When I turned 39, a few days ago, I wrote a list about 39 things I learned through experience. A few of them got picked up by my readers and broadcasted on Twitter. Being bitesized really helped this process, I don’t think any of those items were bigger than 140 characters. One of the most retweeted was number 8:

“Goals are good, but no better than the mechanical rabbit at a dog race. At the end of the race, they’re useless.”

Since that seemed to touch a lot of people, I thought it would be a good idea to write a full post about it. Which I am doing as right now. :-)

The Promise of Goals

Everybody knows the power of goals. They light the path, throw away the fog and make your efforts worthwhile. Some of the most popular goals are:

  • get out of debt
  • get a compatible partner
  • be your own boss
  • get a promotion

Of course, there are other smaller goals like owning a specific house or car. Or even buying a specific computer. I want to have a Mac by Christmas. That’s a goal.

Usually, goals are good. But, once you reached your goal, what happens? Where is the drive to run? Where is the motivation? Gone, of course. You reached your goal. The race is over.

The only thing that would make you run again is another race. Another goal. Another mechanical rabbit running in front of you, close enough so you can tell it’s worthwhile, but far enough to be out of reach. In order to catch the rabbit, you have to stretch. To go over your limits. Usually, you do that.

But after the race you bump into that frustration again. What the hell is wrong with that rabbit? Where does it hides? Every time I think I caught it, it disappear. Damn you, rabbit!

Running in the Right Context

The problem is not the rabbit. The problem is the context. A dog race is a limited context. It’s a stupid competition, trying to establish a winner among a pack of dogs. A dog race stretches the animals until one has the power to reach out and become what we call “the winner”.

This is pretty much what happens in the real world of jobs and careers. This time the  mechanical rabbit is a certain lifestyle, a certain amount of money in the bank, a specific power position. A lot of dogs are running after that rabbit. One of them, after years of struggling and sacrifices, go in front of the others. The result: the dog who catch the rabbit is a winner. The rest are losers. They have to start the race again. And again. And again.

I think you can see now how a limited context can totally change the game. Imagine a dog in the wild. And wild here is not defined as a context with no rules, but with less limitations than a stupid dog race. Imagine a dog at wild, chasing real rabbits. Is there winner there? Barely. The natural context is so large that the chances that 2 dogs are chasing the same rabbit are pretty low. And when it happens, they usually share, somehow.

A dog chasing real rabbits will do it for the thrills and for survival. If it doesn’t catch the rabbit, his meal will be gone. There is no competition here other than continuing to live. The victory here will be life in itself, not the first place and a medal.

Choosing Your Race

Fact is goals are highly dependent on the context. If you chose to live your life in a limited context, chasing goals will feel as frustrating as running at a dog race. You won’t be living a real life. You would actually live a dog’s life, being enslaved for the benefit of others. Don’t blame the mechanical rabbit for that, as it does the best it can. It runs. That’s what a goal does, it runs before you until you reach it.

But was it worth the effort? The whole race was something that fulfilled you? Being “number one” is making you really happy? Most of the time, the answer to these questions is “No”. Running over and over trying to defeat other people with the stupid hope that being ahead of them in a limited context will make you happy, that, instead of being your source of happiness, as you expect, it will eat you up inside. The context in which you are running is limited. So are the goals.

But, what happens if you would chose a larger context? Avoid the dog race altogether, step out of it. Get rid of notions like “winner” or “loser”. Think in terms of living, not racing. Just being joyful for the run. And then chose a goal on which your entire life will depend. What if, instead of chasing a career or a political position, you would chase a life. A different life. Living in a certain way. Earning enough to travel the world, for instance, but not entering any Fortune 500 list. The difference is that once you reach this new goal, in this new context, you will feel alive and thrilling. Reaching that goal in this new context will make your life go on, instead of just preparing you for another race. It will leave you free and full of energy, not empty and frustrated. That goal will be the real rabbit. Instead of being just a mechanical impostor, it will actually give you the energy to go on. And continue to live as you chose.

I used to chase mechanical rabbits all the time. Being the first in my niche, with my business. Been there, done that, felt like crap. Maybe it was a necessary milestone for my personal evolution, but truth is I never truly enjoyed this type of competition. Once I stepped out of the context, everything changed. Once I left the dog race yard, with all those mechanical rabbits ready to run in front of me, something changed. The whole game, changed, in fact.

There is no victory and no first place when you chose to live your life. There is only life. Sometimes you catch the rabbit, sometimes not. But running after a real rabbit, after something on which your entire life depends, that is so amazingly different.

What type of rabbits are you chasing now? Are you in a dog race, following a stupid social device which will leave you empty inside once you complete the race? Or are you chasing out in the wild, with no limitations in a game with no victory or defeat?

It’s just a question of choice.