THE JOURNEY OR THE DESTINATION
If you had to pick between the journey or the destination, which would you choose?
Do you value the winding river along the way — or the peak at the top of the mountain?
It is a difficult question to answer. Every person has their own reasons for choosing one over the other: “The journey is how we get to the destination” one might say; “There would be no journey without a destination” says another.
It is interesting. Think about it — would you ever keep playing your sport if all you did was practise? No games or competitions?
Would you even begin a movie if there was no ending? If there was just one scene after another, going on forever without any emotional conclusion?
On the other hand it is the journey that makes the destination taste so much sweeter.
Let me propose another thought experiment — If you were able to teleport to your favourite destination in the blink of an eye anytime you wanted, how quickly would you tire of it?
You would stop teleporting after a few trips precisely because of how easy it is to get there. Arriving at your destination after a long and tedious journey increases the salience of the moment.
Or, put another way — if you could control the outcome of any game, would it be as fun to play or watch?
Also, pretty unlikely.
The unknown factor of the game makes it all that exciting. High consequences and risk is also an important condition for flow. Not knowing what will happen next increases the stakes, but also heightens awareness and presence. Being able to control the “destination” in this case actually diminishes the enjoyment of the “journey”.
So which one should we emphasize? Which should be the focal point of our focus?
If we look at the sport psychology literature researchers have long touted the importance of focusing on the process (journey) rather than the outcome (destination). If our attention is focused on the end result then we have a disconnect between mind and body. The body is present but the mind is not.
I am, of course, a big proponent of this idea. The more we can bring mind and body together in the moment, the greater likelihood that peak performance will occur. On a micro — ball is in the court, final minute of play — level, not being distracted by the outcome (think destination) is the smart mental move.
For instance, take writing this article. I have an arbitrary “destination” of writing 2000 words. Sometimes I can get caught up in checking what my current word count is during a writing session. I get distracted and get attached to the end result rather than focusing on what will help me get there — just writing!
This is also demonstrated by my recent obsession with improving my chess Elo rating. Rather than allowing the learning process to unfold I get so distracted and up-tight thinking about not losing because it will lower my rating. This totally derails my focus causing me to make simple mistakes and has the precise opposite effect I had in mind. In this case, letting go of the outcome completely and immersing myself in the minutiae of the game is what will actually allow me to perform better.
Another example is when I go for a run. I can sometimes get too fixated on checking my watch every few minutes. The outcome in this scenario is the predetermined pace I’ve come up for myself. But checking the pace too often actually has the opposite effect on my run — I am not focused on how my body feels and my mind drifts.
However, having that outcome goal for myself is useful for keeping me on track overall.
Similarly, having an outcome goal for the writing session helps me sit down to write in the first place. And chasing a better Elo rating motivates me to play chess more constantly and with purpose. Former Chess Champion and author of The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance Josh Waitzkin brings up an interesting point that some people avoid challenging themselves by not thinking about outcomes:
"This brings up an incipient danger in what may appear to be an incremental approach. I have seen many people in diverse fields take some version of the process-first philosophy and transform it into an excuse for never putting themselves on the line or pretending not to care about results. They claim to be egoless, to care only about learning, but really this is an excuse to avoid confronting themselves."
Waitzkin is not saying that process focus is unimportant but rather that it is completely natural for humans to strive towards outcomes and that it can be a driver for growth. Performance advisor Kapil Gupta is also a big proponent of destinations over journeys:
“It absolutely is about the destination. You want to get to the point where you don’t have it anymore. You aren’t looking for treatments, you’re looking for a cure. There is a destination. It isn’t about spending the next 90 years getting assaulted and then feeling better, getting assaulted then putting tiger balm on it. It is about wanting to get over it.
Destination and journeys–that’s another lie. It’s not about journeys. It’s about destinations. Destinations require journeys, but everything that you do in your life is defined by the destination. The moment that you leave your house every single day, you have a destination. And the destination creates the avenue.
…if there was no destination, no one would begin any journey. If there was no compulsion to arrive anywhere, then no one would begin any kind of journey at all. It is just that most people’s destination is the prescription (emphasis mine)…That becomes a destination in itself: that I have achieved that self image where I view myself that way.” (Watch the full conversation here)
The point I believe Kapil is making here is that it is fine to gravitate towards the destination, but make sure the destination is the actual thing you are seeking. Otherwise, it’s just another pleasure chase. The goal post keeps moving and you are left unsatisfied. The high of reaching one destination leaves one feeling depressed — like the post-olympic blues many athletes experience.
What usually happens to people is that they get attached to destinations. The Olympic athlete to the gold medal; the CEO with funding a lavish retirement. They become “prescriptions” and we lose sight of what’s necessary now. Our mind is in one place while the body is in another.
Using my previous examples of writing and running; it is easy to get attached to the arbitrary numbers I set (2000 words or under 5 min/km pace) and lose a sense of the joy and presence I feel when I allow myself to be immersed in the process.
Not only that, but valuable data about getting to the destination itself can only be received if I am in tune with the moment by moment experience, such as how tight my hamstrings feel and my own internal dialogue (self-talk). Also, by checking my watch every one kilometer instead of every few minutes I can paint a much clearer picture of how I am doing and allows me to course correct if need be. The destination is still in sight (pace) but it is no longer the “prescription” but rather a means of paying attention.
