Do Goals Even Matter?

If you’re a regular consumer of achievement-based material, you’ll know that goals figure prominently in the public discourse. It’s an accepted ‘truth’ that without them, we become wandering generalities and achieve little in our miserable lives.

But recently, I’ve begun to doubt their effectiveness.

Gareth Andrews, founder of Life Again, posted a wonderful video by Australian comedian Tim Minchin — made to the University of Western Australia on Graduation Day in 2013. In it, he shares nine life lessons, gleaned throughout his relatively short 38 years (prior to the speech — he’s now 41).

After watching it and laughing uproariously, I immediately shared it with my wife and two teenage daughters, such was the power and relevance of his observations.

One thing really stood out — the paradox of dreams and goals.

I’ve also just read The Minimalists’ excellent book, Everything That Remains, where Joshua talks about eliminating goals from his life. This and Tim’s video got me thinking about the reason we set goals at all.

I’m a student of life as much as you are, but here’s what I’ve realised so far — for myself, at least.

I’ve always been the archetypal choleric over-achiever, with goals an ever-present tool in my wheelhouse, so this is still finding its way through the neural pathways of my brain. But I’m starting to think that while short-term goals are useful for say, setting the agenda and desired outcomes for a client meeting, their usefulness in shaping and moulding our lives over the long term is far less clear.

Setting a goal for today’s work is useful. It tells me what matters most to me today and it focuses my energy on being productive for that one thing. But setting a goal ten years out from now… meh…I’m not so sure.

One thing Tim said that really resonated was the notion that single-mindedly working towards a long-range outcome has a tendency to blind us to the wonderful opportunities that appear in our periphery. From my own experience, I know this to be true. That person you meet, the email you write or the article you read can trigger seismic shifts in our life journey, and send us along new and exciting pathways which we could never have planned.

Joshua describes his new approach to his journey as simply being cognizant of the direction he’s moving in, rather than specific goals fabricated to achieve pre-defined outcomes.

There’s a lot of practical wisdom in that.

One thing I know to be absolutely true is that goals often do three things:

  1. They can postpone happiness and joy until the goal is attained.
  2. The moment the goal is reached, the resultant high is typically brief; replaced by a new baseline of expectation.
  3. Soon afterward, a new goal must then be set, lest misery and aimlessness return.

This raises some interesting questions.

  • What feeling were you seeking in the pursuit of your goal?
  • When you finally claimed it, how long did the pleasure and satisfaction last?
  • How quickly did you set your sights on the next bigger and better thing?
  • How present were you throughout the journey towards the thing your heart desired?
  • What was the cost of your blinkered pursuit — in time, money and other opportunities missed?
  • What did you miss along the way that might have given you the feeling you sought with a lot less effort?
  • Was it all worth it in the end?

I don’t have all the answers, but I know these questions are worth asking.

It feels natural and organic to move in the direction of one’s dreams, versus planning, strategising and pushing relentlessly in the pursuit of them.

That’s not to discount the effectiveness of planning what you must do, what you should learn and how you might weave those two together. Deliberate thinking and a goal-less approach aren’t mutually exclusive, but setting immovable S.M.A.R.T. goals for the big things can be counter-productive, and counter-intuitive to the way life unfolds.

I often compare life’s journey, whether it’s relationships, mindset, health or whatever, to business. This is much the same. You can plan a new business venture all you like, but eventually, you must get out on the field and DO something.

You cannot plan for other competitors entering the market, or for new or repealed government legislation, for changes in buyer habits or interests, or for emerging technologies. But you can adapt to them. You can minimise or capitalise on their impact. You can adjust course momentarily and still remain conscious of your overall direction.

Nothing offers a straight line to anywhere; not a car, a plane, a boat or our lives — each is in a state of constant course-correction. All that matters is the direction itself, the experience of the journey along the way and the possibility of a pleasing destination at the end.

There are things you want, experiences you’d enjoy and places you want to go. And these will change over time. Once you acknowledge that how it unfolds will bear little resemblance to your magnificent plans, the pressure to conform to the straight line you’ve imagined suddenly falls away; replaced by a calm assurance that you might get everything you want or you might not, and being okay with that.

The irony of course is, when you’re in this state, you give yourself the best chance of not just reaching your dreams but enjoying the journey along the way.

And when you achieve that, you’ve already won. That’s the paradox…

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Thanks for stopping by and I hope we get to hang out more in the future. And in the meantime, please feel free to share your own experiences. You can email me directly at peter@midlifetribe.com. I respond to all emails. If this was beneficial to you, please consider subscribing and sharing with someone you think would also benefit.

Disclaimer & Disclosure: I’m not a psychologist, and I’m not a financial advisor’s elbow. This material doesn’t constitute financial advice but rather a collection of personal opinions, based on my own experiences. Some of the links on my site are affiliate links, which means that if you make a purchase, I will earn a small commission. This commission comes at no additional cost to you. I provide links to services or products I have used and liked or researched and recommend. Please do not spend any money on these products unless you believe they will be beneficial to you