All your life you have been told that you need to have goals. Without goals you aren’t going to get anywhere in life and you are never going to amount to anything. If you ever hope to achieve anything meaningful, you’ve got to have a goal big enough to match–preferably one that seems well out of reach to stretch you beyond what you think is possible. You’ve got to think BIG!
You’ve heard it from your parents, your teachers, your significant other, your bosses, company sponsored HR sessions, and even your favorite personal development guru.
But what if having goals is actually the problem?
What if goals actually prevent you from living a happy, fulfilled, and successful life?
Most of us have had the experience of feeling like we’re a hamster on a wheel running from one goal to the next. As soon as you finish one goal there is a brief period of happiness that quickly fades, then the next goal appears off in the distance as if you were climbing a mountain that continually rises the farther you walk.
If you are really honest with yourself you’ve set a number of goals that you thought would be good for you, but never achieved. You thought that if you just got through the pain and paid your dues you could lose that 20 pounds, write that book, start that business, or eat more broccoli. And a part of your soul died along with the each goal because a little voice in the back of your mind said, “I’m not enough.”
Even assuming you’ve managed to avoid the trap of letting other people set your goals for you (eg. My parents wanted me to become a doctor/lawyer, therefore my goal is to be a successful one), there’s a hole in our bucket of goals and we need to figure out what to do about it.
The problems with goals
For most of us the goal setting process works something like this:
I hate my job, so I’d like to start a business and be my own boss. Or, I hate the way my body looks, so I’d like to lose weight and get fit (or more specifically, if you’re a young male, “I want to get ripped so I can get chicks”).
This seems straightforward and innocent enough–possibly even like you are on the right track–but there are at least 4 major problems with this approach.
1. Moving away from instead of moving toward.
The first strike against this type of goal setting is that your motivation is fundamentally an “away from” motivation. The goal you are working towards is hazily defined, if even defined at all. Your main focus is on the unpleasant situation that you are currently in and would like to get out of–your crappy job, your blubbery body, or even your inability to “get chicks.”
The “move toward” part of the goal may seem well defined: become self employed, lose weight, “get chicks,” but as we will see this is really an illusion.
2. Putting the cart before the horse.
If, for example, you hate your job and your goal is simply to start a business, you have done absolutely none of the foundation work it takes to start a business.
Starting a business takes having an economically viable idea, a great deal of passion and emotional fortitude to see it through, and at least some amount of knowledge or expertise in that field.
If you listen to successful entrepreneurs tell the story of how they started their business, it never starts off with “I hated my job, so I was looking for a business to start and this is what I wound up with.”
Bill Gates had been working with computers for years for the sheer joy of it before he realized the potential that could exist in a company like Microsoft. Derek Sivers had a passion for indie music long before he founded CD Baby. The business ideas grew organically out of something they were already interested in and evolved beyond anything they could have originally envisioned.
Without a plan, a passion, and the determination to see it through, the goal to “start a business” self-aborts before it even gets started.
3. Delayed gratification.
While delayed gratification does have a place in reaping the fruits of your efforts, it can also set you up for failure if your goal takes the form of “I will suffer and do things I don’t want to do until I reach my goal, but once I achieve it I will be happy.”
Let’s say you have a goal to get into beach body shape. Right now you are disgusted with your spare tire and flabby arms, but you think that everything will be okay once you can stand proudly half-naked in the sun glistening like a statue, turning every head on the beach.
Now, how do you get from here to there? Work out? Do you need to change your eating habits significantly? Does the thought of giving up your daily can of coke make you think, “God no! Anything but that!”
If any of the above make you cringe, you are in for a world of pain on your way to getting a beach body. What’s worse is that you are probably much further away from your beach body goal than you think you are. In fact, I’d be so bold as to say that there is a 100% chance that you won’t make it. You might as well save yourself from the anguish of failure and mentally beating yourself up that follow, and just go back to watching TV on the couch.
So many diets and workout plans fail not only because they involve doing things you don’t want to do to achieve your body shape goals, you can’t just stop once you’ve reached your desired body shape. You have to keep eating healthier and working out for the rest of your life to maintain your achievement.
4. Unpredictable outcomes
If none of the above 3 have crushed your goal yet, then this one will.
I remember in high school I wanted to be an AP National Scholar. To do so I had to score a 4 or better on at least 8 AP exams. This set the tone for my entire 4 years of high school. I knew exactly what I needed to do. I planned it out and executed ruthlessly. The sense of purpose was profound and drove me through some extremely stressful periods when I was balancing the course load of 5 AP classes at the same time.
I have never felt such a clear sense of purpose either before or since.
Why is that?
In life, goals where success is guaranteed as long as we fulfill precisely determined criteria in a precisely determined timeframe–even if they are difficult criteria–are extremely rare.
Instead we have goals where you don’t even really know what the outcome is going to be, there is no guarantee of success, and you’re not even entirely sure if you’re taking the right path to get there or not.
Starting a business could take several attempts to get going profitably. It’s possible to try all your life and never succeed. Even in a “stable job,” there’s no guarantee of promotion or advancement. Improving your physical appearance or social skills does not guarantee either finding a soulmate or “getting chicks.”
Since by definition you haven’t achieved the goal, you don’t even really have a clear picture of what life would look like if you had–instead you have a fantasy that probably does not match reality.
The uncertainty at every level is utterly demoralizing and reduces your chances of succeeding down to nearly zero.
What successful people do
On the surface it seems that most of the time we simply choose bad goals that we haven’t really thought out. And that we simply need to choose our goals more carefully, and draft our plans to achieve them more thoughtfully.
But what if the activity of “goal setting” itself is the problem?
One of the biggest discoveries of my adult life is that be it working out, being the social life of the party, or building a business; the people who get the best results do so not in spite of what they have to do to achieve the goal but because they love the activities of working out, talking to people, and doing business for their own sakes.
Much of the time these people aren’t pursuing any goals at all, they are just doing what comes naturally to them because they enjoy it. In my next post I will discuss this phenomenon with a term borrowed from Zen meditation–”goalless practice.”