Imagine how different Oprah Winfrey's life would have been if she had had this kind of conversation with herself at the start of her career.
Oprah 1: I feel like I can do so much in television. It's an exciting medium and I think that I have a gift when it comes to communicating to people.
Oprah 2: That's all true, honey, but you need to lose some weight before you get on television.
Oprah 1: I am heavier than most TV personalities.
Oprah 2: "Most?" Honey, the TV camera adds 20 pounds to everyone. You get on there and you'll be heavier than all of them.
Oprah 1: I could start jogging.
Oprah 2: That's a good idea.
Oprah 1: I'll lose 20 pounds and then I'll audition for TV.
Oprah 2: Maybe 25.
Fortunately for Oprah and her fans, her better self didn't give in to the lesser self's insistence that she check the box on a number of false predecessors before she could go live her life’s mission.
I work with project teams at large companies. When we make plans for developing a new product, one of my tasks is to challenge their thinking about predecessors. If you are going to do the laundry, washing is a predecessor to drying. It is the task that comes before. Sometimes predecessors are real; the team really does have to test the new drug on animals before testing on humans. Other times the predecessors are false; you don't have to wait for test results before ordering a half dozen relatively inexpensive materials. My work with these teams has helped me to realize how many times I create false predecessors to joy in my daily life.
It is good, useful, and gratifying to have goals. But if you live your life fully, you'll always have another goal before you. If you decide that joy is something to be deferred until you have achieved a goal, you'll find that you're continually deferring joy.
You have only to see a baby laugh to realize that there are very few predecessors to joy. And you have only to be honest about your avoidance of risk to realize that there are likely fewer predecessors to pursuing your goals than you imagine.
Do this exercise. Articulate a goal, something that you want. Don’t just say, “Get a degree,” for instance. Articulate why you want the degree, what it will do for you. What do you want the degree for? Now, think about who you would have to be right now in order to make that goal inevitable. Don't think about what you have to do and in what order. Just think about the kind of person who would have accomplished this goal. What kind of confidence, focus, and (yes) joy does this person exude? And ask yourself this: are there really any reasons why you couldn't be that person right now?
Challenge false predecessors to joy and accomplishment. You might be surprised at how many of them exist only in your thinking.