As the mornings and evenings cool down and autumn creeps in around the darkest edges of August, I’m reflecting on summertime. My summers in Muskoka are full of a lot of relaxation and fun for me. The climate is ideal, the scenery is beautiful, my neighbors are good company and the golfing is great. Recently, when I think about golf, I think about how much I enjoy it. But after a while, the next thing I knew, I was thinking about how I could enjoy it more, or sand the corners down and reduce the parts that aren’t pure enjoyment. Funny enough, I hadn’t noticed those parts before. Well, maybe only after a particularly bad round.As I thought about how to enjoy golf more, something complicated and interesting happened: it stopped being golf and became something else. It became something I could do better. Suddenly I’m not thinking about the long, unbound moments, fully present and carefree outdoors with excellent company and a good cigar, applying myself to the game I enjoy so much. Instead, I start thinking about what I can do to get golf to be better, different, to yield something else for me. I’m trying to maximize. I’m looking for opportunities in it. I looked at our club tournaments and considered how to improve my usual standing. I have a solid handicap, and I probably play 5 rounds of golf a week. This keeps my game sharp, which boils down to performing consistently. I do the same things well and the same parts of my game lag behind. So I think about my game, the areas I could improve. Taking my game to the next level. I’m no longer thinking about the thing I enjoy. I’m not thinking about the hours in the precious summer air, with buddies at the tiki bar afterward, I am thinking about lessons and practicing. I’m not remembering the pleasant moments or appreciating the reliability of my past performance. I'm not even thinking of having a good time the next time I go out, I'm thinking about canceling my next round so I can practice. I’m envisioning a future in which I am a golfer much like myself, but with laser-like accuracy in his drive. I’m no longer present. I’m out in the space of potential. The more you’re committed to always be learning and growing, the more you can identify with this power of the mind. This a different aspect than what we usually focus on. Usually, we focus on making the changes we need to make to maximize an opportunity or close an identified gap. When it’s used constructively, it’s opportunity-finding. It’s the basis of growth and a wonderful thing to develop if it’s lacking. But despite all that, it’s impossible to be present when you’re doing it. It’s impossible to appreciate something for what it is when you’re taking it apart to see what else you can do with it. Many of us have discovered that this mindset, powerful and important as it is, actually drives dissatisfaction in our lives. It can bleed the life and joy out of everything. It causes us to accomplish something and skip the basking in the moment of achievement. We skip celebrating its value and what it means and go right into feeling like it’s only worth what it does next. It can leave us with the feeling of “is this all there is?” if we can’t see the opportunity in the goal or achievement or reward itself. And the chronic dissatisfaction of leaving the life-improvement beam running unsupervised leads to cynicism and drives making goals that feel like a letdown when you finally accomplish them. I’m sure you know the ones I mean. Unfocused improvement, maximizing for the sake of maximizing is not the same thing as setting goals coherent with a vision for your life, congruent to your vision and consistent with your overall direction. That our goals sometimes conflict with each other is a rich topic for another day. What it is is a great way to cultivate a thriving garden of resentments. So. How do you let your life-improvement instinct know when it’s okay to stand down? Knowing how to handle this is key to a happy, balanced life, and I am actively engaged in understanding and applying this better even now. Now, in this case, I know exactly what’s going on with my game and I have had access to resources to improve it every step of the way. Why didn’t I already perfect my game? You know the answer, but I’ll work through the thinking. I did improve my game for years to get it to where it is. At some point, I got my game to where I could enjoy the rest of what I consider the experience of golf—all those things I mentioned before. Some of this was driven practically and objectively—there’s a necessary level of competency to predictably complete a round in a given amount of time and at a pace other people are comfortable hanging out for. And some of this is personal. To relax and enjoy the game, I needed to gain control over the ball to a certain extent and feel like I was performing at a certain level. I hit a certain point, probably still thinking that I’d keep improving. But what actually improved was how much I enjoyed my time spent golfing. There are other things like this in life. Many of us value looking and feel good. So we join a gym or get a trainer. The life-improvement beam will sometimes zero in on our trainer or on other fit people we see and begin to construct visions. Visions, maybe, of a future where you’re on the cover of Men’s Health in black and white with a six-pack, with the headline, “My Unlikely Path to World-class Fitness.” We may be driven for a while by this vision. This drive may help us cross a lot of distance toward that vision. But each of us has a kind of equilibrium that signals subtly but clearly, and above all, insistently. It is the thing we always fight. It’s what drives us to toggle focus. We can hit a certain weight or fitness level when we make fitness our focus, but when we move to balance our life, it's only possible to maintain a lower level. We move pieces around, find new tricks, but we’re still in dialogue with that point of equilibrium. It’s a fact of our personal environment. Finding these points is a wonderful part of how self-improvement leads to self-discoveryOf course, you can feel like you’ve hit that point well before you have. Diet and fitness are particularly easy to do that with. The default balance in our lives comes down to focusing on the things we are naturally attracted to and driven about and leaving everything else on autopilot. Self-improvement is all about learning to be intentional about your focus. If you have an area you’re interested in improving but have never made it your focus, this lesson doesn’t apply. But if you havefocused, and improved to some extent, the challenge and art at that stage is in gaining vocabulary to see the difference between an abandoned ideal—another failure for the skeletons and shame to feast on—and reaching a point on a point on a continuum where you’re happy to be—gaining an achievement. So I was able to do this with golf. I love what I get out of golf. I don’t need it to be anything else. And the deeper point comes next. Because the moment I understood this, I understood what was really behind it. I was able to notice how I’d been focusing on how much time golf was taking. This was a serious lead. Time away from what? I asked myself. The answer: doing more. After a time of being fully present in my summer and enjoying it profoundly, my awareness had shifted, partially with the awareness of where I was on the calendar, partially because of things coming across my desk and items on the news, and partially with the seasons and the way that moves things around inside of me, I have recently been feeling that I should accomplish more in my life. This happens sometimes. My itch to do and achieve more switched on because of the deeper things that have driven me to accomplish throughout my life. I know what drives me for the most part, but some parts of my process are still mysterious. I am actively plumbing new depths to understand that more and more. One thing I know for sure is that golf is not the best place to look to satisfy my drive to do more. And the attempt would damage something more or less perfect. What I know for sure, and happily so, is that my drive to do more is one of the many forces in my life. I’m grateful for it. But I am at least equally glad to have now a force that seeks balance and harmony, and a drive to make meaning and understand the why. With all these forces present in harmonious proportion, I accomplish more and better things now. And they mean more to me. If you’re dissecting something that you used to love, there may be something there to improve. But it’s also possible that your instinct to improve has switched on and picked a random target—or mistaken the fruits of contentment for the source of contentment. But a golden egg is a golden egg. It will never become a golden goose. Those of us driven to always do more can often drive ourselves to kill the contentment and pleasure and joy in our life. Sure, sometimes you really could be doing more. But for some of us, sometimes that drive just pops up because it does. Because that drive is how we respond to change. Because it’s how we connect with others. For many reasons. This is one more example of why it’s so important to make goals with a thoughtful process that asks why and moves toward a vision according to your values. I hope you'll think about your drive to accomplish and how to find harmony with it to make an even better life for yourself. And here’s hoping you’ll enjoy the rest of your summer. Let me know if I can do anything to help. Cheers, Dave
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