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Open to Outcomes, Not Attached to Them

Personal Perspective: Some goals are too delicate to be defined and boxed in.

Being open to outcomes allows people to address directions and issues that can't be nailed down with firm definitions. After my bout with cancer, I see that I am getting less attached to outcomes. This shift opens new doorways to explore what's beyond my control.

My old, familiar motivation is about goals or defined outcomes, and it is powerful and valuable. It can be really useful setting a defined goal and building steady progress towards it. But that is no longer enough in the Tippy Twenties - there is so much change in the world we simply can't control it all. For me, these global uncertainties have been mirrored by the onset of cancer and erectile dysfunction (ED). These are things I can influence but not control.

I first came across the term "open to outcomes" in The Fourfold Way by Angeles Arrien while preparing for a Vision Quest in 2005. Over the years I have found openness to outcome on the one side - and single-minded focus on the other side - vying for primacy in my internal navigation system.

In this post I want to examine the new, less goal-directed motivation growing inside me. It is tender, full of life energy but without much of a clear plan.

What being open to outcomes feels like to me

I love the pluckiness of the plants in my backyard vegetable garden. Their sheer will to live, such eagerness. I am blown away by the intrinsic life force bundled up in tiny seeds. Yes, they do have a plan - but the plan is simply to germinate and to grow. Ultimately to be the best plant they can be. As a human, I can contribute some husbandry. I can help them get the best organic nutrients, enough water and light and some protection from predators. But I am not fully in control and neither are they.

Plants out in the wild do all the same things - without anybody watching over them. Just the gift of their own life force. I'd like to call it germination energy - the sheer eagerness to be alive.

 Mish Middelmann, August 2009
Wild Scadoxus plant growing on the edge of a rocky canyon
Source: Mish Middelmann, August 2009

There is a similar germination energy inside me that wants to grow without a specific target defined. As the new year unfolds, I know I want to live. I want to keep the cancer at bay. And I want to create the best possible conditions for my body to recover from my treatment and the deep loss of that unsung hero, my prostate gland.

The value of being open to outcomes

It's important to acknowledge the gift of this life force, without having to harness or guide it by hard objectives. Not all the important things in life can crystallise into specific objectives. 18 months of ED (and counting) have taught me that hard objectives sometimes can't be reached by sheer force of will.

I take courage from the plants that find a way towards the light and water they need, even if it is not a direct route, or the growth environment is not optimal. More and more of my life and work is like that these days, for example working towards people-centred healthcare ecosystems, creating innovative products and services, or finding a way to express the inexpressible and often "undiscussable" experiences that come with cancer.

The value of the old ways

Let's be clear: There are times when it really helps to plot out a detailed way forward, lasso the goal with a strong rope and literally pull yourself towards the goal, step by step.

I've (mostly) been like that with my cancer recovery plan, including daily targeted pelvic floor exercises and shifting my diet towards more exclusively organic sources. And it a clear goal and a plan are pretty much essential to get things working on practical projects from home repair to major client contracts.

Emerging synthesis

This cancer and ED experience is helping me understand my own motivation better. I see that there are times and places where a firm outcome and a detailed project plan are just the ticket. But other equally important goals are better served by an organic approach that simply reaches toward the light.

This post also appears on along with more of my personal and medical backstory.