Late one night, after a recent college reunion, I got to talking with a group of close friends. We’d had a few drinks. And having split our sides laughing over the course of two days about our shared pasts, we began to muse about our individual futures.

One of my friends suggested that we each set a goal we’d like to accomplish by the time we hit our next five-year reunion. He created a make-shift whiteboard out of our cardboard beer carton, so we could write our goals down and hold each other accountable.

The reaction around the room was a tell-tale study in contrasts. The guy who initiated the idea said that he’d like to undertake at least one major creative project by the proposed deadline.

Someone else – who’d endured a particularly gruelling year – said that she couldn’t set long-term goals right now as she was just trying to live day to day.

A third friend confessed that he knew exactly what his goal was, but that it was so deeply fraught and personal that he didn’t want to articulate it just then.

A fourth friend looked at us all blankly. “Honestly?” she said. “I can’t think of anything major.” She paused to give it a bit more thought. “Maybe to keep on improving in CrossFit?”

As for me, I piped up with one goal. And then another. And then a third. I quickly realized that if I didn’t shut up, my personal goal list would completely dominate our whiteboard.

What Are Goals Doing for You?

At first, I felt smug after this discussion. “Yay, me!” I thought to myself. “I’m so focused and determined! I’m awesome!”

I was particularly pleased that my goals extended into all aspects of my life. Not only that, I could name them and own them. I was proud of myself.

But after a couple of weeks passed, I began to question my complacency. Why was it, I asked myself, that I needed so many goals?

Why couldn’t I be more like my CrossFit friend? She was, apparently, so satisfied with what she’s achieved thus far in life, that she could afford to focus on something as seemingly trivial as an exercise regime. No disrespect to cross fitters out there. I know it’s gruelling!

The answer is that goals provide me with an excuse for movement. My worst fear in life is slowing down.

When I move forward – even in a frenzied state – I feel alive. I don’t have to succumb or even catch a glimpse of that awful feeling I associate with stillness. Which is one of fear and sadness that the game is up, and I am only me, warts and all. There is no more chance for self-improvement.

How Dreams Help

Not long after my reunion, I had a dream that I was back in college with that same group of friends. In the dream, I discovered that I had failed to write a term paper that was due in two weeks’ time. I’d had an entire semester to prepare for this assignment, and yet somehow, I’d let it slide.

Panicking, I rushed to the library to do all the necessary research. But as I ran towards the card catalogue – yes, I went to college back in the day when we still had card catalogues… along with the horse and buggy – I noticed a bunch of people off to one side of the room.

They were swinging on a swing set… in the library.

I’ve written before about the window my dreams afford into my psyche. On one level, of course, this dream is merely an apt representation of the person I was in college: someone who, as the phrase has it, worked hard and partied hard. Hence, the duelling images of the library and the swing set.

But I don’t think that’s really what this dream was about. I think it was about my current mid-life quest to integrate the two halves of myself. To allow the manager and the maker to co-exist together, rather than one half dominating the other.

That’s why the swing set is inside the library. The dream isn’t offering these images as stark alternatives. It is encouraging me to bring those two selves together.

In Search of Peace

Which brings us back to goals. What that dream told me is that I need to stop continually setting new goals for myself. Instead, I need to replace all my micro-goals with one, over-arching macro-goal: that of achieving peace within.

If I can do that, then I won’t need the constant churn of goal-setting and goal-replacement. I will just be. And maybe that can be my own form of CrossFit.

What goals have you set yourself for the next five years? Which ones do you think are the most important to you? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Delia LloydDelia Lloyd is an American writer based in London. Her writing has appeared in outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Financial Times and The Guardian. She blogs about adulthood at realdelia.com and is currently at work on a book about swimming and adulthood. Follow her on Twitter at @realdelia.

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