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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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  1. Barbie
    Posted September 10, 2012 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    Good insights on the pitfalls of goal setting. I’d enjoy learning more efficiency & realistic goals that spur me on to complete them!

    • Jim Stone
      Posted September 10, 2012 at 10:19 am | Permalink

      Efficiency and motivation. Sounds good. I should have a few things to say about those topics :)

  2. Posted September 10, 2012 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    You make some good points – without alignment of your goals with your passions and abilities, it’s going to be a long slog. Two things though:

    1. How you wrote the above makes it sound like it’s not possible to increase your chances of being in the top 1%. I disagree that your chances are fixed at 1%, and it’s out of your control. Luck plays a part, so maybe your chances can be only 2, 5 or 20% but it’s not fixed.

    2. I don’t blame you for using him as an example, but Genghis Khan didn’t lay waste to the world. See Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. Amazing book. His economic and political achievements were greater than his conquests, and he was responsible for creating the wealth that led to the Renaissance.

    • Jim Stone
      Posted September 10, 2012 at 10:10 am | Permalink

      Hi Burton. Great points to bring up. Thank you.

      I agree with you that your chances of being in the top 1% go up the more you work and learn new skills. The question is whether that’s the kind of goal we should be setting, or if we should set other goals, and just let our relative status and fortunes advance as a side benefit of pursuing our other goals.

      As for Genghis — I just finished the book you linked to a few days ago. It’s a GREAT read. I was completely a fan of Genghis and his role in history after reading the book. I read some critical reviews of the book, though, and am now of the opinion that it’s a pretty one-sided portrayal. The author exaggerates the influence of Genghis on the Renaissance, and makes him seem like the savior of civilization. Genghis was brilliant — especially the way he structured his empire, and adapted new technologies into his war machine. And he did have some influence on the spreading of culture and technology from east to west and back again. But he also went around sieging city after city and killing a lot of innocent people. As with many things, I think the truth is somewhere in between. Take a look at the reviews on Amazon for the book — especially the one-stars. The reviewers make a lot of good points (and were not as jaded as I would have expected for one-star reviews), and caused me personally to have what I take to be a more balanced view of Genghis.

      With that said, Genghis is a VERY interesting character. And in hindsight my comment that he “laid waste to the known world” is itself a pretty big overstatement. I’ve just now inserted the words “much of” into the text. I do recommend that book to people — with the caveat that they should read the critical reviews along with the book.

      • Posted September 11, 2012 at 7:53 am | Permalink

        Now I see what you were trying to say. Being the best of whatever isn’t necessarily a fulfilling goal. Over my desk I have a quote “There is only one success – to be able to spend life your own way.” As you seem to be saying, that doesn’t necessarily mean being in the 1%.

        I noticed those reviews of the Genghis book too – and they raise good points. Still, he was definitely underrated. If you like that one, a book I guarantee you’ll like is “Gates of Fire” by Steven Pressfield. It’s fictionalized but one of the best books I ever read.

        • Jim Stone
          Posted September 12, 2012 at 11:08 am | Permalink

          I’ll put Gates of Fire on my Audible wish list. Sounds good. I think we’re on the same page regarding Genghis. Most people don’t know how brilliant he was.

  3. Elaine Milner
    Posted September 10, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the article. This sounds like it will be an excellent guide. I’ve had some training in goal setting, but I often don’t reach my goals, at least not by the date I set (and sometimes never). Brainstorming options, reducing the need for will power, and flexibility sound like they would be especially useful to me.

    • Jim Stone
      Posted September 12, 2012 at 11:23 am | Permalink

      Hi Elaine.

      I’m glad you haven’t reached every single goal you’ve ever set :) It’s probably not desirable to reach every goal we set for ourselves. At least some of them weren’t good ideas in the first place, and some become obsolete before we can finish them.

      As for reducing the need for willpower and being more flexible — I’m very attracted to those outcomes as well! I’ve been seeing some good success here, but am still learning and growing as well. I’ll do my best to present that material in an interesting and useful way.

  4. Phil Callinan
    Posted September 10, 2012 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jim,
    Great article. I look forward to your next instalment. It has always sparked my curiosity that most goal setting fails to acknowledge the many roles people engage in and how that very framework can be a factor in limiting goal outcomes. Optimal flow in this context is always challenged by interruptions, external or internal, and that I have felt, is a huge compromise in motivation and goal achievement. I would appreciate your thoughts and ideas on methods that can overcome these basic considerations.
    Phil Callinan

    • Jim Stone
      Posted September 12, 2012 at 11:15 am | Permalink

      Thanks Phil. I’m definitely working through those very issues in my reading and freewriting. Some of my thoughts should work their way into the guide. Our cognitive load today is much greater than it’s ever been. It’s not just the increasing complexity of our technologies, but the increasing number of overlapping tribes we have to navigate, values we have to re-evaluate, and roles we have to identify with (often half-heartedly). There is more opportunity than ever before, but there are also more ways to disappoint people and be partially alienated from them than ever before as well.

  5. Ana Liza Skinner
    Posted September 12, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Permalink


    Thanks for the great article.

    • Jim Stone
      Posted September 12, 2012 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

      Thanks Ana!

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