During this time of year, there are many reminders on social media about setting goals and resolutions. After establishing a goal, specific action steps are needed to get from the start to the finish—reaching your goal.
As I sit in our open living room on the side of a mountain above the small town of El Valle, Panama, there are few signs of the Christmas spirit, although the occasional sounds of firecrackers anticipate the new year. When we walk into town, the Christmas decorations remind me it is December, despite the blooming jungle flora and balmy temperatures.
The Four Stages of the Butterfly’s Life Cycle
We have been raising Monarch butterflies for several months and today was a special day in our butterfly world. We were vigilant enough to witness the release of a newborn butterfly from its chrysalis.
As I photographed the various stages to chronicle the Monarch’s growth to freedom, I found myself thinking about the steps involved in achieving our own goals of freedom.
The butterfly’s phenomenally rapid growth and metamorphosis have distinct stages that progress in a specific sequence. First, a Monarch butterfly deposits an egg on the underside of the leaf of a milk thistle plant. Apparently, no other plant will do. In a few days, a tiny, almost invisible caterpillar emerges from the egg. The caterpillar begins voraciously eating the leaves of the milk thistle plant and nearly doubles in size every day. In a little over a week, the plump, one to two-inch caterpillar morphs into a chrysalis. The lime green chrysalis, with a narrow band of metallic gold near the top, starts to darken in about week. As it begins to darken, you can start to see the pattern of its wings through the wall of the chrysalis. As the outside wall begins to transform from an opaque black to transparent, you can clearly see colorful details of its wings. Without warning, the butterfly quickly drops down from its transparent casing. It takes several hours for the monarch’s body and wings to dry; it then begins to flap its wings. The Monarch is ready for its maiden flight.
Conditions Necessary for Butterfly Survival & Development
I have learned a great deal both from internet research and watching the development of our butterflies. Some conditions are necessary for the butterfly’s development while others impede it. For instance, before they emerge as a butterfly, they need a specific plant to eat, proper temperature, and humidity. Eating milk thistle leaves not only provides the energy necessary for growth and development but also helps them create an odor and taste which is repugnant to would-be predators. Since our temperature in Panama varies little from day-to-day and season-to-season, there is little to worry about on this front. However, during the dry season (December through March), I mist the chrysalis with water to keep them healthy and developing properly.
The primary problem our second batch of caterpillars experienced was their dwindling food supply. Doubling your size daily requires a lot of milk-thistle leaves, which we did not have. After numerous inquiries, I learned that a local pumpkin-like squash might serve as an alternate food source. It worked! All of these caterpillars survived and emerged into butterflies. However, they appeared less vigorous and colorful than the first group, which ate only milk-thistle leaves.
Since caterpillars are vulnerable to predators, I remove the caterpillars when I first see them on a milk thistle leaf and put them on a plant inside an enclosure. They stay in the enclosure until they emerge as adult butterflies. Although I believe that some butterflies would have made it without my intervention, I have had a 100 percent success rate in nurturing them from caterpillar to adult.
What do Butterflies have to do with Goal Setting and Achievement?
As I mentioned above, watching the process of the Monarch going from stationary egg to an adult butterfly in free flight, got me thinking about our own process toward freedom. The first step in our freedom process was to sell our house, pay off our debts, and give away over 90 percent or what we owned—like the butterfly leaving it’s Chrysalis behind, except we had more luggage. We went from full-time working and home repairing and selling to having no specified agenda for the day. I remember that after waking on our second day in Central America, we both realized that it was the first day since kindergarten that we had nothing in particular to do and no specific place to go. Although our transition seemed remarkable, it was child’s play compared to the Monarch’s metamorphosis.
Our shedding process only truly began after Rick and I had committed to the goal of putting ourselves in the position to travel and live wherever we wanted to in the world. We knew the only way we could do this was by selling our house and most of our belongings. Our two daughters had finished graduate school, obtained their masters in social work, and were employed social workers.
We had never before, in our thirty-year marriage, created a mutual goal that required such complex planning and execution. We started with a yellow legal pad and began writing the primary objectives and the numerous steps, as well as the timelines involved. We met weekly to go over our progress and our individual and mutual tasks for the next week. We met our deadline for selling and moving out of the farmhouse, as well as clearing out and clearing up all aspects of Rick’s solo psychology practice.
What We Did Not Realize
A recent article by James Clear discussed that in setting goals, we should, “Rather than considering what kind of success we want, we should ask, ‘What kind of pain do I want?’” After reading this, I realized that Rick and I had not nearly as thoroughly considered the pain we might feel during the process, as we did the feelings of success, satisfaction, and freedom we would feel when we reached our goals. In part, this may have a blessing. If we had realized how much work and anxiety the process would bring, we might not have started.
