This series will make the case against goals and goal setting. Why? Because the commonly taught practice of writing down your goal and working a plan toward its achievement generally does not produce the desired outcome. More importantly, this series is about giving you a better alternative to goals and goal setting.
In the articles that follow, we will work through…
Many of the problems with the goal and goal-setting paradigm offered by leaders in the self-help industry for decades
An alternative to goals that will…
- Help you achieve whatever you want at your own pace, not according to some arbitrary timeline (which includes a way to pick up the pace if you want to!)
- Not invite you to think less of yourself if things begin to seem “off track”
- Give you a sense that the sky is the limit and that, in the grand scheme of things, accomplishing whatever you put your mind to is no big deal
- Never again leave you feeling guilty about not achieving what you say you want to achieve
The goal & goal setting alternative presented in this series has powerful built-in features that will empower you accomplish far more than you ever thought possible.
If all of this sounds exciting, maybe even too good to be true, be patient! Each installment represents an important piece of the puzzle.
Anyone who knows me knows I like to make thought-provoking comments in casual conversations. Especially when I’m asked, “What do you do?” and I explain that I’ve been somewhat of a Renaissance man over the last 35-plus years due, in part, to my ADD superpower but that in the most recent dozen or so years I have directed a significant portion of my time and attention to writing, speaking and teaching primarily in six different categories of personal development.
I try to mention the Obstacle Blaster website, and if I’m asked about a specific topic I have dealt with, I’ll give a “for example.” Then, I might transition into stating my anti-goals position that I will take you through in this series. I do it to get people thinking. [Sentiments like the one in this article’s title are a good example.] Goals are great for sports but lousy for life — What does he mean by that? And it works! Sometimes, it sparks a friendly and enlightening debate from which I learn something new. Sometimes, I’m the one imparting a new nugget of insight. Usually, it’s both. And that is the point.
Sometimes, a friendly and enlightening debate doesn’t happen when I opine that setting goals is actually a bad idea. Occasionally, when I tell someone that one of the things I write and speak about is my quest to rid our culture of goals and goal setting, the response I elicit is something like, “So you’re in favor of nobody ever accomplishing anything except maybe by accident?”
I always cheerfully answer, “No,” and then explain that I promote what I believe to be a much better alternative to goals and goal setting. I’ll explain that “It is what I call a visual framework. It’s much more effective than goal setting because it helps people stay on track until they accomplish whatever they’ve set out to do.”
And then I might transition with something like, “But enough about me. What energizes you to get up every day?” And there it is. The seed has been planted.
I think it is worthwhile to question the presumed effectiveness of some ideas, even ones as fundamental (and popular) as goal setting.
Yes, the premise has been universally accepted as a doctrinal truth in the church of achievement. The popular motivational speaker Zig Ziglar famously used to say in his well-known Southern drawl, “You gotta have goals!” Many books have been written that advocate goals and goal setting as essential for success.
To most, it is an absolute given that goals are the way to get where you want to be in life and an integral part of the achievement apparatus. If you are putting together a plan to accomplish something significant, you’d better start setting some goals… or so goes the conventional wisdom.
But why should it be too taboo to question that premise? I say it shouldn’t be. If goal setting truly is an integral element of a life of meaningful accomplishment, that viewpoint should be able to stand up to some scrutiny.
Before going any further, I should make something perfectly clear. When I say I am against goals, I don’t want readers to get the wrong idea. I am not against the concept of targeted achievement. Accomplishing meaningful things in all areas of life does not happen by accident. I am against goals but also very much in favor of a much better alternative. That is precisely because I am passionate about everybody experiencing the most out of life.
Unfortunately, goals and goal setting have failed most of us, even high achievers. I firmly believe that high-functioning, high-achieving people who are serious goal-setters are successful at achieving what they set out to do despite their goal-setting ways, not because of it.
Why and how do goals and goal setting set us up for failure?
Why don’t goals work?
I am not the first to pose questions like these. In the groundbreaking work Principles of Psychology, first published in 1890, Harvard professor William James discusses questions such as the following in chapter 26 (the portion of the nearly 600-page treatise dedicated to human will):
How is it possible that a behaviour that a person intends to perform (i.e. has been set as a goal by this person) fails to be executed?
