“A classic,” said Mark Twain, “is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” Such is the case with arguably the greatest novel in Spanish literature, The Ingenious Nobleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha. But the other characteristic of a classic work is the mark it leaves on culture, and you don’t have to have read the thousand pages of Don Quixote to understand its themes.
“A classic,” said Mark Twain, “is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” Such is the case with arguably the greatest novel in Spanish literature, The Ingenious Nobleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha. But the other characteristic of a classic work is the mark it leaves on culture, and you don’t have to have read the thousand pages of Don Quixote to understand its themes. You may have heard someone ridiculed as “quixotic,” or maybe you’ve bemoaned a hopeless work project as “tilting at windmills.”
Countless works have been inspired by Miguel de Cervantes’ original opus, from Hollywood movies to Broadway musicals to popular rock bands. Most of the derivative works caricature the man from La Mancha as a comical, addled, slightly pathetic figure whose delusions lead him to countless misadventures and eventual ruin.
But there is another narrative present in his story that I believe is instructive to us, even four centuries hence. Don Quixote looked around him in society and recognized that something important was dying; namely, the age of chivalry. He was determined to rescue it any way he could, and although it can be argued that he failed time and time again, the sincerity of his effort cannot be denied.
Something important is dying today, too. Us. Over the past 150 years or so, the precipitous onslaught of technological advance has allowed us to create a world in which our every want and need are provided, at little cost and with zero effort. The effect is an irony sadder than any that Cervantes dreamed up: we are fatter, sicker, less fit, more miserable, and less capable than any generation in human history. We got everything we ever wanted, and it’s just about ruined us.
It’s Goal Season
The truth that we are so slow to accept is that we require the discomfort, exertion, and struggle that our ancestors endured. Without it, our bodies wither, our minds become muddled, and society itself begins to fracture. But we’ve done such a thorough job at removing opportunities for challenge from our daily lives that we now have to manufacture them.
We call it exercise.
As we speak, at gyms all across the country, the regulars are beset by wave after wave of resolutioners. The gyms themselves capitalize on this windfall, holding promotions, specials, and challenges to get people excited about their budding fitness habits.
The common thread running through this entire phenomenon is the setting of goals for the new calendar year. Coaches and academics love to argue about goals. “It’s about the journey,” they intone, without a hint of the irony that should come from using such a cliché. From a purely intellectual standpoint, they’re probably right, but pragmatically, their distinction is also worthless. People are going to set goals in their attempts to better themselves, and they will only realize after the fact that it was the process that mattered.
So let’s set some damn goals, shall we?
Smarter Than Smart
My wife (the most wonderful woman in the world and the most likely of the two of us to become a millionaire) works in a particular chamber of hell referred to as “corporate America.” For reasons I will never ascertain, she gets excited about things that put me instantly to sleep, like process improvement, management seminars, and certifications that, so far as I can tell, indicate to the rest of the world that you possess at least a small degree of common sense.
But one overlap between her world and mine occurs when we talk about goals. They should be, we are told, SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely. Sure, fine. That’s probably true. But they should be another kind of SMART, too.
- Scary as hell. There should be elements of your goal that threaten your physical being, your ego, or both.
- Meaningful to you personally. They should be something that pulls at your heartstrings for one reason or another. That reason doesn’t have to make sense to anybody else, either. More on that later.
- Above your current level of ability. This might seem obvious, but more than a few people set goals that they are already capable of accomplishing right now, or with very little work. For a goal to create a process and improve your habits, it needs to be something that will take months or years of work.
- Rare. Here’s the tricky part. It doesn’t have to be something that’s rare to everybody, but it should at least be a rare occurrence in your life. Lots of people run marathons, and a few crazies do it regularly. But if it’s something that you may only be able to accomplish once in your life, it’s a rare goal.
- Tribe-focused. Your goal should be something that causes you to surround yourself with likeminded people. This can be at a gym, or with a running team, or at a Thursday night dodgeball league. No, online tribes don’t count. You need to be around other actual people.
Of course, these are not tangible qualities, but I believe they are necessary to effective goal-setting nonetheless. You can set goals according to the corporate version of SMART, and never reach them because they’re boring. Or you may reach them and not be improved by the experience, because they were not suitably challenging. Creating goals that meet both definitions of SMART is ideal, and I think you’ll find that the concepts are complimentary; if you create a goal according to the criteria I just laid out, chances are it’ll meet the corporate definition as well.
Photo by Bev Childress
Dream the Impossible Dream
This brings us back to our friend Don Quixote, the aging, delusional knight. Like us, he found himself in a world bereft of opportunities to reclaim what was lost. Like him, we must create epic struggles that most people won’t see. We understand that we have to do things that others will find absurd, make sacrifices that will place us at odds with our culture, and test ourselves against standards far outside of what society considers relevant.
We must tilt at our windmills, which we recognize as giants, because the alternative is to forsake something valuable. So we’ll lace up our shoes, air up our tires, load up our barbells, and get after it this year like never before. Our naysayers will shake their heads and treat us like outsiders, and that’s okay. They don’t see what we see. They’ll tell us that our blood and sweat are unnecessary, but we know better.
In the 1964 musical Man of La Mancha, one of the dozens of works spawned by Cervantes’ masterpiece, our unlikely hero bursts forth in a soaring anthem in an attempt to explain himself.
“To dream the impossible dream; to fight the unbeatable foe… To try when your arms are too weary; to reach the unreachable star… I know if I’ll only be true to this glorious quest, that my heart will lie peaceful and calm, when I’m laid to my rest.”
From Cervantes’ pen to your ears. Slay your own giants this year, no matter what they are or what anyone says about them.