The Problem of Goals

Finding a broad unchanging goal is easy at sports, arts, crafts, and vacationing. It is not easy in daily life, but it is still just as important. And again, people try to construct narrow goals. Consider a typical person in our culture, whom I will call Joe. When Joe plays tennis, his only goal is to win. When he visits a friend, his goal is to get along with his friend, and all thoughts of winning at tennis are gone. As he drives home, his goal is to get home as quickly as possible, with no thoughts of winning at tennis or getting along with his friend. When he fixes a meal, his goal is just to fix a good meal. And so on-for each of Joeís activities, he has a different goal, and he is constantly switching goals as he leads his life Joe has a schizophrenia of goals.

Joe has broader goals, such as earning money, being healthy, having friends, and being secure. However, Joe focuses on his narrow goals. Even if Joe did focus on his broader goals, he would still be switching back and forth between these broad goals depending on the situation. For example, he would focus on earning money while at work, health while exercising, and having friends while with friends. So he would still have a schizophrenia of goals.

ďOf course,Ē you say. ďIs there any other way?Ē

But flowing has taught me to have broad goals. Once my wife and I were playing croquet. All I had to do to win was hit my croquet ball against a nearby stake. To stop me, my wife had to hit my croquet ball with hers. This was a long and difficult shot. And anyway, it was my turn.

Instead of hitting my ball into the final stake, I gave my ball a slight tap. This hid my ball behind the stake, so that if she did make her lucky shot, her ball would be deflected and I could win the game. And in fact that's exactly what happened. But it was an exciting finish. The point is, although it would have been natural to focus on the narrow goal of winning, I had the broader goal of fun in mind. My Inferential System supplied the alternative of just tapping my ball.

A little while later, by amazing coincidence, our roles were exactly reversed. Instead of winning the game, my wife gave her ball a small tap, inviting me to try for the lucky shot. But she missed the fine point of hiding her ball behind the stake. Amazingly, I made the lucky shot, hitting her ball.

I think she became frustrated, because this wasn't how things were supposed to work out -- she wanted to be noble, but she didn't want to lose the game. Then she realized, more philosophically, that at least she was losing nobly. Because I had hit her ball, I could put my ball right next to hers, put my foot on my ball, then strike my ball as hard as I could. My ball would not move, because my foot was on it, but the imparted momentum would send her ball far away. The whole point of trying to hit her ball was so that I could execute this maneuver, sending her ball far away from the stake and preventing her from winning the game. I put my ball next to hers, put my foot on my ball, and calmly hit her ball into the stake, winning the game for her.

Again, this creative solution came from my Inferential System. It violated the obvious narrow goal of winning, but it was consistent with my broader goals.

Finding Your Broad Goals

So, here is what you have to do. You have to find the broad goals of your life. Having just one goal would be ideal, but Iíll give you a limit of three. No, Iím not kidding. You can do it. You should do it. Youíll be better off even if you never flow.

There are different methods of finding your basic goals. But the straightforward method is continually asking ďWhy?Ē If you are driving to school rather than walking, why? If it is to save time, why do you want to save time? If it is so you can work more at a job and earn more money, why do you want money? If you want more money so that you can get nice clothes, why do you want nice clothes? (Or if you want more money so that you can join a gym and get exercise, why not walk to school?) To give another example, if you are brushing your teeth, why? If it is for health, why do you want to be healthy? You can and should do this for everything you do. Something is either achieving one of your goals or you shouldnít be doing it, right?

When you guess at your broader goals, you might be wrong. And you often will be accomplishing more than one goal at a time. You might want to write your goals down at first. Even though you are trying to be broad, you will still have numerous goals.

I can practically tell you what your final answer must be. But if I did, that wouldnít help. You have to know, not only what your basic goals are, but how everything you do connects up with accomplishing these goals. That requires thinking about why you are doing everything that you are doing. For example, it is important to know why you are brushing your teeth.


And letís talk serenity. When I tell students they should have just a few broad goals which they keep in mind all of the time, they look at me like Iím crazy. But once I was explaining this concept to a student who had missed class, and I realized that she already knew and used her few broad goals. (She confirmed this.) I had to explain to her how most people live their life with a schizophrenia of goals. (She looked at me like I was crazy.)

I knew she had just a few goals because of her serenity. Shifting goals is hard work. With narrow goals, you always have to worry about undermining the goals that you arenít thinking about. You can try to check all of your goals before acting, but that takes a lot of time and youíre going to forget some. So narrow, shifting goals are not good for serenity.

