Dying on the Mountain: How Goals Will Kill You and How to Focus on the Process

In an old and underrated Robert Redford movie, The Last Castle, he plays a disgraced general in a military prison, toiling under the oppression of a sniveling warden played by the late, great James Gandolfini.

The prisoners are stripped of rank and not allowed to salute, and as punishment, the warden has them rebuild one of the ancient prison's stone walls, by hand. When they lament the punishment and put the mildest of efforts into the construction of the wall, the Stoic General Eugene Irwin replies simply, "But it's your wall."

By the end of the movie, the prisoners feel like soldiers again and have taken a great deal of pride in rebuilding the wall. Why? Because they let go of their attachment to the results. They focused less on the wall itself and focused on laying stones instead.

Process over results. Processes, you can control. Results? Not so much.

So even when the warden demolishes the wall, he can't demolish their spirit because the men are stone-layers, not wall-builders. They care less about the book, and more about writing every day. They care less about making money than they do building a creative business that solves a problem. They care less about being a famous comedian and more on writing great jokes.

You can never take the process away, but once you attach your identity to goals and results you can't control, it's a recipe for disaster.

You can never take the process away, but once you attach your identity to goals and results you can't control, it's a recipe for disaster.

Besides, all goals worth pursuing are distilled into processes, and if you hate them, maybe you should choose one that makes you happier. Sure, you want to be a famous novelist, but if you can't drag yourself in front of the page every day, maybe you're a sculptor instead?

Over the summer, I attended creative writing workshops as a guest author and spoke at author events that featured a healthy dose of Q&A. The ratio of marketing and publication questions vs. questions about execution, craft, habits, focus, and getting better as a writer struck me. I couldn't stop thinking about it.

Again and again, I heard more than one aspiring and/or mildly published authors discuss their work as if it wasn't their choice, as if the pressure of family, friends, and peers compelled them to write their fiction and non-fiction (especially non-fiction or any fictional derivatives of it).

I kept thinking of how they were listening to the sniveling warden—they were focused on what the wall might look like, who would adore it, how to show the wall off to as many people as possible.

But it's your wall, I thought. No one seemed concerned with the act of laying stones—how to fit them, how to choose the right ones, taking out or moving the stones that don't work.

Some people like to build walls—some like to lay stones. Results vs. process. Who are you betting on? I'll take the stone layer any day of the week—and let me give you three big, research-backed reasons why results-oriented thinking is deeply flawed and counter-intuitive.

1. Goals Can Trick You Into Not Pursuing Them

Conventional thinking and the self-help section beat the world over the head with goal-setting, affirmations, and positive thinking. The Law of Attraction gets distilled into magic—you have a big goal in mind, think hard as if you've already achieved it, and presto!

What if that exact positive thinking and visualization was actually sabotaging your goals?

In studies performed by Gabriele Oettigen, visualizing how well things could go actually reduces your motivation, and at a subconscious level, we can confuse visualizing success with having already achieved it.

(She wrote an entire, excellent book on the subject: Rethinking Positive Thinking, for the intrepid souls who want to know more).

Fantasizing about your greatest successes can slow you down, reduce your motivation, and make you feel like you've already achieved them.

So we arrive at the truth no aspiring author wants to hear: dreaming of becoming a successful writer isn't nearly as effective as writing every day.

2. The Wrong Goals, Tied To Your Identity, Can Destroy You

Goals are powerful, but with great power comes great danger. When you tie goals to your identity without the proper processes in place, disaster ensues.

For the writer, your motto should be: "Before success, write. After success, write."

Chris Kayes, an organizational behavior expert, has coined the term "goalodicy" for pursuing goals with an almost religious fervor, even when all rational evidence points to turning back, switching gears, or giving up.

He uses the goal of climbing Mount Everest as one of his central examples. Most deaths occur when the summit is within sight, but all rational evidence (temperature, wind, time) points to not making the attempt to summit. In fact, it would be a suicide mission to make the attempt.

Yet in the name of never giving up and #goals, many goal-obsessed climbers push on and die in the attempt.

We often fetishize this blind pursuit of success, but we don't take into account survivor bias. Those who survive against long odds to make it to the top of Everest, or the bestseller list, or the company's org chart become the model, but we never properly consider the bodies of those who couldn't create or execute the right processes littered underfoot.

3. Results and Goals, When Pursued Correctly, Are Distilled Into Processes Anyway

Walls, books, businesses—whatever you're working on—they don't appear without stones, words, and effort.

If the process is the most vital aspect of achievement, you're more likely to get the lasting success you crave by tying the process to your identity instead of a results-oriented goal.

To reach a state of Zen, you don't try super hard to achieve enlightenment. Instead, you're urged to "Chop wood, carry water."

Want to experience wild success as a writer? Become the type of person who writes every day. Want to be fit and strong? Become the type of person who never skips a workout.

Chop wood, carry water.

(For more on turning daily processes into habits, and its impact on your life and goals, I recommend Atomic Habits by James Clear.)

Conclusion

The processes required to improve and succeed as a writer haven't changed much in a long time. Stephen King urged us to read as much as possible and write 2,000 words a day in his craft book, On Writing.

Those are the processes. The craft of writing has little to do with your website, your email list, or your social media following.

Write something great, and people will notice. Yes, gatekeepers will notice. Agents will notice. Publishers will notice. And readers will notice. And if it's great, those readers will tell their friends.

But here's the rub—it could take you 30 years to write something great, and if you do, so what? Are you going to stop writing?

The full, Zen koan goes like this: "Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water."

For the writer, your motto should be: "Before success, write. After success, write."

That's it. That's the process.

Wake up each day and chop wood. Carry water. Write. Repeat.

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Fred Venturini

Column by Fred Venturini

Fred Venturini grew up in Patoka, Illinois. His short fiction has been published in the Booked Anthology, Noir at the Bar 2, and Surreal South '13. In 2014, his story "Gasoline" is featured in Chuck Palahniuk's Burnt Tongues collection. The Heart Does Not Grow Back, published by Picador in 2014, is his first novel. He lives in Southern Illinois with his wife and daughter.

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