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a woman wearing athletic gear writes in a journal

The first time I set a “fitness goal,” I didn’t even know fitness goals were a thing. It was the summer of 1994, the eve of a new school year at a new school — middle school — in a new town. I was 11 years old, feeling trapped in a changing body I didn’t recognize or understand, and full of nerves about making a good impression.

I need to lose weight, I decided. I didn’t know much at 11, but I’d already absorbed the message that being skinny was desirable, powerful even. If I could just shrink down to the “right” size, I’d ace all my classes and win the hearts of the other kids.

I spent the last week of summer walking all over my new neighborhood and skipping meals. Whether this was an attempt to exert control over my body or over a scary situation — or both — is something I can only guess at now, 27 years later.

Not surprisingly, a week of these efforts didn’t have the exponential results I’d hoped for. What they did was set the tone for a mindset I’d battle for years to come.

Throughout my school years, I struggled with my body image and self-confidence. I spent many after-school hours in the basement working out to exercise videos. I skipped breakfast and lunch. I weighed and measured my body. I never reached my goal weight.

In my teenage eyes, I had failed.

I couldn’t see the gifts I was giving myself with those exercise videos, which included yoga, dance, kickboxing, and strength circuits. I couldn’t see how they were instilling in me a love of movement and an appreciation for physical challenges.

Goals aren’t a final destination.
They aren’t an endpoint.
They’re simply an invitation.

I also couldn’t see the ways I was hurting myself: pushing myself too hard, eating too little, and denying myself basic care and pleasures.

This pattern continued into my early 30s, even after I shifted my focus away from being purely about aesthetics and toward performance goals like running and lifting.

And still, even though I had my why, even though I had a good training plan, even when I reached the goals I had set, it wasn’t enough.

Again, I now understand there was so much I couldn’t see. I didn’t look beyond the goals I had set, yet this performance-focused phase of my journey taught me so much about exercise and human movement. I had learned new skills and found sports I loved. My doctor was always impressed by my lab work; once, with a stethoscope to my chest, she marveled, “The heart of an athlete.”

If I had the heart of an athlete, then why did I always feel like a total failure?

The answer arrived when I broke up with goal-setting, at least in the way I’d been doing it. In my fitness life (and, if I’m being honest, my whole life), I had looked at goals as destinations on the horizon — an endpoint I should reach.

But I came to understand that what I desire is to be able to live and move without self-blame and shame. I want to grow as a person by becoming more myself — not less.

To achieve this vision, I needed to reframe my understanding of goals.

So, I stopped setting them.

I began approaching movement from a place of curiosity. I asked, What if . . . ? I followed my intuition about how and when to move. As I followed my instincts, my intuition got louder. And in this process of learning, my greatest fear since childhood — that if I stopped setting goals, I’d stop moving altogether — fell away. Even without specific goals, I got stronger.

This hasn’t been a linear journey, but my circuitous, oftentimes surprising path has given me the best result I could have asked for: I no longer think of myself as a failure.

For a while, I thought the moral of this story was that goals are overrated at best, injurious at worst. But the narrative I embrace now is less binary: Goals aren’t a final destination. They aren’t an endpoint. They’re simply an invitation — to take a step forward, to explore a direction, and maybe to let myself get lost along the way and discover something new.

Finally, I can accept that sometimes I must get lost to find what I was looking for all along.

This article originally appeared as “Coming Into Focus” in the June 2022 issue of Experience Life.

Maggie Fazeli Fard

Maggie Fazeli Fard, RKC, is an Experience Life senior editor.

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