The Eternal Wisdom of Focusing on the Journey

Having a goal helps, but contrary to contemporary understanding, focusing simply and singularly on the goal is likely to slow down its achievement.

Let us begin with a little story…

Once there was a man determined to find the secrets of attaining the Zen state in life. He found a Zen master in his village. He approached him, and asked:

‘Wise man, how can I find Zen in life?’

‘Work on it for ten years, and you shall find what you are looking for.’

The man asked him, ‘What if I fix my focus on my goal twice as hard?’

The wise man replied, ‘Then you shall find it in twenty years.’

Puzzled but determined to understand the man asked again, ‘And what if I fix my focus only on the goal and nothing else?’

The wise man replied, ‘You shall find it in thirty years. Your one eye will be on the goal, and one eye will be on the path. Having only one eye on the path will slow you down, naturally. There is a difference between fixating on the goal and working on it. ’

As the Zen master looked at the puzzled expression on the man’s face, he explained:

‘Imagine you are climbing on a tree, to reach at the top for a fruit there. If you focus just on the fruit, you will miss out on the various branches protruding out of the tree, and might end up falling, injuring yourself and wasting time in having to wait and start at the bottom of the tree once again.

But if you focus on the activity, the journey of climbing the tree, feeling the bark of the tree on your hands, finding the most useful branch, finding an efficient way to climb the tree, you will reach the top of the tree even before you realise it. Focus on the journey, and you will not only learn a lot more along the way, you will also reach your destination much earlier than simply focusing on the destination.’

The expression of puzzlement on the man’s face turned into a calm yet determined smile.

In contemporary work culture, the focus is often on a goal: becoming the ‘boss’, getting in some list of the most successful people in the world, getting an award and so on. There are countless other examples where we are told to singularly focus on the goal, and nothing else. And when we reach that end goal after years, we feel empty after the initial celebrations. What now, we wonder?

Having a goal is necessary; it gives us a sense of direction. However, once we have decided on the goal, it makes sense to shift our focus on the journey towards that goal. To make the best out of our journey, we can ask ourselves questions such as:

  • What are the skills I need to learn along the way to reach my goal as efficiently as possible?
  • Who are the people that I have met along the way who can teach me, provide valuable lessons, that is, who are the people who can provide me mentorship?
  • Are there any possible roadblocks that I can see, as I climb the (career) ladder? What can be done to overcome those roadblocks smoothly?
  • Is there a need to course correct, and find a more efficient way towards my goal?

And so on.

Said in a slightly different way, it is not a coincidence that the Bhagvad Gita also tells us to focus on our ‘karma’ or actions, that is, what we are expected to do on our journey, rather than focusing simply on the ‘fal’, the fruit. It goes: ‘karma kiye ja, fal ki chinta matt kar…’, that is, keep performing the actions, without worrying about the fruit.

Focusing on our journey, and undertaking actions that will enable us to learn from that journey is eternal wisdom. Focusing on our journey means we enjoy the beauty of travelling through it all, rather than worrying or hurrying to reach a destination.

Focusing on the journey allows us to perceive and observe our path; it lets us widen our horizons. Focusing on the goal singularly, fixating on the end result limits us. It narrows our vision and make us blind to possibilities and opportunities.

Working Hard, Easily

We often associate working hard with slogging and trudging along. But working hard is often more about getting into an easy state of flow, a sign of being deeply engaged with our work.

Tired of trudging along and pushing forward?

Here’s a slightly different advice- stop and reevaluate, instead of pushing harder.

In this hustle culture, it is often a sign of grit and motivation to keep pushing when it gets harder. If you are a working professional, it is rarely that someone would tell you to stop and revaluate. Most of the motivational advice out there is to keep working harder. To try again and again and again until you succeed. To rise in one’s career, or to come up with a million-dollar idea, or to run a business or to be the star employee, the chief advice is to slog and work hard. Work harder. It’s always about being more disciplined. More focused. To push against all odds.

But is that always good advice? Does achieving something and working hard always mean we must feel like we are constantly swimming against the tide? Would it not be better if we could rather swim and flow amidst everything? Is there a different interpretation to ‘working hard’?

An insight by psychologist Julie Gurner is worth paying attention to. Speaking on a podcast for the online mindfulness and motivational page Farnam Street, she says: 

“I think we talk about discipline because it feels tough to do. We’re doing the hard thing. We’re slogging through. But when we are at our best, we’re not slogging through. Great people are obsessed and they’re not slogging through. They are driven. They are motivated. They are deeply, deeply engaged. … If it starts to feel like a slog and you’re pushing yourself every day—I mean, we all have periods of that—but [do it] too long and that really becomes laborious. To me, it’s often a flag that perhaps you shouldn’t be in that area at all.”

