In the correspondence I have with the wonderful people I work with as coach and mentor I am often struck by how harsh they are with themselves, how much their confidence and wellbeing seems to hinge on achieving this or that creative goal.

Indeed, the wider world of the coaching ‘industry’ encourages us to help our clients identify and set clear goals and SMART targets, the idea being that achieving our goals makes us happy and successful people.

However, I’ve long been uneasy with words like ‘goal’ or ‘target’, particularly when it comes to our creative work. Because a creative life is not just a series of exhibitions launched, or books published. It’s an orientation toward a life of learning and growth. As I’ve explored elsewhere, it’s a practice.

I am currently reading a book by Tara McMullin “What Works: A comprehensive framework to change the way we approach Goal setting”. The title is a bit misleading, as McMullin actually dismantles the whole idea of ‘Goal setting’ and challenges the accepted wisdom that we should spend our lives ticking off achievements.

She points out how we absorb a lot of ideas from the wider culture that are fundamentally ‘ableist’ and then beat ourselves up for not sizing up. She offers an eloquent take-down of the whole idea that we should just follow our passion and somehow everything will work out, as if systemic barriers and inequalities didn’t exist.

To suggest that we can all just ‘follow the dream’ and ‘do what you love’ is nothing short of a con and she shows how this is tied up with neoliberal ideology, supremacy culture and the cult of individualism that makes us buy into this magical thinking and then blame ourselves for failing.

McMullin also uses the language of practice, but sees it in a much wider context than creative work. A regular morning routine is a practice. 

Taking regular exercise is a practice. Reading, and writing are practices. Cooking, baking bread, walking the dog, can all be practices because, she argues:

The purpose of practice is presence, groundedness and perspective.

There’s something subversive and empowering at work in this reading of practice:

When we make practice intentional and conscious, we shift our relationships to systems of power. These systems would rather keep us rushing around, constantly consuming, and producing more and more with our time. Practice is resistance. It reduces urgency, creates satisfaction, and reminds you that there is more to life than being productive.

In Western industrial capitalist societies we are taught from an early age to organise our lives around achievement. We strive to pass exams, to find a life partner, get a good job, tick, tick, tick. Submit that report, file that tax return, write that email, tick, tick, tick. McMullin points out that ‘all our planners and to-do lists are configured to the completion of the task rather than the doing of the task.

Oh I am so busted. I’ve actually written to-do lists just so I can tick off tasks I have already done so I don’t feel like such a loser.

It’s all about finishing tasks, rather than experiencing them as our way of being in, interacting with, and learning about the world.

Instead of setting goals, McMullin encourages us to think in terms of making ‘commitments’ to a ‘practice’ that’s aligned to our values and to the person we want to become. By emphasising practice over achievement, we move away from anxious striving and towards ‘easeful growth.’

Goals are the basic building blocks of achievement-oriented structure….that means how we strive to achieve those goals becomes part of the foundation of our life structure. Commitments, on the other had, are the basic building blocks of practice-oriented structure. Commitments give direction to personal values, create a presence of mind, and help you connect to the evolution of your core identity.

This isn’t a pie-in-the-sky call to ‘notice the little things’ or just slow down. McMullin recognises the remorseless logic of neoliberalism that has eroded social safety nets and created a deep sense of precarity and anxiety in us all. The need to meet our basic needs is real and pressing. But at the same time she offers a fundamental reimagining of how we choose the activities that we spend our precious time and energy on, and some concrete strategies for doing this more consciously.