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The Dark Side of Goal Setting

(The Ultimate Guide to Goal Setting — Part 1)

“…and I’m no different. Solemnly going about my day to day duties in my life, all the while seething underneath with unrealized dreams, expectations and regrets.” — Henry David Thoreau

long time ago in a faraway land, a boy wanted to be the greatest among his friends. He set himself to the task and became the greatest of his friends. Then he wanted to lead his tribe. With hard work and some scheming he became chief. From time to time his tribe was attacked by other tribes. He met that problem head on, conquered all the neighboring tribes, and made them into one nation.

Which goals will lead to happiness?
Which will lead to regrets?

Then he thought to himself, “why not rule the whole world?” He attacked city after city and conquered a large territory. In the end he failed to gain the whole world, and left much of it in ruins.

An auto service department was charged with meeting a billing goal each day. When people brought their cars in for lube jobs, the service technicians frequently “found” other stuff that needed fixing.

In the movie “Rudy” the protagonist and hero was an undersized kid with an oversized dream. He wanted to play football for Notre Dame. Through sheer pluck and determination he ignored detractors and persisted through years of effort and dwindling hope. Eventually, at the end of the movie, he got his chance and played one series of downs in a Notre Dame football game.

And for every Rudy there are dozens of hapless souls who persist too long at a goal that doesn’t fit them and wind up in mid-life wondering what they’ve done to themselves.

Bright students want to become famous actors and spend years waiting tables and getting occasional bit parts in television commercials before realizing in their 40s that their acting career is going nowhere, and that they should have done something else with their lives.

Talented and hard working youngsters set their sights on playing major league baseball. They spend years playing semi-pro ball, and maybe even in the lower minor leagues, only to wind up bitter old men — broke, without marketable skills, resenting both the childhood goals pushed onto them by overzealous parents and the “prejudiced” decision makers who denied them their big chances along the way.

Having the wrong goals can cost us a lot. And it can cost the rest of the world a lot, too.

Let’s bring it a little closer to home.

Have you ever dared to dream really big at the prompting of a motivational guru like Tony Robbins or Napoleon Hill? Are you still waiting for your castle and private helicopter? Me too.

If you can conceive it, and you can believe it, then you can achieve it. Right?

Question: how many people can be in the top 1% of income earners?

Answer: 1%.

What if everyone in the world attends a Tony Robbins seminar and sets the goal of being in the top 1% of income earners? Then how many will make it to the top 1%?

Right again. Still 1%.

So what of the other 99%? What’s their lot in life?

They get to feel like failures. They’ll work their whole lives never arriving at their destination. And, sadly, the sense of failure is probably greatest among those who make it into the top 2% but never quite get all the way to their goal.

Tony Robbins shouldn’t be singled out for unmitigated criticism. He deserves credit for helping many people with other motivational and emotional management techniques. He’s also just one of a large number of motivational gurus who encourage people to dream dreams that set them up for failure.

As a group these teachers are resonating with an idea we’re all much too eager to believe – that we’re special – that we rightfully should be kings and queens of our own realms – even if everyone else is chasing the same goals and there’s little room at the top.

And no doubt some people set unreasonable goals and reach them. Just like some people win the lottery.

But here’s some reality. Setting a goal is not sufficient for reaching it. And it’s not necessary either. Genghis Kahn did not originally set out to rule the known world. In some ways it just kind of happened once the ball got rolling.

Bill Gates, as ambitious as he was, did not set out in the early days to be the richest man in the world. He might have adopted that goal along the way – once it became eminently plausible. But not at first. A lot of luck played into that outcome. There were probably many entrepreneurs with even better ideas than Gates who worked just as hard whose businesses never got off the ground.

And Bill Gates will be the first to admit how much good luck played a role in his fortunes (unlike the majority of successful business owners who suffer from narcissistic hindsight bias)

Ken Griffey Jr., too, showed uncanny insight recently when he looked back on his career and noted that there were probably many baseball players more talented than he was who never got their shot in the majors.

Very humble words coming from one of the most talented we’ve ever seen.

Griffey reasoned that, had he not been the son of a major leaguer, he would have had a much tougher road to a legendary baseball career – if he ever reached it at all.

If we find ourselves wishing to be members of an elite group, we must remember that there’s not that much room at the top. Only 1% can ever be in the top 1%. Only 1 person can be the best golfer in the world. And thousands of serious, talented people have that same goal.

The lesson here isn’t that we shouldn’t strive for excellence. Or that we shouldn’t pursue baseball or acting careers. The lesson is that goal striving has a dark side. If we pursue the wrong goal, or attach too firmly to a goal that’s out of reasonable reach, or narrow our focus on our goal so much that we forget our ethics, or fail to notice the effects our goal striving has on the others around us, then there’s hell to pay – by our customers, or our families, or, perhaps most tragically, by ourselves.

Get this wrong, and we can wind up living slavish, preoccupied lives filled with frustration, failure, shame, and quiet desperation.

What About Having No Goals?

So what should we do about this? If setting goals is fraught with so much hazard, maybe the solution is to go the other way completely and try to live life without goals.

Leo Babauta at Zen Habits thinks so.

Is a life with no goals possible?
Is it the key to happiness?

In his widely-circulated blog post, “The Best Goal is No Goal,” Leo claims to live life with no goals, and reports: “. . . this is a wonderful thing: you wake up and do what you’re passionate about.”

Many people are attracted to this promise.

Joshua Fields Millburn of “The Minimalists” has written that after reading Leo’s post he went from the most driven, goal-oriented person in his organization to someone who lives life with no goals at all. And he reports being less stressed, happier, more content, and, perhaps most surprisingly, MORE productive.

Sounds great. This approach could certainly solve a lot of problems. Without goals Genghis Kahn might not have laid waste to much of the known world. And Rudy might have found something else to do with his time.

