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Why Life Really is a Journey and Not a Destination

Ralph Waldo Emerson is often credited with the iconic cliche (made famous by Aerosmith in their 1992 hit single, Amazing), “Life is a journey, not a destination.”

In fact, Emerson never wrote those words. It’s possible what he did write was its impetus:

“To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

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I’ve always hated the “Life is a journey” meme.

Life is about the destination. It’s about where you finish. Did you win or lose? If it isn’t, what the heck are we doing all this work for?

Maybe it was being raised in rural Upstate New York, watching my working-class parents show up and “Do the work” every day without any tangible improvement in our lives.

Maybe it’s that as a kid, I never had a vision of what I wanted my life to be… other than better. I knew I needed to get out of my small town and anything beyond that seemed like gravy.

That life could ever be about the painful grind of the “Journey” seemed a sentiment more suited for the privileged and self-indulgent.

Then I read The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron in 2013.

The Artist’s Way

My reason for reading The Artist’s Way was how terrible I felt after committing to writing my first book, Content Warfare.

I wanted the goal (or, in context, the destination) of publishing a collection of stories outlining the evergreen content marketing tactics and strategies I’d used to dominate my local marketplace.

The problem was I had no idea how to write a book. The task felt overwhelming. My son, Duke, was only six months old, and I still had a full-time job at the insurance agency. There was no “Extra time” to sit and write a book.

In The Artist’s Way, Cameron outlines her “Morning Pages” ritual (the daily practice of writing three unscripted stream-of-consciousness pages each morning).

Cameron’s morning pages gave me a process, and the process gave me hope.

“As you move toward a dream, the dream moves toward you.”

Julia Cameron

As crazy as this might sound, I’d never set a specific process against a goal before sticking to it. Not in sports, not in school, and certainly not at work.

It turns out cliche motivational advice can still be good advice.

Publishing Content Warfare wasn’t nearly as satisfying as the grind of producing the work. Writing a book is mentally and emotionally exhausting, but you also get the opportunity to open your creativity valve.

I forgot about writing a book.

I forgot about the deadline.

I forgot about what other people might think about a certain idea.

I just wrote.

Every day I wrote.

Slowly, word by word, page by page, day by day, I began to find enjoyment in the process of writing.

This hasn’t always been the case.

Early on, the joy of writing was publishing. All I wanted to do was hit publish. I couldn’t wait. I wanted to see my work live. I wanted others to engage with it and send me those little gratifying hits of dopamine we’ve all grown to need.

The crap I’ve published to have something new to share… ugh. But those five grueling months, grinding through Content Warfare, changed everything.

Now it’s all about the process: from research to narrative design to adding supporting media and editing. The process is satisfaction.

image credit: tenor

Today it takes me twice as long to publish an article as it did when I started writing.

At face value, it feels like the opposite should be true. But this is the dirty little secret of writing, as you mature into the skill, writing doesn’t become easier or faster.

You hold yourself to higher standards and demand more from the articles you share with the world. And it is through relenting to process doing the work that I finally came to understand the cliche, “It’s the journey, not the destination.”


When we focus on the goal over the process, we open ourselves up to fear and doubt.

“The amateur believes he must first overcome his fear; then he can do his work. The professional knows that fear can never be overcome. He knows there is no such thing as a fearless warrior or a dread-free artist.”

~ Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

We put the goal on a pedestal. As James Clear writes,

Winners and losers have the same goals.

Winners fall in love with the process (the journey).

“The opposite of fear is love — love of the challenge, love of the work, the pure joyous passion to take a shot at our dream and see if we can pull it off.”

~ Steven Pressfield, Do the Work

Winners fall in love with the process because that’s all they can control.

In a recent episode of Tim Ferriss’s podcast, Jason Fried, founder of Basecamp, shared his perspective on goals:

“I don’t have any goals. I’ve never had any goals. Goals are not something that I pay attention to. I just sort of do what I feel like is the right thing to do in any given situation.”

Fried went on to explain:

“For me, I don’t want to compare myself to an idea I had two years prior of where I wanted to be. I don’t know where I’m going to want to be in two years. So, to set a goal that’s long-term, in some cases you’re actually setting it for who you are when you set it versus who you are when you’re going to get there.”

Goals are made up.

Worse, they’re made up to fit who you are today or who you think you may want to be. Neither of which is who you will be when you get there.

Instead, I recommend giving James Clear’s Compass Theory a try:

“The problem with a treasure hunt is that most people spend all of their time thinking about the treasure. The fastest way to get to a particular spot, however, is to set your compass and start walking.

The idea here is to commit to your goal with the utmost conviction. Develop a clear, single-minded focus for where you are headed. Then, however, you do something strange. You release the desire to achieve a particular outcome and focus instead on the slow march forward.

Pour all of your energy into the journey, be present in the moment, be committed to the path you are walking. Know that you are moving unwaveringly in one clear direction and that this direction is right for you, but never get wrapped up in a particular result or achieving a certain goal by a specific time.

In other words, your goal becomes your compass, not your buried treasure. The goal is your direction, not your destination. The goal is a mission that you are on, a path that you follow. Whatever comes from that path — whatever treasure you happen to find along this journey — well, that’s just fine. It is the commitment to walking the path that matters.”

Using Clear’s metaphor, if your goal drives motivation, you’re leaving yourself open to lose course, lose hope, and ultimately never find the destination you seek.

However, by always focusing on the compass, you can easily adapt and adjust course as needed, staying true to the process.

Consistent forward progress for the win.

The Rub

Worry about what you can control: the quality of your work and how often you produce that work.

These form the foundation of your process.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t set goals, don’t get all messed up about them.

Instead, focus every ounce of your energy on what you’re doing to get there.

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It is amazing that a worn-out cliche, such as “Life is a journey, not a destination,” can be cemented at the center of so much truth.

Thank you,

Ryan Hanley

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