Haven’t we all, at some point, found ourselves working in a state of flow, working deeply, losing all track of time and finding a deep sense of accomplishment within ourselves?  Was that about ‘pushing’ harder? No, it was about flowing with our work. It was about being so engaged in what we were doing that we felt one with it. It was hard work that didn’t feel like ‘hard’ work.

Good, hard work should put us in a state of flow. It should engage us. After some slogging, after some pushing, if we still haven’t reached that state of flow, of the state of feeling engaged enough, perhaps it would be a better idea to reevaluate things instead of continuing to slog and push harder. Revaluate, so that we can find a way to flow.

Revaluating could involve changing our approach, or changing our thinking. It could also involve changing our objectives. It could also involve changing our path, in a minor or major way. The point is to aim for a state of flow, of deep engagement with what we are working towards, instead of feeling the slog.

The Art of Staying Here and Now: New Lessons from an Old Fable

It is 2021, and one thing everyone told us to do with 2020 was to learn some crucial life lessons.

It is like a recorded message at this point- gratitude, being present in the moment, making use of the resources we have are some ‘lessons’ we were told to learn. Lessons to be learnt are never ending, even when the year ends. So, for a little novelty here, and not to repeat the recording, we shall add a twist.

We shall talk about a crucial lesson to be learnt, but we shall talk about a story, a fable, which would be familiar to most of us but we may or may not have delved beyond what we were told the moral of the story was.

Remember that hare and the tortoise story?

There was a challenge between the two- the hare wanted to prove he was the fastest in the jungle, and the tortoise wanted to prove how the slow and the steady win the race. The hare was far ahead in the race; the tortoise was nowhere to be seen. The hare decided to rest, and since he was already in the lush meadows, it was not at all difficult for him to fall asleep under a giant shady tree. And thus, the tortoise quietly and steadily treaded along, and won the race.

They say the hare fell prey to his overconfidence and laziness.

Well, that’s one way to look at it.

Let us take on the character of the hare. Let us pretend he gave an interview later. (After 2020, nothing is crazy anymore.)

So, we ask the hare if he is the one who lost the race- indeed he was!

We ask- do you admit to your laziness and complacence? And that the tortoise had more persistence and dedication?

Yes, the tortoise was more persistent and dedicated but I was not lazy and complacent; no, let me explain, says the hare. And the explanation goes this way.

The hare was assured of his lead, but he also found himself admiring the beauty of the meadows, the gentleness of the breeze, the musical sound of the water gushing in a pond nearby with ducks cackling, and the shade of the tree. He wanted to drift off on a log of wood. Who wouldn’t, when the nature around was so abundant and so pleasant?

An old meditative looking man, in his flowing beard saw the hare and asked him what he was up to and why he was running a race.

We know the hare’s answer- To show all the creatures in the jungle that he was the fastest; to win that coveted medal; to be remembered and respected as the fastest of all.

The old man asked if he knew who the last fastest creature was. The hare didn’t know.

The old man asked what he would do when someone else challenged him tomorrow- today a tortoise challenged, tomorrow a snake shall do it, and the day after, a zebra- the challenges will never stop. Would he continue to race all his life? Did he want that?

And suddenly, the hare knew what he wanted. He wanted to jump into the pond, and after a good swim doze off under the tree. He did exactly that. The ducks in the pond looked at him quizzically, asking him about the race. No, said the hare, I am here and now, and that is all that matters. I want to live. I don’t want to become a part of this endless race.

That day, the hare realised the value of living in the present- just the anticipation of competition was enough to drive him to get into unhealthy competition.

That day, the hare realised the gift of resources it had, and the power of gratitude- he realised he did not need any race to prove how gifted he was

That day, the hare realised the power of staying in the now and the present- he assessed his needs based on where he was at present, and made a decision about what he wanted to do based on his real, current scenario, and not rushing on to a decision which was wrought in unnecessary anticipation and unhealthy competition.

That day, the hare lost the race but got his life back.

They tell life is a marathon, and not a sprint. But whoever said life was a race in the first place?

In a bid to prove ourselves to critics who might not even matter, in a bid to make a statement, in a bid to prove a point, we often forget to live in the present. We forget to see that we are doing just fine, and there is no need to join a race we don’t even need to be a part of.

Remember, not participating in the ‘race’ doesn’t mean giving up on competence, healthy competition, and doesn’t mean we give up upgrading our skill-set. It just means we keep upgrading what we need to upgrade, without the need to prove a point. It just means we look at our goals with an intention to enjoy the process, and work because we genuinely want to do something for ourselves, without the need to make a statement.

It just means being present in the moment, where all that matters is looking around and doing what makes us happy, contributing to our personal and professional growth.