March 18, 2012

River People

Life coaches, business seminars, motivational speakers, and personal trainers almost universally espouse the merits of setting a clear, measurable and trackable set of goals. When I was engaged in the corporate world, I was required to create and maintain a document, which I revised and reviewed annually with my managers. Performance evaluations were based on how well I met the goals outlined in that document. The document was heavy on metrics and application of what in the business world are called "best practices", and it generally ran about 10 pages. I and my manager, and his manager, all knew that I was a good employee because I documented clear, attainable, but ambitious goals, involving all the latest business buzz words, and that I then documented, a year later, how I had accomplished all or most of it. It looked great on paper. But the reality was that it existed primarily on paper. Yes, I made sure I did the stuff I needed to do to have something impressive to write in the Fall. And being that my job was writing, that wasn't hard to do. But I did not work on a daily basis with these goals hanging over my head. Meeting and exceeding the requirements of my performance plan was simply a task that I had to do every year, and polish up on paper. It was like an annual resume, with all the attending embellishments.

For the most part, we all tend to accept this idea that goal setting is an admirable and necessary part of being a functional modern human being. It helps you to stay focused and on track with what you want to achieve, and it helps you to know how well you are doing. But recently, we discovered a guy who scoffs at all that. His name is Stephen Shapiro.

Stephen Shapiro is a well known speaker, writer, and consultant on how innovation and creativity happen. Shapiro's idea is that goal setting is, for many people, counterproductive. He maintains that goals are actually barriers for many of us, and that too much focus on goals can actually stifle innovation and creativity. Shapiro says that the enemy of creativity is specialized expertise, because experts tend to find solutions too quickly to be creative. Goals are problem and task oriented, and as such, they tend to keep us focused on our preconceived definitions rather than on what is actually possible. Goal setting tends to involve problem solving, and as Shapiro points out, when we land on a solution we tend to stop looking. Never mind that a better solution, or perhaps an even better problem to solve has just popped up unnoticed right under our nose. Shapiro makes a compelling case for the idea that goal setting can stifle creativity.

You might be tempted to object that setting and striving toward goals is the high road, and that the alternative is to drift aimlessly without purpose or direction. If these two choices were all we had, that would probably be true. But Shapiro suggests a third way. He equates goal setting with map making, and recommends carrying a compass rather than a map. A compass tells you the direction to go, not the step by step instructions for getting there. Set your compass in a direction you want to go, and stay on course with your eyes open to opportunity along the way. Change your course if need be. React spontaneously to the obstacles, shortcuts and opportunities you find along the way. Follow inspiration rather than a five year plan as you do this. Be open to surprise, and know that mistakes, blind alleys, adventure and experimentation are crucial to your learning, your growth, and your journey. Pay attention to everything rather than putting your head down and plodding to your goal. Know that innovation and opportunity are usually all around you, but seldom screamingly obvious. To find them, you must be a hunter-gatherer rather than a row cropper.

Seek out new people along the way, knowing that people are carriers of insight, inspiration, companionship, encouragement, and opportunity along your path. Be open to the gifts and lessons they provide, and be ever conscious of how your own compass guides you toward genuine benefit to those around you in the ambitions you work toward.

Shapiro illustrates this concept of the goal-free life with the idea that there are goal people and river people. He suggests that goal people really do better with a target and a detailed strategy, whereas river people chafe at goals and do better wading in the river of experience, focused on what is happening around them, and trusting that they have stepped into the right river to get where they want to go. For river people, the path is rarely straight, but is more important than the destination. Shapiro maintains that river people tend to be far more creative than goal people. River people tend to find ideas spontaneously, and collaborate more easily outside their own disciplines. A goal oriented engineer for example would surround him or herself with other engineers in closely related fields to solve a problem. A river person would look around and see how similar problems have been addressed in widely differing disciplines and situations. Shapiro gives the example of how a musician helped a potato chip manufacturer reduce the fat content in their chips when he noticed that oil would drip out of potato chips when he set them on top of a very loud speaker.

We learned this lesson the hard way with Windhook when our financing collapsed in a heap a few years ago. We had a clearly defined goal to get the facilities built and in operation on a time line. All went well until it didn't. And then, obsessed with the threat to our goal, and our inability to surmount the obstacles in front of us, we ran into the ditch emotionally and productively for a couple of years. We spent lots of energy trying to force our way back on track with plans and strategies. Then one day, it occurred to us that we still had our compass, even though our map was in tatters. I had been totally sidetracked from making art in the effort to achieve this big, all consuming goal. I had put art on the back burner, thinking the goal must be met first. This is how goals are, by the way. They become self important and tend to dominate your thinking. But finally, I began making art again, and seeking ways to contribute to the enlargement and encouragement of the local art community. That is after all, where our compass was taking us when we began working on Windhook. And then the idea for Outside the Lines came to us, and it was so much Windhook that it was intoxicating. Soon we were back on course, heading cross country directly toward our compass point, even though circumstances had wiped out the well paved path we thought we should follow.

Another thing about goals is that they almost always have deadlines.
And deadlines are huge motivators for most of us. Several months ago we talked about the contrast between The Protestant and the Chaos Magician. In that article, we talked about how some people show up every day and work, no matter what, and other people tend to go in spurts of highly energized activity and then fall into periods of inactivity. These manic workers often are driven by deadlines. I suspect that this deadline focus is related to the fact that such people are not naturally goal people. They are river people, but they live in a goal driven world. After all, the gallery has a schedule booked out for years in advance. When you're on deck, you better perform. But goal oriented time pressures do more than spur the unfocused to action. Timelines and time pressure segment and focus our attention according to the schedule, and distract us from paying attention to what matters. We had a time line for Windhook. We made decisions early on that were based on keeping on schedule rather than on what actually made the most sense in the moment. Because we live in a world that relies heavily on schedules and promptness, it isn't always easy or even possible to take the time you need for your best creative efforts to come to surface. Even as I write this, I have a self imposed deadline to be done by this evening so you can find it in your mailbox on time tomorrow morning. But whenever you can, challenge your assumptions that a schedule must be met. Especially when creativity and innovation are paramount. Whenever possible, put away the clock and the calendar and just dive headlong into the work. Time works differently when you do.

Steve Jobs said that creativity is just a matter of having enough dots to connect. Dots, in this context are experiences and ideas. Unfortunately for goal oriented people, ideas come mostly from experiences, and experience comes from living in the present and keeping your agenda open. It does not come from detailed planning. It does not come from too much specialization and narrow expertise. It does not come from a singleminded focus. Plans, and the goals they are designed to meet, are good in small doses, but they are no substitute for the dynamics of living in the moment, with eyes wide open. Even if you are truly a goal person, you will benefit from stepping back, resetting your focus, and letting the stream carry you now and then.

You can read more about Stephen Shapiro and his ideas at And here is his book: Goal-Free Living: How to Have the Life You Want NOW!.

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Peggy Sonoda

Michael Reddell
PO Box 160
Cambria, CA 93428

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