Babauta’s advice raises a lot of questions, though. The first thing we need to do is figure out what Leo means when he says he has “no goals”.

It can’t mean that he never sets a target and tries to reach it. If Leo ever thinks, “I’d like a sandwich”, then forms the intention to get the sandwich, and then goes and makes a sandwich, he is engaged in goal-directed behavior.

Leo also reports that he is working on a novel. He must have some conception, even if a vague one, of what a finished novel might look like. And surely he is taking actions from time to time that will add up to something like the vision he has in mind. No doubt he works on it only when he feels passionate about it, and he allows his vague vision to change shape as it will. But still something like goal-directed behavior is taking place over time as he makes progress on his novel.

So what does he mean?

In part he means:

  1. He doesn’t live life enslaved to a to-do list, a master plan, or a calendar.
  2. If he doesn’t feel like working on something, he doesn’t work on it. And he doesn’t feel guilty about not working on it.
  3. He is detached from his outcomes. The novel can get written, or not. Either way Leo will continue pursuing his passions each day.

This works out well for Leo. He enjoys learning and writing. He has a very popular blog, and continues to wake up on enough mornings with a passion for writing blog posts that he can keep his blog going and his audience coming back for more.

But one wonders: where does this leave the guy who has four kids and great passion for drinking beer and playing poker?

Where does it leave the woman with a passion for writing blog posts, but without a large enough audience to make a living at it?

Where does it leave the 300 pounder who loves pizza, doughnuts, and television, but also longs to be in good enough shape to take a 10 mile hike in the wilderness?

Goals – in Leo’s sense — would be less needed if all our passions were aligned with each other –and if the rest of the world were aligned with our passions. Leo has likely come closer than to achieving this idyllic state than most. Most people are still struggling to make a living in a harsh world and wrangle with their unruly passions.

If a person can get to Leo’s level of inner alignment, and can create an environment that supports a “follow your bliss” philosophy, that person should consider giving Leo’s advice a try. It might be the perfect fit.

And even then, it might not.

Goals are necessary for many things we might want to do. If someone has a passion for coordinating weddings, they had better be able to set a goal for getting the wedding together by the wedding date. And they’d better be able to create an effective plan for getting there on time.

If someone wants to get a group of people together to create a profound film that explores pressing social issues, it’s not going to happen if everyone on the crew works only when they feel like it.

Making Goals Work for You

Like so many things in life, goals are double-edged. They’ll cut you if you use them improperly, and they can cut you if you don’t use them at all.

The trick is to learn how to use them properly.

Goals are powerful and dangerous.

The main benefit of goals is that they can help you achieve things. They form the organizing principle for planning so you can work out a step-by-step recipe for building something you want to build. They can help you coordinate your actions with other people. And they can help you focus on your work even when you have numerous impulses to do easier things.

Yet Leo and others do us a great service when they remind us that there are many serious problems that come with “goals gone wild”.

If all goes well, the rest of this guide will help you understand the proper use of goals. In particular we will see:

  1. How to set goals that are aligned with your own passions and felt needs.
  2. How to get away from the goals other people think you should have.
  3. How to find the right level of difficulty for your goal — not too difficult, and not too easy – so you get a good amount of productivity out of yourself without adding unnecessary stress in the process.
  4. How to brainstorm options before you set your goals, so you can make an informed choice about what your goal should be, what level it should be set at, and how it should be framed for maximal motivation.
  5. How to reduce the amount of will power needed to pursue your goals.
  6. How to pick an appropriate deadline for your goals – if you need a deadline at all.
  7. How to avoid feeling shame and inadequacy when goals take longer to reach than you thought.
  8. How to check to make sure your goal doesn’t conflict with your other goals and values.
  9. How to anticipate the negative consequences of reaching a goal, so you can plan around those consequences before you start pursuing the goal, and make informed decisions about whether you should pursue that goal at all.
  10. How to break your big goals into smaller goals. Most people do this wrong and find themselves trapped in situations where they have a lot of time sunk into a project with a lot of time left to go, and they start having serious doubts about the project. That’s not a fun place to be. Believe me, I know.
  11. How to keep your goals flexible – so you can adapt to the feedback you get along the way.
  12. How to keep deadlines flexible so you can take time out to learn new skills when you need to.

The advice will be congruent with (and partly based on) the latest scientific research from the fields of Motivational Psychology and Industrial and Organizational Psychology.

We’ll try to do all that AND boil it down into a simple, intuitive, easy-to-implement goal-setting recipe anyone can follow.

Tall order? Let’s just say it’s my goal :)

In spite of the ambitious agenda, there are some limits in this guide. It’s primarily aimed at individuals setting goals for themselves.

Want to start a business (or advance your current business)? Want to write a novel? Want to plan a wedding? Trying to figure out what to do with your life? Good. That’s what this guide is for.

We will not discuss how to set goals for subordinates, how to modify goals given to you by a boss, or how to set goals with a group of equal partners.

Those situations are important, but I don’t have as much to say about them, and there are a host of coordination problems that come into play in those situations.

I am a solitary writer, developer and entrepreneur. I have great sympathy and empathy for those who are in my same situation. If you are also more or less a solo act trying to chart your course to some level of success and happiness, this guide will be written for you – to help you set goals that support you and help you achieve the happiness you deserve.

Continue to part 2 — “Stop Setting Goals that Don’t Make You Happy”

Post Script

If you want to be notified when unpublished parts of this series come out, you can get on the email list. Just scroll up and enter your email address in the form on the right. (You’ll also get the free guide “Clear Mind, Effective Action”).

And, if you liked this opening post, please share it with a friend or two (Would your Facebook or Twitter friends find it interesting or useful?)

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