Saturday, November 10, 2012

A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson

Feeling adventurous and supportive? Then get the book!
We all set goals; it's part of what makes us human. Granted, some of our goals aren't terribly ambitious -- I once had a goal to drink so much water that I could spend my entire eight-hour shift walking to the bathroom, urinating, and returning to my desk. But the point of the matter is that I set a goal, I did what I could to accomplish it, and we all have similar experiences every day.

Sometimes those goals get a little more courageous. Bill Bryson's did. He decided to set out one summer and hike the 2100-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. (And he wrote a very informative and funny book about the adventure, too.)

And now I'm wildly curious about humans and our setting (and sometimes accomplishing) of goals. Yes, we all participate in the ritual; but how does it work? How are our brains wired so that we constantly set goals -- whether it's climbing Kilimanjaro or getting home in time for Seinfeld reruns -- and seemingly even more constantly fail to reach them?

These questions are not rhetorical. I'm throwing this out there to my readers. If you have thoughts on how the brain's capacity for goal-setting (including both success and failure) functions,  I want to hear them. And if you know any sources that discuss these phenomenons (books, websites, actual human beings, whatever), please, please pass their info my way. I would love you and appreciate your assistance forever.

(Comments are good. So are emails, if you don't want to share publicly. I'm at znhively at gmail.)

One thing that A Walk in the Woods really got me thinking about: I find that many folks (myself included) measure the success of a goal on whether the outcome matches the original objectives. What if we treated goals more like science fair projects? You know, instead of saying "I will lose twenty pounds this year," what if we said "I'm going to find out if I can lose twenty pounds this year." Then the outcome isn't so dependent on a success/failure balance. Instead, you discover an answer. "Whaddya know, I can lose twenty pounds in a year!" or "Well, I gave it my best, and it turns out I'm capable of losing fifteen pounds in a year."

And, like a science fair project, the experiment leaves itself open for further discovery -- those wonderful moments of insight that get pushed aside when our goals are so focused on a single result. "I only lost five pounds, but I discovered that I really enjoy hiking!" or "I actually gained five pounds, but I discovered that I'm an amazing pastry chef!" For Bill Bryson (no direct spoilers here, unless you really try to read into it), the goal ends up being secondary to the opening of his worldview.

Isn't that what we expect in a good story, whether nonfiction or novel? We care less about whether or not the Jamaican bobsled team wins a medal than we do about how everyone changes from the experience. We care less about whether or not Bryson completes the hike than we do about how the hike changes him.

If our own personal goals were set up the same way, don't you think we all might have a little more self-discovery and a lot less disappointment?

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