My friend Ryan is talking a lot lately about trying to become less attached to “outcomes” in his life. For example, rather than going out with the hope of meeting someone new, or starting a project with the hope of a promotion, he might just pursue something for the sake of doing it, knowing that the experience itself may be the only outcome. Although perhaps oversimplified, this is a tenet of the Buddhist practice — being in the present, completely, and feeling and sensing it and experiencing it, without attaching a “want” to what comes after or letting the what comes after determine the value of the experience.
I’m sure most of you have heard of this approach, and some of you may practice it. How often have you gone on a date or an interview and told yourself to keep your expectations in check? This is a common version of this practice, even by non-Buddhists. And, in all likelihood, all of you have experienced the wonder that can come of it. Like those evenings when you set off for what you thought was a normal, run-of-the-mill night out with friends, one for which you had no greater expectations than to simply get out of the house, and instead you returned home from one of the most memorable or special evenings of your life? And, in the reverse, how many times have you built up a date or a vacation to such enormous expectations that it felt flat and vaguely disappointing when it actually happened?
Attachment to outcomes is something that undermines all of us, I think. It’s just too damn easy to do. We get excited about something, our imagination starts to run, and we convince ourselves that we will only be happy if a particular outcome occurs. We don’t even realize how tightly we are clinging to a particular outcome, until it collapses (often of its own weight). I see this happen a lot when we face having a difficult conversation. Think about the last time you had to prepare to talk to your partner about something that was bothering you. Most of us tie the success of that conversation to whether our partner hears us and understands and makes it better — but those are outcomes. How many of us tie the success of the conversation to the fact that we are having a voice in our life and being clear and honest and authentic in that moment?
I also see this frequently with friends who are freshly dating after a divorce or break-up. Each new suitor holds such enormous promise, that when the new relationship naturally peters out after a date or two, the feeling of let-down is disproportional to the nature of the relationship. We hardly knew this person, we barely shared any time with this person, and yet we feel deflated that he was not “the One.” But why? Because we were attaching an outcome to the experience. Just going out on the dates, just sharing space with someone and having a nice conversation, just being present in the moment, was not enough. The value of the dates lie solely in their ability to propel the relationship forward, closer to the goal or couplehood or commitment or even marriage.
Women are not the only ones who do this. On my second date with Coach, a busy dater and notorious commitment-phobe, he was already talking about how my children could attend the university at which he worked for a small percentage of the usual tuition. A clear indicator to me that he had allowed his imagination to entertain the possibility that I would be the one to cure him of fear of commitment (a theory confirmed by him many months later). When it is presented back to us, in black and white or verbalized aloud, the ridiculousness of pursuing life that way becomes obvious, but when we are in that moment, it seems normal, even natural.
Which is why it’s so hard to not do it.
I think it’s also important not to confuse outcomes with goals. Goals are usually medium- to long-term ideals that we set for ourselves, such as buying a house or running a marathon. Most of us need goals in our lives to propel us forward, and they can be helpful in creating and sustaining our focus. Those are not outcomes. Outcomes have to do with how we live the moments on the course to our goals. If every moment and every decision is laden with outcome expectation, the path to the goal becomes heavy and monotonous, indeed. But if we release ourselves from the outcome expectations, the journey ahead becomes lighter and more pleasant, and more valuable for its own sake.
The real danger in outcomes — which again distinguishes them from goals — is that they are beyond our control for the most part. You can be pretty determined to meet your soulmate, but as any dating single will tell you, no amount of determination will make that happen until it’s supposed to. Same with that dream job — no matter how much you want that job and lobby for the job and effectively advocate for yourself in your pursuit of that job, it is ultimately out of your control. And going back to the example of the conversation with your partner — you can be the best communicator in the world and deliver an oration that surpasses the Gettysburg Address in eloquence, but you cannot control your partner’s reaction. Perhaps they will hear you and understand, but perhaps they will not. You can only do your best and know that their reaction is out of your control. To the point, the outcome is not yours to dictate.
Shortly after returning from my trip back East, where I listened to Rob discuss his struggles to let go of outcomes, one of my favorite bloggers shared an article from Psychology Today, “Cling Less, Love More”, which talks about exactly this issue. (If this topic interests you, I’d suggest a quick read, and you can see her post about it here.) One of the things I love best about this article is how it describes the physical tightness we feel when we’re clinging to an outcome. Can you feel that in yourself, hear it in your voice, when you are clinging to an outcome? If not, I’ll bet you can see it and hear it in a good friend. Watch their body language and listen to how their voice sounds almost brittle as they cling to their outcome. Usually, these are the conversations in which I find myself gently asking, “What are you defending, and to whom?” because they can sound very much like someone being defensive. I suppose, in a way, it is a kind of defensiveness, in which we’re defending the importance of clinging to that outcome.
I’m not sure how to live a life free of outcome expectation, but it’s one of those things I’m working on. I know how much more relaxed and happy I am when I focus on my goals, rather than my outcomes. So, apparently, at least for me, it’s a valuable endeavor. If you’re already doing it, Ryan and I would both love some pointers…