Internal Goals

Internal Goals

…upon hearing someone say, "If I could just get one song cut, I'd be happy."

The Stoic's were students of self-cultivation, and they practiced certain life principles in order to gain "tranquility, freedom, and calm." Epictetus taught that to live this kind of life required a re-evaluation of our goals and desires. Our main desire, he said, should be "the desire not to be frustrated by desires we won't be able to fulfill." His Handbook opens with: "Some things are up to us, and some are not up to us." It follows, then, that we are faced with a choice between the desire for things that are up to us, and those things that are not up to us.

William Irvine in his book, A Guide To The Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, reformulates Epictetus' "Dichotomy of Control" as: 1. Things over which we have complete control (such as the goals we set for ourselves) 2. Things over which we have no control over at all (such as whether the sun rises tomorrow) and 3. Things over which we have some but not complete control (like whether we get a song cut or not!). It would make sense then to spend time and energy on those things over which we have complete control, and some control, in which case our efforts will likely have better results.

Another famous Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, said that the key to living a good life is to "value things that are genuinely valuable, and to be indifferent to things that lack value. By assigning things their correct value, we can avoid much suffering, grief, and anxiety; conditions that obstruct the path to tranquility."

So what are some of those things over which we have complete control? Irvine suggests that we have complete control over: the goals we set for ourselves (but obviously not complete control over whether we achieve them or not), the values we have (such as whether we value fame and fortune, pleasure, joy, or tranquility), and our opinions. Obviously, the reward for choosing our goals and values properly can be enormous.

Secondly, it should be obvious to all of us that we should not concern ourselves with things over which we have not control at all, like whether the sun rises tomorrow. Any time and energy we spend on such things will have no effect on their outcome and will just be a waste of time and energy. For many creative types (like yourself) this is the realm of obsessive-compulsive behavior that, if not acknowledged and dealt with, can lead to a life of half-baked plans, minimal accomplishments, and the frustration and anxiety that attends it ("I know, because I am").

This leads us to our third principle: those things over which we have some but not complete control. For example, we can't be certain of writing a song that gets recorded or becomes a hit, but we can hope to achieve this goal by writing the best song we can everytime we sit down to write. The internal goal - writing to the best of our abilities- is an attainable and enriching prospect, while striving toward an external goal- writing a song that gets cut- is, for the most part, beyond our control, and can lead to frustration and anxiety. By getting a song cut as our goal, we greatly increase our chances of becoming upset if the outcome isn't favorable. If, on the other hand, our goal is to be the best songwriter we can be, we, arguably, don't lessen our chances of getting a cut, but we do significantly lessen our chances of becoming disappointed if it doesn't happen. Obviously, we must exercise some (but not complete) control over the conventions for the types of songs we are writing with respect to stylistic practices- the effort of which increases our chances of a cut. Even if winning a chess match is not your primary goal, but playing to the best of your abilities is, you still must adhere to certain rules which make the effort even possible.

Internalizing our goals is especially useful for those of us in a profession in which external failure is most often the case. Rejection can be a debilitating thing for Creatives, and can have a paralyzing effect on our work. So, the question becomes, "How to live a happy life in the face of disappointment, set-back, and self-doubt?" We can take a lesson from the Stoics and concentrate our efforts on our internal goals of self-improvement, rather than dwell on those things over which we have no control.

See: Epictetus- "Handbook" and "Discourses", Marcus Aurelius- "Meditations", and William Irvine- "A Guide To The Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy".



Think for a moment. Better yet- write these down:

What things in life do you have absolutely no control over? Are you willing to practice the art of "letting go" when it comes to such things?

What things do you feel you have complete control over? Are you spending time and energy in the right ways?

What things do you feel you have some, but not complete control over? In your relationships? In your career? In your choice of attitude?