Flexible Goal Setting: Be Like Water

I’ve always liked Drunken Boxing.  Something about the way the fighter stumbles into his opponent, flowing around his opponent’s attacks, filling in whatever gap is left open, has always appealed to me.  A good drunken boxer just refuses to be denied.  It’s like throwing a bucket of water at an enemy.  Sure, the enemy could stop a handful or two of water from getting to him, but that won’t stop him from getting soaked.

Taiji Zen founder unleashing his drunken boxing skills

Tai Chi operates on the same principle.  In fact, in Tai Chi it’s actually called “attacking like water.”  The idea is simple.  Rather than picking an individual attack to use on an opponent, a practitioner picks a direction.  So instead of thinking, “I want to punch this guy in the nose, because that will make his eyes water up, and then I can use a headlock to a hip-throw which will achieve my ultimate purpose of getting him on the ground,” I would just say, “I want to gain greater control over this situation.”  I then look for any opportunity to do that.  Now that might still be a punch to the nose, but maybe it’s just asking the guy to stop, or maybe it’s letting him punch me so that he overextends and I can use a knock down.  It just depends on which opportunity presents itself.  I never commit to the individual attack, I only commit to the direction I want to move in.

That way if I do throw the punch and he blocks my fist, I can turn the attack into an elbow, and if he blocks that, I can step in and use my shoulder.  Though the shape of the attack may change, the direction of the momentum is preserved.  I let the situation determine what I follow up each attack with, rather than planning it out in advance.  That way I remain effective without giving away my moves before I make them.

This is one of the main reasons to stay relaxed in Tai Chi — the more relaxed a person is the more quickly they can adapt to new situations (both physically and mentally).  Plus, it prevents the opponent from using my arm as a lever to control my center and force me off-balance, thus halting my momentum or drastically changing my direction.  This principle applies to more than Tai Chi Chuan, though — it applies to life in general.

For me, the most obvious of these applications has to do with goal setting.  For years and years goal setting was business canon.  You could not be a manager without knowing what S.M.A.R.T. goals were.  Recently, however, goal setting has come under fire.  There was a particularly influential study that showed goal setting only positively impacted performance when the people setting the goals could be held accountable for them (i.e. when they put it in writing, or stated it publicly).  So in other words, it’s not the act of setting a goals itself that increases performance, but the act of making a commitment.

Yet this study had a major flaw:  the tasks that the participants were given were so simple that no prioritization was needed.  In the real world, things are never that simple.  When I was a CEO, there were always 100 things that should have been done every week, and only time to ever do 50 of them.  More importantly, the 100 things might have been in 10 areas, and so I could do 50 individual things but not actually reach any major milestone; I’d just have 10 half finished projects.  Goal setting gave me a standard against which I could make decisions when it came to allotting my time and resources.

flexible goals

Even this has come under fire recently, though.  In the past five years, a team of leading researchers from Harvard, U Penn, University of Arizona and Northwestern’s business schools have all pointed out that this can be taken too far.  Goals can be useful for bringing focus, but people have a tendency to become too focused when working with specific goals, blinding them to other important factors at play, and crippling their ability to adapt to changing situations.  If one becomes overly focused on their steps while walking, it’s easy to get lost.  Of course if one is too focused on finding a turn, it’s easy to stumble…  Finding the balance between these two is where the Tai Chi model can be helpful.

By bringing the mindset cultivated by Tai Chi Chuan practice into our everyday lives, we can learn to focus on positive directions rather than being tied to overly specific outcomes.  It helps us keep perspective, making it easier to give up small concessions for a greater purpose (such as yielding in order to advance).  It also reminds us to take stock of our options at each juncture, and to listen to the changing situation, so we are making decisions based on how things are, not how things were when the plan was created.  Lastly, it helps us deal with failure, which is an essential part of any process, by reminding us that just because the thing we were trying didn’t work doesn’t mean we should stop trying.  As my Tai Chi teacher David Block used to say, “The difference between an advanced student and a master is that the advanced student is very good at not falling.  The master is very good at falling.”

Just like an opponent in a fight, life can conspire to foil our best efforts sometimes.  If we’re fixated on achieving things in a specific way, it can stress us out, lead to frustration, and eventually cause us to surrender.  If instead we are open to it, roll with it, adapt, and simply keep moving in the right general direction, sooner or later we’ll find ourselves where we wanted to be, even though we never had imagined walking the road that got us there.

Dax is a Taiji Zen guest blogger.  Want to contribute your posts to the Taiji Zen Blog?  Find the details here!

About Dax

Dax is an international entrepreneur and writer. He just sold his most recent business, and is currently working on a book about his experience backpacking through Asia in college, where he studied Zen meditation in Japan, Taiji in China, was almost sold into sex slavery in India, and raised tigers in a Buddhist temple in Thailand. He has been practicing Taiji for 7 years under David Block (Grandmaster Tung Kai Ying) and He Shao Jun (Grandmaster Lin Mo Gen). Dax is a Taiji Zen guest blogger.

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