The journey vs. the destination can also be likened to the question of who you are vs. who you want to be. Is life the pursuit of realizing who you already are or is it about becoming a different (potentially better) version of yourself?
Raj Dhillon, co-owner of Pivotal Physiotherapy and mentor of mine answers this question eloquently:
“Be extremely present and content with who you are: this requires forgiveness & a pursuit of having one’s actions, words and values align.
All the while, strive to be an improved better of yourself through these very actions and self reflection; a scaffolding of goals if you will.
So the idea is that you can accept what is while simultaneously working towards something — in this case the new and improved you.
But here too we can fall into the trap of the destination being the prescription. It is very easy to keep wanting more; to keep searching for the next improvement to make. We fall victim to self-improving ourselves to death.
We need to make sure our self-improvement is coming from an authentic place that moves us towards self-actualization as opposed to self-image actualization.
So the idea is that you can accept what is while simultaneously working towards something — in this case the new and improved you.
How does one know when they are in pursuit of a self-actualizing destination as opposed to the blind chase of inauthentic image inflation? It is about the destination being more clear and authentically lined up with your values.
Everyone wants to get to their destination. In any given tournament for example, all the competitors “want” to reach the destination. We often hear this from sport commentators: “they just wanted it more”. But what we have to realize is that one competitor doesn't deserve the outcome more than any other. The game doesn’t care who it crowns the champion. The universe or the labor force is not structured around the goal of nurturing our “passions”. Therefore it’s not about wanting it more. It is about authenticity.
Maybe it is the birth of my son, or the gradual realization of getting older, but I am starting to question what my own personal striving is for. Are my pursuits pure or am I just on the hedonic treadmill continuously running towards an unknowable finish line?
Overall I am satisfied with my professional and personal accomplishments. I’ve done some pretty cool things and had some great experiences. But as each new project or opportunity comes my way I don’t jump at the opportunity as I would when I was younger. Each new dangling carrot is becoming less appetizing as time goes by. Now I find myself saying no more than I say yes. The things I end up saying yes to need to be a resounding “hell yea!” and lined up with my values, otherwise I question it’s utility.
My younger self was simply prescribing myself destinations to chase after without really reflecting if the journey will be worth the price of admission. Of course I needed to go through that experience to realize this, and I am also not saying I don’t chase after certain outcomes. I am human after all. But rather I purposefully chose a destination that is worth striving for. That also means not picking ten separate goals, but simplifying the pursuits to a few core destinations. On a macro scale for me this means choosing paths that pass the filter of my values: flow, family, health, adaptability, and wisdom.
Using an optimized values based plan gives me intention and direction. It reminds me of the fact that we only have 4000 weeks on this Earth and I can’t possibly get to each “destination” — I need to prioritize what things are worth focusing on. I like to use the metaphor of having multiple buckets in our lives, each that needs to be filled with water. But the catch is we only have a limited amount of water and each bucket can’t be filled up completely. Some buckets are going to be fuller than others at various times.
Therefore it is useful to ask yourself which buckets do I need to fill? Which ones am I neglecting?
Each bucket is a macro destination. Without these buckets we wouldn’t know how to navigate our time and the journey (water) would go to waste.
So here we are again back to the original question: which is more important; the journey or the destination?
If I am being honest with you, I don’t really have a concrete suggestion for what you should focus on. We can’t answer this with a scientific study unfortunately. It is one of those esoteric questions that each of us has to answer for themselves.
But allow me to throw in another item to the mix — the company we keep.
At the end of our careers — and ultimately our lives — the thing we will remember most is the relationships we’ve built along the way. The buckets don’t mean anything if we can’t share the water (journey) with those we love the most. Notice the retirement speeches from the likes of Roger Federer and Sebastian Vettel. They both talk about the impact and importance of the people around them.
What this all comes down to then, is that we can strive for both — the journey AND the destination. They both need each other. Particularly with high achievers it is crucial to have a healthy relationship with both. But it is equally important to not forget about the people who help you, guide you, and provide you with companionship on the way to the top of your personal mountain. As an old African proverb goes:
“If you want to go fast — go alone. If you want to go far — go together.”
What this all comes down to then, is that we can strive for both — the journey AND the destination. They both need each other
So to sum up all this rambling:
1. It is okay to have a destination as your main motivation, but make sure it’s the right one
Don’t set outcomes just to set outcomes. We can become easily addicted to the chase which becomes a “prescription” in itself. For example, while reaching towards one target you get distracted by the dopamine hit of reaching for the newer, shiner target. Keep your ambitions simple and real.
2. Don’t get so preoccupied with the finger, that you lose sight of the moon
Whether it is the process or the outcome that you focus on, don’t let it distract you from the bigger picture. Each can be equally distracting so learn to balance them both.
3. Put things in “Zen mode”
I got this from the chess platform I play in. Whenever I play against someone I can press the “Zen mode” button and it covers up the elo ratings of both players and the chat option. It is similar to removing the heads-up-display (HUD) in video games and allowing yourself to be immersed in the action. What this allows me to do is to not get distracted by false outcomes (Elo rating/ranking) and instead focus on the process of the game AND the real destination; finding the best moves to win.
Stay frosty, my friends!