I finished my dissertation this week, nothing left but the shouting (i.e. administrative requirements) until I’m officially Dr. Margaret M. Seymour, PhD. I’ve been dreaming, sometimes literally, of this moment for the past five years. Arguably, since I was a toddler telling my PaPa what I wanted to be when I grew up - I meant a medical doctor but hey, some things change! Now, it’s here. I can mark it off every single one of my “to-do” lists (don’t ask how many I have). I can clear that nagging little task from the back of my mind. Ahh the weight is lifted. I’ve summited the mountain, crossed the finish line, hit the other side of the journey.
Except it doesn’t feel that way at all.
The feeling reminds me of my first ultra marathon - the Jetty 2 Jetty Ultra, 35 miles of beach running along the Florida oceanfront in May. Every excruciating moment leading up to the finish line I swore I’d never do it again. I tried to burn the feelings of pain, suffering, and helplessness into my brain, as the Florida sun burnt into my skin. Three days later I looked back and thought “huh, that wasn’t that hard.”
It’s a feeling I know I share with other runners. When I finished the transcon last year, on the drive home I texted my running muse/mentor/spirit guide. She confirmed, “I thought I’d feel like I just did this great big thing. But I didn’t feel that way at all.”
“In between goals is a thing called life that has to be lived and enjoyed.” I don’t know where I first heard some version of that quote, but the internet tells me it came from Sid Caesar. That same internet tells me Sid was a famous television actor from the 1950s, but I only know him as the Coach from Grease. While I’m sure he was full of insightful one-liners (“Not just running! Something that needs endurance! Something that needs stamina! Like, long-distance running! Cross-country running!”), I always hated this one. I always thought it was a little dismissive of goals. Too carefree, too west coast for me. I’m a goal kind of gal after all, usually setting one before I’ve finished the last three. I thought it was telling us all to stop setting goals, that it was more important to just enjoy life directionless and wandering. Maybe that’s what ole Sid meant, but maybe not.
I thought about that quote this week as I started getting excited about my next goal. It made me stop and wonder if I should put down my to-do lists and just float.
But then I remembered a recent studyI had read about how the pursuit of goals is more rewarding than accomplishing them - that running the race is more pleasurable than finishing it. The study argues that it’s not the accomplishment, it’s the striving. It really is the struggle, the journey, no matter how difficult or long, no matter how many setbacks - that’s what our animal brains and bodies crave. It’s the pursuit that gives us happiness. Or as one researcherputs it “of seven core instincts in the human brain (anger, fear, panic-grief, maternal care, pleasure/lust, play, and seeking), seeking is the most important.”
Seeking, not finding, gives you a high. Maybe that is what keeps me restless, maybe that is what keeps us all restless to some degree. More importantly, maybe that the fact that seeking is more pleasurable than achieving is the best news for ourselves and our society. If we’re biologically wired to keep seeking new information, new experiences, and new goals, we’re predisposed to chasing dreams. Chasing dreams is not only what keeps us alive, it’s what keeps our society progressing. Sure, taking a breather is good now and then. Rest is critical to growth - but we shouldn’t let rest become resting on our laurels.
So maybe life IS what happens between goals, but only if we have goals. It’s not the drifting of a feather we seek, it is the direction of the arrow. In seeking our goals, more so than achieving them, we find our own passions, strengths, and limitations. In seeking, we learn. In all of my “what I learned” posts, so very few lessons came to me at the finish line. My education didn’t come at the end, my lessons were tucked into the journey, amongst the suffering, the disappointments, the setbacks, the progress, and the frustrations.
As this educational journey wraps up, I’m left wanting more - more learning, more striving, and yes more achieving, if not from books then from the road - a different sort of “coursework”. My extended rest is over. It’s time to seek the next goal.