It was 2003. I’d just spent three years giving my all to a labor-of-love project – two anthologies that brought women’s voices to topics where they had not previously been heard.
After three years painstaking work, three years of 14-hour days, the finished copies of the books arrived from the publisher.
This was the moment my coeditor and I had been waiting for. We decided we wanted it to be a literal mountaintop moment, reflecting the sense of vast accomplishment we felt inside. We hiked up to a beautiful vista, and together, opened the FedEx package.
There they were. Our creations. Our babies. Our books in the world.
It was very exciting.
For about three minutes.
And then — I couldn’t deny it — I felt hollow inside. I felt a little numb. Seeing them finished didn’t make me feel much at all. They felt like dead weight in my hands.
Over the next few days, we had a book party, we drank champagne, we got lovely notes from people about them, but I didn’t feel much celebration inside.
I thought to myself, is this what they mean when they say, “It’s the journey, and not the destination?”
I kept thinking about how different this reality was from what I expected. What I felt when I was working on the books — the total engagement, the passion about the work, the interest in the puzzles that came our way and the figuring out how to solve them, the joy of the little, mid-stage victories along the way, the almost familial relationships I built with my collaborators, the rich conversations, — all of that brought so much more meaning, fulfillment, and rich satisfaction than the actual accomplishment did.
I know you’ve felt this too. You had your heart set on something. You had your destination in mind. Make x amount of money. Get the raise. Get x title in my organization. Get the book deal. Own a house. Say “I do.” Change these people’s lives for the better, in this particular way.
And then you’ve gotten there. You’ve reached the holy grail. But after a couple minutes, it didn’t feel so holy. In a moment embarrassingly soon after the big accomplishment (an hour, a day?) you heard a little voice in your mind wondering: what about that next quest? What if I could achieve not just this, but also that?
We can easily beat ourselves up for this, lamenting that we never savor the moment, or feel like anything is “enough.” Or we can explain our feelings in the way contemporary psychology does – saying that all humans run on a kind of “pleasure treadmill” — where we adapt to any new pleasures and have to keep running and running for the next gold star – just to keep our level of contentment constant.
I’m looking at it differently these days. I’ve been thinking about how this plays out in my own life and in the lives of the women I work with. And my new thinking has been informed by the wisdom in Ariel Gore’s book, Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness, and in this interview with psychologist Dr. Andrea Polard.
Now I think that life is simply most fulfilling in the quest — not at its end. We human beings, we human brains and minds and hearts, love the quest. Our souls came here to live out a story — an action plot that unfolds over time.
What makes us feel alive is “working on.” What gives us meaning is “working toward.” Human joy comes from being in motion — not from attainment.
Finishing? Accomplishing? That is too finite, to static, and too final to find any resonance in our ever-dancing souls.
We’ve all gotten the cultural message that it’s the mountaintop moments where we are supposed to find our bliss: the moment of getting the promotion, or of getting the book deal, or of saying “I do.” So we berate ourselves or feel confused when those mountaintop moments feel anticlimactic. But they could never provide us with fulfillment.
The moment of getting the promotion will always pale in comparison to the days we worked with intensity and great engagement on the job. The moment of getting the book deal brings nothing like the joy and meaning that came from figuring out how to get that one sentence in the book proposal right. The moment of saying “I do” is not nearly meaningful as the afternoon when we found a way out of a tense conversation with our beloved — and into healing, hysterical giggling instead. If you aren’t loving the journey, it’s time to a new quest or find something that makes the quest you are in interesting, alive, compelling for you.
When people said, “happiness is about the journey, not the destination,” that always made me feel like I was supposed to abandon my goals and just start enjoying life by savoring my peppermint tea and the sunset out the window — since hey, it’s all about the journey, anyway. That doesn’t work. We need desires, visions, goals — in order to have a journey to fall in love with.
In other words, we need goals, not because goals are themselves important but we can’t have an engaging quest without a meaningful goal. The goal provides direction, momentum, plot, in the quest.
What does this mean for each of us? That we can embrace our instinct to reach the next level, create the next thing, bring about x change in our lives – but not out of the delusion that achieving milestones will bring new levels of satisfaction. Instead, we can choose what to aim for knowing that what matters is that the goal gives us a quest to fall in love with.
So pick your quests mindfully. Pick the ones that you think will give you joy, and moments of tears at the poignant beauty of it all. Pick the quests that you think will put you in deepest, most glorious contact with something larger than you. Pick the quests that make gratitude and passion come alive in you.
The pot of gold is not at the end of the rainbow. It’s here.
Click here to get Tara’s book of poetry & inspirations: Your Other Names