for employment, teams and success in general. Being driven and goal-oriented is wonderful. You know, until it isn’t. If you know what I mean, you know what I mean. If you don’t know what I mean, then I’ll just say that driven people are the greyhounds of the human race, and a greyhound might run itself to death if that rabbit never stops moving.
That’s a lot of effort and risk for a fake rabbit.
We tend to spend way more time in the process of creating results than we do reveling in them, so in general, if we only appreciate the end results, then we’re creating a pretty unenjoyable experience of life, punctuated by brief little sparks of satisfaction when we cross the finish line.
You know what happens to a lot of top athletes after they win? Depression. Anxiety. A loss of purpose. A loss of identity. Loneliness. Long after the crowds have gone home, the medal is hung on the wall and the interviews are over, the champion often finds themselves alone and uncertain. Without a finish line on the horizon, they can feel rudderless and drifting, especially if they’ve cut out a lot of life and connection in service of their goals. I interviewed several Olympic athletes for my book, and it was a pretty universal experience after they stepped off the podium.
Why don’t we tend to enjoy the process, then? Well, because the process takes too damn long. No matter how long it takes—and it usually takes longer than we think and most definitely longer than we want—we want to GET. THERE. SOONER. Plus, being in the process of trying and doing (these are the same thing, by the way) makes us confront all kinds of uncomfortable feelings and ideas we have about ourselves.
We have to be with feelings of self-doubt, inadequacy or incompetence that arise with learning or trying new things. We have to be with those feelings, plus frustration, when our efforts fall flat and what we’re trying isn’t working. We have to be with the discomfort of desire, which is a very uneasy state to be in, especially in a fast-paced world that ensures we can get mostly anything our little hearts desire with free overnight delivery.
Why else don’t we enjoy the process? Well, it costs us something and we all want to get a deal. We have to sacrifice in service of our goal. Ew, yuck. After all, commitment isn’t free. Doing anything costs us time, money, effort and attention: in order to do this thing we’re trying to do, we necessarily have to choose not to do other things. If the resources we spend are like a tax on our goal, we want to reduce the interest rate by paying down the principle balance as soon as possible. That’s just good financial planning.
The only reason we’re doing all that hard work and sacrificing is to achieve the goal, and we can tend to relate to the process as nothing but the means to the end. An annoying delay. And like I said, this is a real bummer, given that we will almost always be spending much more of our precious lifetime in the process of attaining our goals and dreams than we will be at the finish line.
Think about it like this: if you want to run a marathon, you’d better like running, because you’re going to be running an awful lot. Crossing the finish line feels amazing and winning feels even better (or so I can imagine; not that I’ve ever won a foot race), but that’s over in a time-stamped photograph, at the literal tail end of a grueling 26.2 miles . And those miles come at the very end of many months and hundreds of miles’ running in training for the big day.
Like I said, you’d better really like running. If you don’t find a way to enjoy it, that’s a lot of miles/misery…
Also, this might not be obvious, but if we don’t learn to enjoy the process, we are going to be less likely to feel motivated to dive into the next project, goal or dream. We are mammals, after all, and that means we’re wired to conserve energy. We think twice before we invest a lot of energy into an endeavour. If the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze, we’ll stop squeezing. If you grind yourself down in the pursuit of a goal, and the reward feels lacklustre or short-lived, why would you choose to grind yourself down again?
I’m not just making this up. Our brains are neurologically wired to produce more dopamine during the process of doing something than at the end. This means that the payoff is greater during the process than at the finish line. This is a good thing, since most of the time, the process is significantly longer than the end result, this means that our brains are actually rewarding us for showing up and doing the work, instead of holding out and dangling the carrot as a reward only at the end.
The good news here is that we can learn to enjoy the process. If we know—and now we do—that the end result holds the smallest degree of satisfaction in any given project, this means that we can build into our vision the experience we want to have in the process of getting to the finish line. To do this, we have to think about what we enjoy about the process. Why did you choose to do this thing, of all the things you could have chosen to do, in the first place? You chose this thing for a reason. Let yourself think about what you like about this thing you’ve decided to do.
Maybe it’s the satisfaction of meeting all the milestones along the way, like getting to cross a whole bunch of mini finish lines. Maybe it’s finding a meditative calm in the work itself, getting into the zone. Maybe it’s building (or rebuilding, as the case may be) trust in ourselves and in our word, learning to take consistent action because we said so.
Ultimately, only you can decide whether you will enjoy your journey as much as your destination. But if this is a metaphor for life, I would definitely be looking to extend and enjoy the HECK out of the journey, because the destination is game over. No need to rush to that particular finish line; we’ll all be there soon enough.
As the saying goes, if we’re going to be here for a while, we may as well get comfortable. Since whatever goal we’re trying to achieve is going to take a while, too, we may as well enjoy the ride.