A few months ago I ran a marathon. As someone who has battled a dodgy knee for over a decade, I was delighted with my achievement. When I shuffled across the finish line, it was the culmination of 20 weeks of tortuous training, meticulous meal planning and (for my partner) irritating conversation. But a few days before the race, I picked up a cold. Uncertain whether it would develop into full-blown influenza, I was forced to accept that I may not do the marathon after all. And if so, that five months of running and (even worse) endless plates of quinoa, were for nothing.
It got me questioning the pressure I had put on myself up to that point. Would failing to show up on an arbitrarily selected day, time and location discount the physical, emotional (and culinary) developments I'd made in the previous 20 weeks? For sure, I would miss out on a medal, a t-shirt and 97 Facebook likes. But how does a hefty medal compare to the resilience gained from grinding out those long runs (and many quinoa salads)? How does 97 likes stack up against achieving a hitherto unachievable goal?
In between Lemsips, I reflected on how I define myself by outcomes elsewhere in my life. The exams, job interviews, client presentations and pay reviews that measured my intelligence; the birthdays, Christmases, nights out and break-ups that defined my relationships; even the sports results, elections and referendums that generated my self-image. I remembered how as a teenager, a 'D' grade prompted me to drop English at A-level - even though I was generally quite good at it. I recalled how my exam results at degree level labelled me an accomplished historian, despite my lack of historical knowledge (I was just good at constructing an argument). I came to realise that my outcome-based approach to life had created a distorted understanding of myself (and probably, others).
By focussing on outcomes, not only was I distorting my truth, but I was also missing out on a number of personal benefits. When training for the marathon, everything I did was anchored to the future. I would obsess over how my pace and heart rate compared to my target time, or how my nutrition would be replicated on race day. But in doing so, I was missing out on the joys of time in nature, of escaping from the pressures of daily life, and of my good fortune at doing something I love.
The focus on outcomes seems to lead to huge pressure on situations. Think Christmas Day - built up far beyond its ability to deliver, regardless of what Santa brings. Or the modern wedding day, which at the price of a deposit for a house is billed as the greatest day of our lives.
At times my existence seems to be a series of build-ups to 'end-points' that promise a life-enhancing or defining moment. It might be the utopia that is expected on and after our wedding day, or the satisfaction and status promised by a new job. Maybe it's the belief that our life will be a failure if we don't get good exam results, if we miss out on that promotion or if our relationship falls apart. But in reality, our time on this earth is a series of forward and backward steps with stumbles along the way. The major events are not end-points - they are markers, and if we stumble when reaching them, we should not forget the many successful steps we have taken, or that we will undoubtedly take. We don't have to judge ourselves on our stumbles - we simply learn, and continue our journey.
Of course, I'm not completely dismissing these moments in our lives. Sometimes they are the difference between putting bread on the table and not. Marrying a loved one, gaining your degree and completing a marathon are of course moments to be cherished. They also provide useful social currency - what else would I talk about in the kitchen at work? And clearly we need an end-goal to give us some focus and direction.
But what I am arguing (and aiming) for is a more balanced approach where the outcome is the icing on the cake, rather than the cake itself. Where the moment is king, rather than an unrealistic future or isolated past - enjoying the romantic walks and rainy days as much as the likes from a check-in; delighting in new knowledge rather than panicking about the coming presentation; savouring the sound of bird song instead of obsessively monitoring my heart rate; perhaps even tasting the quinoa. A life that is more about the journey and the wonderful moments along the way, than it is about the destination. Wish me luck!