On Goals (and Harvard, Marathons, and Michelle Kwan)

by angierunsboston


Disclaimer: I wrote down my thoughts after running my usual Harvard-MIT-Harvard route along the Charles river, and even though this is not explicitly a running post, it deals with my reasons for running the marathon, so I thought I would share it.

The phrase “achieving your goals” is kind of misleading; it makes you think that the point of having a goal is to actually accomplish it, which is something Randy Pausch of “Last Lecture” fame would call a “head fake,” something that disguises its real purpose by distracting you with a shiny exterior.

Achieving the goal is not the purpose of a goal. The heart of a goal is about making you a better person, inspiring you and (sometimes) forcing you to become someone who is kinder, stronger, smarter, wiser, happier, and more disciplined, in search of that goal. Whether or not you reach the Promised Land – that is not the important part. Make those forty years wandering in the desert count for something too.

Harvard. Marathon. Michelle Kwan. What do these three things all have in common? Well, besides playing large roles in my life, they all involve good goal-making.

Harvard. Having never checked any other box other than “Student” in the occupation section of any form, I consider myself pretty familiar with the world of academia. In high school, there was always an idea being floated by teachers, parents, or guidance counselors about “studying hard and getting into a good college.” That, right there, is a goal. I took that goal to heart (mostly). Are there bad parts of trying to get into college? Definitely. Grade-grubbing, resume-building, teacher-petting…and those are just the ones I’ve thought of in the last 5 seconds. But overall, I think making going to college a goal does good things for young people. Here are just the things I can think of in 5 seconds:

  1. It forces you to wake up in the morning for class. As much as I liked school and loved learning, it would have been pretty darn easy to sleep in if I didn’t have the incentive of avoiding detention for being late.
  2. It teaches you discipline and perseverance. Doing homework every day of your life (minus vacations) is not as easy as adults in the “real world” make it sound. Keeping that end goal in mind makes it more likely that students will stick with it.
  3. It forces you to learn. Yes, learning for the sake of learning is the way to go. But sometimes we all need a little nudge. The allure of reality TV provides a nice n’ easy alternative to learning about ancient civilizations or cell membranes sometimes.

So here’s the thing. After I got into Harvard, a lot of people started congratulating me like I had done everything I would ever need to do in life. Like I had reached the ultimate goal or something. It wasn’t until later that I could actually see getting into Harvard for what it was…not that important. Yes, it’s a great school and I think it’s wonderful to be a student here and it has opened up many opportunities for me. However, had I not gotten into Harvard but had instead gone to another college instead, those previous 13 years I had spent in the public system would not have, by any means, been a waste. The person I became in those 13 years would probably open up similar opportunities and lead me to similar successes in my life because, at the end of the day, I still tend to believe a person (and not a brand-name school) decides his or her own fate (and career).

Marathon. I’m running the Boston Marathon this spring. Why? When I signed up, I wouldn’t have really been able to answer that question. I agreed to do it in a moment of impulsiveness, and in the process, agreed to raise $2500 for charity. 24 hours after I had signed up to do it, I had a brief moment of panic – could I raise $2500 dollars? could I run 26.2 miles? could I attempt to do both things at the same time? Now, having thought more about it, I realize that, on April 15th, whether or not I cross the finish line in a not-too-embarrassing time or whether or not I maintain my goal pace is not really the point. The point is I will have spent months training for something, teaching myself discipline on long runs when my feet have blisters and the freezing winds of Boston are blasting at my face and I try not to slip constantly over the wintry snow piles. The point is that I will have persevered through fatigue and soreness and self-doubt. The point is that I will have to learn how to ask people to donate money to a worthy cause, which is something I have never been good at. The point is that I will have to teach myself time management as I’ve never really had to do before. The point is, the 26.2 miles I run on April 15th will not be the real journey.

Michelle Kwan. As I child, I idolized Michelle Kwan. Okay, who am I kidding – I still idolize Michelle Kwan. I liked her as a child because she skated with grace, always got up when she fell down, and wore sparkly outfits. Nowadays, I like her because I realize she was wise beyond her years, even as a teenager. I was always sad because, as decorated as she was, Michelle Kwan has never won an Olympic gold medal. I remember, once, watching an interview on NBC where a reporter asked Michelle why she decided to compete in the 2006 Torino Olympics even though at the age of 26, facing a brand new scoring system, she would be considered close to geriatric in her sport.

She said, “Committing to do an Olympics – it’s not about those 4 minutes you’re out on the ice for your free skate. It’s about those 4 years you spend training for those minutes. It’s about the journey.” I remember her words so clearly…and I remember not really buying into what she was selling.

“What a cliché,” I told my dad, “the journey is all.”

But now, as I have accomplished a few of my own goals and fallen short of others, I realize that Michelle wasn’t just giving a pretty answer. She was telling the truth. To prove this, I wrote out a silly equation that might not actually prove anything, but satisfied my inner math nerd.

Let’s dissect the phrase “a means to an end” using some basic mathematics (of the non-legitimate kind):

means = journey

end = goal

goal = journey <- because a goal is just a journey in disguise

end = goal = journey

journey = all.

See? The journey is all.

And so, some days, as I’m working towards some goal, I think to myself, will the journey be worth it? And if I can see myself growing and maturing and being healthy in the process, I answer yes. Otherwise, I start evaluating my life and my choices a little more.

The real test of a good goal is this: at the end of the day, whether or not you have accomplished your goal, have you become a better person in your pursuit of it? If you have, then it was a worthy goal. If not, maybe it’s time to set a new goal for yourself.

As always, let’s hope I can keep it up for 26.2 miles (and 6 months).