However, if we had better thought through the struggle and pain that might be involved, we would likely have planned the process differently and would have been better prepared for the emotional upheaval of actually reaching our goals. Instead, we found ourselves in an emotional whirlwind during the ten-days that we transitioned from Kansas to Central America. The climax of this experience found us in a large Atlanta mall on Black Friday. Rick was going through a panic attack, sitting in a corner of the AT&T store, while I burst out crying as the representative asked what she could do for me. The mall experience also contained an almost magical healing episode that we would not have wanted to miss and is a story for another day. Still, we could have better planned for pain.
Just for the record, we now believe that considering both the feelings of success and the pain necessary to get there, is a critical part of goal setting. We also would not frame it as how much pain we want, but how much we are willing to take on.
Getting Out of Our Own Way
As we watch the butterflies go from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult butterfly, the process seems effortless. The caterpillar spins a small sticky web so that, as a chrysalis, it can hang down from a leaf or the netted top of their enclosure. Gravity then plays a part in the butterfly’s emergence. Sometimes the leaf may dry up and fall off the plant after the Chrysalis has attached. One Chrysalis fell to the bottom of the enclosure. I was not successful in helping it connect again or even remain upright. Even after falling from the leaf and staying horizontal, the Chrysalis emerged right on time as a beautiful and healthy Monarch.
Every caterpillar I’ve collected and brought to the enclosure has morphed into a healthy butterfly, despite the obstacles mentioned above. We have released about 40 butterflies so far with another 15 caterpillars and chrysalises on their way.
Both Rick and I have become somewhat envious of the natural unfolding of the Monarch. Even when confronted by obstacles, the Monarch finds a way to continue its development without appreciable delay.
One of our goals for 2018, was to publish our book How To Bring Out The Best In Others: Finding Joy in Your Relationships With Others, Yourself, And The World. Although we are in the final stages of editing the book, at best we will actually publish it in early to mid-January 2019. Along the way, we have encountered many unexpected obstacles. We blame our rather primitive technological skills and all the things we have needed to learn about book publishing and marketing for slowing us down. We had never heard, before 2018, the terms keywords, opt-ins, landing page, etc.
However, looking back, it now seems that we have mostly gotten in our own way by feeling overwhelmed, distracted, regretful, unenthusiastic, directionless, scared, anxious, and under-zealous at times. Thoughts of “Who are we to be doing this?” and “We need to get this perfect,” among countless other thoughts have contributed. In short, our cognitive processes that drive both our thoughts and emotions, while necessary for all aspects of writing, publishing, and marketing the book, have also undermined our goals concerning the book.
On the other hand, you can get in your own way, only when you are going somewhere or at least headed in a particular direction. We have persisted, albeit rather slowly at times. Also, we recognize that our own growth and metamorphosis—both individually and as a couple–have come as we worked through frustration, doubt, and the variety of challenges listed above.
Our butterflies do not second guess themselves. They progress from one transformation to another, likely without self-consciousness. They surrender to the natural rhythms of their bodies. They adapt when things don’t go quite right. They don’t draw up a flight plan. They just fly.
A few days ago, Rick had taken a newly emerged butterfly out of the enclosure. It stayed on his hand and arm longer than usual. As it flew from his hand, it glided to the floor of our open-air living room. It tried to fly several times, would elevate a foot or two, and then plunge back to the floor. It was getting near the side of the living room and near a ten-foot drop to the driveway. We watched as it neared the edge and then went off it. We hurriedly looked over the edge to see it rise again and fly to a nearby orange tree.
Our New Plan of Planning and Goal Setting
After reflecting on our Central America plan, our ongoing butterfly experience, and reading Clear’s article, we are changing our planning and goal setting process. We had a clear and easily identifiable goal of leaving Kansas and living in Central America. We set specific timelines. We also understood the major objectives we needed to complete to manifest that goal. These objectives included selling our house, getting rid of most of our stuff, closing Rick’s practice, and tying up other loose ends such as getting passports. We wrote down and set up timelines for the specific tasks necessary to complete these primary objectives.
Our goal of writing a book was less thought out. At some point, we realized that the sole aim of writing a book was basically meaningless. We began to realize we wanted others to read it and this would involve marketing and selling it. These goals opened up territories we knew nothing about. We are now defining our book goals as objectively and precisely as we did our intention of leaving Kansas and our former lifestyle. We now have a better grasp of the significant objectives involved in reaching these goals, as well as the specific tasks necessary to achieve them. With the help of Connie Ragen Green, we have a much better idea of what we need to do in the next several months, and what we need to continue and refine from there. It’s back to the yellow pad and timelines.
Clear’s article has helped us see that as we define our goals explicitly, we need to consider how much pain (using the word loosely) we are willing to experience. More accurately, how much and for how long?
Lastly, we are incorporating lessons the butterflies are teaching us. Their primary teaching for us now is to be less impeded by our emotional, self-talk, and real-world obstacles. They have given us an excellent model for quickly doing what we can to move beyond these obstructions and flying off the deep end.