When was the last time you achieved something significant in your life?
Did you smash a weight loss or fitness goal? Graduate from a course or degree? Or even just finish a big craft or home improvement project?
If so, congratulations! It feels great to achieve a goal, and see all that hard work pay off, doesn't it?
Any milestones of this nature typically start with some common steps – usually you set a goal, and then plan actionable steps that will move you closer to achieving it. Ideally, you then actually do those steps, which eventually leads you to the achievement.
However... what we should be celebrating isn't the achievement itself, but rather, the consistent work you did to get there.
There are some other schools of thought about goal-setting, which flip the traditional idea of 'achieving a goal' on its head, and instead look at the journey – and how consistently you work at it as you travel along – as being infinitely more important than the destination.
James Clear, author of the bestselling book Atomic Habits, suggests that 'systems' which move you closer to a goal are far more important and fulfilling than the goals themselves.
Think about your overarching bagpipe goal(s). If your goal is, for example, to do well in solo competition, then your 'system' is the practice regimen you follow to improve your playing – like setting aside 30 minutes each day to practice, taking regular classes at Dojo U, and immersing yourself for two hours every day in good piping music and culture.
Even if you ignored your goals entirely, by focusing on this system you would still incidentally improve over time, and reach the goals you initially set out to achieve anyway.
For example, if your goal was to win a 2/4 march competition, and your practice regimen consisted of regular work on a manometer to improve your sound production, and then exercises to build rhythmic and technical accuracy, would you still improve if you did those things anyway and ignored the goal of 'winning' a competition?
The question is almost rhetorical. Setting goals really takes a backseat to the actual work we do.
In fact, setting goals can actually be detrimental to improvement – because how often have any of us achieved a goal and thought "oh well, job done!"?
Consider someone training for a half-marathon. Many people will work hard for months, but as soon as they finish the race, they stop training. Their goal was to finish the half-marathon and now that they have completed it, that goal is no longer hanging in front of them every day to motivate them.
How many times have you set yourself a weight loss goal, and then if you achieved it, stopped your fitness and diet regime, only to see the pounds creep back on over the following months and years?
When all of your hard work is focused on a particular goal, what is left to push you forward after you achieve it?
Or, even worse – what if the goal you set actually makes you worse?
What if, when you started learning to play the pipes, you set yourself a goal to march in a parade in six months' time? And took shortcuts in learning about blowing steadily, sacrificed scale navigation and fingerwork for cramming 20 parade tunes into your repertoire, and forewent learning to tune in favor of donning a kilt to wear down the street?
How many poor habits would you have ingrained – costing yourself many more hours undoing all of that poor technique – just to achieve an arbitrary goal to march in a street parade?
Goals do, of course, have their place in motivating you towards improvement, but by focusing instead on the system and habits of regular, consistent action, you are much more likely to achieve sustainable and ongoing improvement.
Bagpiping can – and should! – be a lifelong journey of learning, practice, and improvement, irrespective of achievements.
The best and most fulfilling artistic pursuits always are.
Buddhists talk of walking 'the path' as being more important than ever reaching ultimate enlightenment, and they have a point. By constantly focusing on goals that reinforce your lack of ability, or give the illusion of control over the ultimate results of our efforts, you will only be constantly comparing yourself to where you want to be, rather than accepting where you are and incrementally making minor adjustments to a system of practice that will ultimately improve your playing far more than short-term goal-achievement will.
Instead of aiming to 'win the aggregate for next year's solo competition', instead target your process, the system that is moving your efforts forward.
The result will be significant, sustained improvement, which is its own reward!
Any kind of 'achievement' in competition or otherwise will simply be icing on the cake.