Unifying the Self

Let me return to this notion of sense of self. If you have a schism between Wants and Shoulds, you will feel like two people. This isnít good. Flow helps resolve this schism, plus giving you motivation to mend it with other techniques.

Shoulds also can conflict with one another. For example, children are told to be nice to people and yet not trust strangers. Or, you might be told to try to get along with people and yet to be assertive and stand up for your rights. Again, trying to follow a conflicting collection of Shoulds would not lead to a strong sense of self. Daily flow solves this problem by ignoring Shoulds.

Changing Wants also fragments the self. When you want one thing at one moment, and another thing a moment later, it is hard to have a sense of a coherent self. Getting the big picture stabilizes Wants. Of course, to the extent that your Wants change with time, that is yourself that you want to get to know.

Therefore, flow, combined with getting the big picture, helps you build a unified self.


Another studentís story about flowing for a day: ďI had an entire list of things that I had to do for school, the house, Christmas, and my wedding. My habit is to stay home and do housework and homework before I get dressed to go out. That wasnít what I felt like doing. It was a Sunday and I felt like going to mass. Then I headed home and decided halfway home that I would go to my brotherís and pick up some things he had waiting for me. So now I could cross one thing off my list, even though I wasnít keeping track.

After that I started home again and changed my mind. I took a ride and bought a Christmas gift. While I was out I went into the bookstore just to browse and found out two things that I needed for the wedding. That saved me a trip to the library. On my way home I once again detoured and went to two bridal stores. This seemed like a poor choice because I was getting tired and frustrated that they didnít have what I wanted. So I left the second store and decided to get some lunch.

On the way to the deli I went past a new little bridal store. It looked junky and I wasnít going to stop because I didnít think they would have much selection compared to the larger stores I had just left. I wound up pulling into the parking lot. So I went in. It looked worse inside. There were very few dresses and the owners were a little too pushy. Instead of leaving though I looked around and spoke with the wife. Once I was able to understand her accent I found out they would make any dress that I wanted in any fabric from a picture. It seemed like fate. At the last store I had been wishing I could have my mom sew the dresses. This seemed even better.

I left the store in a good mood. I decided to skip lunch and go home and study. At home I decide to call my maid of honor and share the good news. We talked for an hour. It was now four oíclock. I still didnít want to do homework so I called some halls and started cooking for Thanksgiving. Then I made dinner. Finally I settled down and read two chapters and wrote a paper. At the end of the night I had accomplished more than I would ever have planned to do. The best part was that I hadnít been stressed out all day-I had enjoyed all but the few minutes of aggravation at the second bridal store. My effort at constructive flow was a pleasant, effective day.Ē (by Lisa Rignola)

This is one of my favorite stories of flow, perhaps because it is about the ordinary events of real life. People worry that flow will not be responsible. But she did homework, a host of errands, and went to church. How unfortunate if Lisa had forced herself to go to church or do homework because she should, when in fact she did them as she wanted.

The failure in the middle of day, in going to the first two stores to look at dresses, is typical. Flow is not magical and the outcomes aren't always good. Perhaps flow had nothing to do with finding a good dress shop on her third try. However, if she was in a good mood because she was doing what she wanted, she would be nicer to the people in the store, hence they would be nicer to her. Or perhaps her Inferential System picked up some cue that told her to stay in the store longer and talk to the wife.

I also liked that Lisa talked to her friend for an hour. Most people would categorize this as enjoyment. However, it is important for human beings to have a network of social support, so talking to her friend was productive. Christmas, Thanksgiving, and weddings are potentially enjoyable events with many potentially enjoyable activities. However, these potentially enjoyable activities, such as buying gifts and picking out a wedding dress, can become chores. Lisa enjoyed these activities. The lack of stress seems typical of daily flow. The outcome, an enjoyable and effective day, is just what would be hoped for and expected from daily flow.


I made extravagant claims in this chapter -- you can be more effective, be more creative, have more enjoyment, be more serene, be less anxious, live in harmony, and have a stronger sense of self. All you have to do is flow. That isnít so easy, especially to do it well. But itís worth it.

The first chapter on flow considered activities with few if any pitfalls. In vacationing, the pitfalls were few, but they were present and had to be dealt with. To use flow in daily life, however, there are pitfalls and you need to know what you are doing. You need a broad, unchanging goal, and you have to get the big picture and focus on other people and the future. When done well, flow can be responsible and lead to both enjoyment and productivity.