The conventional model to having great success in your career is setting and ardently pursuing big, hairy, audacious goals (BHAGs), even if you have no idea how you’re going to achieve them when you start.
Want to build a billion dollar company? Set the goal and work backwards from long-term goals to medium-term goals to short-term goals to today’s to-do list. Then take action, measure your progress along the way, and constantly course correct so you’re always on the most direct path (that you’re aware of) toward your ultimate goal.
Want to cure cancer? Set the goal and work backwards. Measure your progress.
Want to find the love of your life or be happy? Set the goal. Rinse and repeat.
This goals model is so obvious in our culture, it goes without saying. It’s central to our collective success recipe. Goals give motivation, meaning, and focus when we feel lazy or distracted. We can’t accomplish big things without them — at least so we’re told.
However, recent research is finding the exact opposite to be true. When it comes to BHAGs, goals are often OBSTACLES to LARGE feats of innovation rather than enablers. Furthermore, goals can sap motivation.
In this article, I will share some of the most compelling research about the downside of goals, including…
- In Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned, artificial intelligence researchers compellingly present research for a new model of success and innovation. I have now read the book three times, and it’s had a profound impact on how I view the world. Out of the 1,000+ books I have read, I consider this one to be in the top 10.
- Researcher Robert Root-Bernstein studied the habits of every single Nobel Laureate ever and found a fascinating pattern that goes against everything we were taught about the benefits of specialization.
- Another researcher found that people who are too focused on goals are actually less lucky.
Together, these paint the picture of a completely different model for success and innovation. By the end of the article, you’ll:
- Understand what this new model is and how to use it.
- How to more effectively use goals without the downsides.
Let’s jump in…
Study: Most Nobel Laureates Are Not Specialists
After spending months studying the habits of every single Nobel laureate across every single discipline across all of history, researcher Robert Root-Bernstein found a fascinating pattern…
Nobel Laureates have significantly more and deeper interests than average scientists.
Whereas average scientists view their hobbies as having nothing to do with their work, Nobel laureates don’t look at their hobbies as hobbies. They look at them as fundamental parts of their creative process.
A camping trip isn’t just a camping trip. It’s an opportunity to get perspective on their work while looking at the stars. Art isn’t just art. It’s an opportunity to hone their visualization skills and therefore think better. Just as every moment, personal or professional, is potential material for a comedian, so too is every moment potential fodder for a Nobel laureate. Everything we learn or experience is fodder.
When we look back at many of the most creative people in history, including Nobel laureates, they seem to operate in a completely different way. They pursue curiosities, sometimes purposely not thinking of immediate applications. They embrace serendipity. At certain points in their career, they were even considered aimless or seen as lazy under-performers. I write about Einstein’s winding journey in How To Rapidly Double Your Brain Power With The Einstein Technique.
We see a similar pattern among many of the most innovative companies and founders in the world as well…
Our Great Innovators Share These Three Traits In Common
Over my last several years of writing about great innovators, I’ve seen that they almost universally share three uncommon commonalities. They…
- Are modern polymaths
- Explore their curiosities and meander
- Follow the 5-Hour Rule (spending at least five hours per week on deliberate learning)
All while conventional wisdom recommends that people become specialists who are razor-focus on their goals.
- When Michael Dell was asked to name the one attribute CEOs will need most to succeed in the turbulent times ahead, he answered, “I would place my bet on curiosity.”
- Under Eric Schmidt’s leadership as CEO, Google grew from a few hundred employees to over 32,000. After years of experimentation, he found that two qualities mattered more than anything else: persistence and curiosity.
- Jeff Bezos believes Amazon’s success is directly correlated with the number of experiments they perform.
- Elon Musk famously spent hours a day during his childhood exploring his curiosity by reading books across physics, programming, philosophy, spirituality, and science fiction.
- Many of Apple’s greatest innovations directly come from Steve Jobs’ meandering curiosity. Learning calligraphy helped Apple pioneer typefaces on the first personal computers. Jobs’ love of music enabled him to spot the opportunity to launch the world’s first truly successful MP3 player.
- Self-made billionaire Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett’s right-hand person has collected the most valuable mental models across the biggest disciplines for his entire career.
I write about this surprising pattern more deeply in The Founders Of The World’s Five Largest Companies All Follow The 5-Hour Rule.
Learning that following my meandering curiosity and love of exploration could be a strength rather than a weakness if harnessed correctly has been life-changing. So has learning about the hidden downsides of goals…
The Surprising Downsides Of Goals That No One Talks About
Since I can remember, I’ve been a deeply curious person. I love reading across disciplines. I love meeting interesting people and peppering them with questions. I love understanding things at a deeper level that may not have an immediate and obvious connections to my goals.
