Chasing Seagulls: The Beauty of Unattainable Goals

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On a recent foggy day, my two-year-old daughter whiled away tens of minutes chasing seagulls along a deserted expanse of beach.  She ran and giggled and clapped and squealed as the gulls swooped and alighted about her. The gulls seemed to also enjoy the game, waiting until the last minute to take to the sky, then reclaiming the same spit of land as if taunting her to try again.

She gladly followed their tease, time after time.

Until suddenly she didn’t.

Without warning, she stopped running and dropped her head to her chest. She looked oddly similar to Rosie on the Jetsons running out of power.

Fearing she was ill or injured, my husband rushed over. “What’s the matter?” he called as he ran.

She stayed silent and still until he was right beside her, then whispered, “Can't get the seagulls. Me too slow.”

My husband paused to consider how to respond to her correct observation. Then he said, “Daddy can’t catch the seagulls either. They’re too fast for any of us. But it’s still fun, isn’t it?”

The kiddo pulled her chin from her chest and looked him hard in the face. She took a deep breath and pursed her lips. Then she suddenly began running again, as if the realization had never hit her.

What Are Your Seagulls?

Do you remember the moment when you suddenly lost faith in your ability to “catch seagulls”? Maybe it was the realization that happiness is easier pursued than attained, or that a sense of purpose slips in and out of our lives like water in a lock.

Or perhaps it was something more tangible, like a career path for which you didn’t have the right aptitude, or a dreamed-of lifestyle that's always just out of reach.

For some of you, maybe that moment of realization is right now. In many respects, the quarter life crisis erupts when we recognize that our childhood vision of adulthood fails to even approximate reality. It occurs when we finally see life clearly.

Since I’m not some mystical thinker - nor even a delusional optimist – who says, “You can attain anything you want! You can create the life you hold in your mind!” here’s my "realistic optimist" position on life:

You can do much. You can do great things. But there are limits. We all know seagulls can’t be caught.

Some Things Aren't Meant to Be Caught

Obviously on a literal level, if my daughter caught a seagull, her overzealous clutches on a delicate gull’s throat would spell bad news. As would the bird’s talons on her skin.

But so too on a figurative level, seagulls should remain something we chase and never catch.

Imagine if we could “be happy” all the time. Then we’d live in a Matrix-like reality in which we long for a day of rain.

Imagine if we could have the entire life about which we now dream. Then we’d live like the jackpot lottery winners who wallow in depression and addiction, wishing for their fortune to disappear.

Imagine if we could find work that was 100% perfect 100% of the time. Then we’d have no cause to travel the world or feel sand between our toes or look our loved ones so deeply in the eyes that we see flecks of a color we never imagined could exist.

I for one am glad that the horizon looms way out there, unable to be reached. I'd hate to see the edge of the earth.

The Joy of the Chase

Unfortunately, though, all too often after our stroke of reality, we stop chasing seagulls. Unlike kids, who immediately bounce back and return to reaching for the cookie in the locked cabinet, we give up. We see our limits and think it’s somehow “rational” or “mature” to "accept" them. By which we mean, to stop striving to live beyond them.

For instance, I’ve heard countless people say variations of, “I don’t know why you put so much energy into writing about finding work that feels meaningful. I’ve given up on that. I just work to pay the bills.”

Is it hard to find purposeful, meaningful work? Hell yes. Is even the most meaningful job filled with days of drudgery and misery? Hell yes. But the pursuit is a blast. It’s an absolute frickin’ blast.

I wonder why we let ourselves forget about the joy of the chase. Why is the only goal worth pursuing one that we believe we have near certainty of eventually attaining? Why are the only quests worthy of speaking aloud those that seem "realistic" and "feasible"? Why does product so completely eclipse process?

You can create a secure life for yourself. You can create an existence in which you reach every goal that you set. It’s actually not very hard to do that.

But that’s no life I’d want to live.

I say chase the seagulls even though you’ll never catch them. Actually, because you’ll never catch them.

The most glee-filled moments of your life will be spent in their pursuit.