How is it that an undesired behaviour is performed even though we have set ourselves the goal to suppress it?
In other words, why is it so common for us humans to struggle to do what we want to do in life, even when we set for ourselves specific and attainable goals? The top thinkers, researchers, and teachers – the experts in modern psychology – knew over a hundred and thirty years ago that goals don’t work, and that goals and goal setting are not all they are cracked up to be.
So, why didn’t the self-help (now known as personal development) industry get the memo? I cannot answer that question. Gladly, at least one major personal development researcher and teacher from long ago did get it right. His insights will be discussed in a later installment in this series.
For now, I want to focus on one thing. For you to be persuaded that an alternative to goals and goal setting should be tried, you must first be convinced that there are several legitimate reasons why goal setting isn’t all it is cracked up to be.
So, here are just three of the ways in which goals and goal setting fall short of consistently delivering genuinely meaningful life accomplishments:
Goals, in and of themselves, cannot give a sense of purpose. Nor can they serve as a reliable indicator as to where you are within your life plan.
Goals create an artificial ceiling. The objective you have set out to achieve by a specific date is often less than what you can achieve even faster. [In other words, some goals are not achieved simply because the due date for completion is set too far into the future; the goal-setter gets needlessly bored, and instead of getting accomplished, the goal gets forgotten.]
Goals do not account for the unforeseen. Consequently, they can lead to a sense of defeat and disappointment as often as satisfaction and fulfillment.
To keep these installments as concise and punchy as possible, I am limiting today’s list of ways in which goals and goal setting fail to deliver to just these three. They will be discussed in greater detail in future installments, and we will add items to this list.
Before wrapping up today’s installment, I need to answer an objection shared by a very thoughtful Obstacle Blaster subscriber some years ago. Their comments came after reviewing my entire list of the ways in which goals and goal setting fall short of consistently delivering genuinely meaningful life accomplishments. The subscriber, whose request not to be named will be honored, made a great observation. They acknowledged how goals and goal setting can lead to frustration rather than satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. But then they provided an interesting spin eminently worthy of a reply.
They pointed out that some of the unpleasant side-effects of goals and goal setting, such as frustration, disappointment, and defeat, are inescapable features of life. If those things are experienced by people who don’t set goals and those who do set goals, don’t blame goals and goal setting!
I agree with that awesome Obstacle Blaster subscriber (who, by the way, is now a Member), where they aptly observe that everyone inevitably experiences frustration, disappointment, and defeat. I also acknowledge that unexpected setbacks, pain, loss, etc., serve a useful purpose in business and certainly in the bigger picture of life. Putting such things into proper perspective is one of the things we try to tackle here at Obstacle Blaster.
However, those are states of being that we should not be welcoming. For obstacle blasters like us, goal setting needlessly invites the sort of undesirable experiences that we prefer to reduce. We should be looking for ways to help us increase our meaningful accomplishments while decreasing frustration, disappointment, and defeat.
Sure, we could talk about the experiences of people like Thomas Edison. The painstaking process of developing a working, long-lasting incandescent light bulb was incredible. Couldn’t that story serve as a model for why goals are important and even necessary? After all, how else can a person persist through thousands of disappointing defeats toward the final objective without goals?
I respond that “examples” like Edison’s ultimately successful development of the incandescent light bulb support my anti-goals argument. If you stay with me, you will eventually see what I mean.
For now, I ask you to consider a challenge.
Accept a simple assignment before moving on and reading Part 2 of this series. The assignment is to think. Think on this question: Why are goals great for games but lousy for life?
Yes, I’m asking you to accept a premise you may disagree with, but that’s the potentially challenging part of the assignment.
If you are skeptical of my negative assertions about goals and goal setting, try to play along. Make a good-faith effort to come up with a few reasons that fit the question’s premise (that goals are lousy for life). Doing so will help counterbalance your skepticism with a bit of openness to new things. And hey, what’s wrong with that? Between the two bookends of total skepticism and complete buy-in of new ideas, a lean toward more openness likely leads to a more exciting life of discovery and possibility. Wouldn’t you agree?
So, get thinking. Why are goals great for games but lousy for life?
To be continued.