On the other hand, I love setting and achieving ambitious goals. Since I became an entrepreneur at 16, I’ve believed that if you want something bad enough, you get specific about what you want and when you want it, you keep visualizing it, and then you take massive action, you can have it. And worst case scenario, “shoot for the stars and hit the moon.”
The tension is that my curiosities are rarely on the direct path to my goals, making pursuing them hard to justify. Therefore, I’ve often relegated my curiosities to the hobby zone. Telling my team that I was going to read a book on evolution or network science felt like I was letting them down, even if those have paid huge dividends for my business over the long term. Earlier in my career, I hid my curiosities from my bio and resume, because they didn’t give a clear story of someone who was ambitious and focused.
Previously, I saw the holes in the goals model as personal shortcomings. Now, I have a clear picture of how only using the goals-only model can backfire:
Downside #1: Goal obsession can lead to being unlucky
One of the best examples of how goals can lead to myopia is a famous study conducted by UK researcher Richard Wiseman.
In this study, Wiseman gave people who considered themselves lucky and unlucky a newspaper and then asked them to look through it and count the number of photos inside.
Here are the average results of how long it took people:
Unlucky people: 2 minutes
Lucky people: seconds
How was this even possible? On the second page, there was a huge half-page ad that said:
“Stop counting. There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.”
Amazed by the results, in his next experiment Wiseman placed a second large message halfway through the newspaper:
“Stop counting. Tell the experimenter you have seen this and win £250.”
Once again, the unlucky people missed the message. They were too busy counting.
To summarize the surprising results, Wiseman writes:
And so it is with luck — unlucky people miss chance opportunities because they are too focused on looking for something else.
They go to parties intent on finding their perfect partner and so miss opportunities to make good friends. They look through newspapers determined to find certain types of job advertisements and as a result miss other types of jobs.
Lucky people are more relaxed and open, and therefore see what is there rather than just what they are looking for.
The goal paradox is that the people who most fixedly pursue a goal might also be the worst at recognizing opportunities along the journey.
Downside #2: Achieving goals can leave you feeling empty
“The most common reaction of the human mind to achievement is not satisfaction, but craving for more.” —Yuval Noah Harari
As the saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for because you might get it.”
Or more eloquently:
The Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him the most about humanity, he said, “Man. Because he sacrifices in health in order to make money. Then, he sacrifices money to recuperate his health, and then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present. The result being that he does not live in the present or the future. He lives as if he is never going to die, and then he dies having never really lived.”
We’ve all had this experience of going after empty goals. We think a goal is going to change everything, so we sacrifice our health or our close relationships (or both) for it. Then, in the end, we realize that what we sacrificed may have been more important than the goal itself. In my twenties, I had a goal to build a business with over $1 million in revenue. Our team referred to it as the two commas goal. When we achieved it, nothing really changed, and I wondered why we had put so much energy to achieving this goal as rapidly as we could.
When we look at some of the world’s top performers, one is left to wonder about the sacrifices they made. For example, consider Michael Phelps and Tiger Woods — two of the best athletes in history. They followed the goal playbook to a tee (no pun intended). They started super young, accumulated tens of thousands of hours of deliberate practice, were single-minded, and actually achieved their most ambitious goals. Yet, they were left feeling empty.
Phelps, for example, has gone on the record saying that, “Really, after every Olympics I think I fell into a major state of depression.” He even added, “I didn’t want to be in the sport anymore … I didn’t want to be alive anymore.”
Tiger Woods repeatedly ignored signals that parts of his body were failing him. He prided himself on playing through pain. He will now have to live in significant pain for the rest of his life. And his rampant cheating on his wife and lying about it ruined his marriage. In the biography on him, which I recommend, we see how being so single-minded didn’t leave space for Tiger to do deeper work on himself or build deep relationships with those closest to him.
Downside #3: The second you set a goal it starts to become stale
“The reason that most of us are unhappy most of the time is that we set our goals, not for the person we’re going to be when we reach them, but we set our goals for the person we are when we set them.” — Jim Coudal
Two things happen after you set a goal:
- You change
- The world changes
Yet, when we set a goal, we often unconsciously make the assumption that we won’t change significantly and neither will the world. Neither is true.
If we set a 10-year goal to go down a certain path, the person we are in five years may actually feel trapped by it. There is such a large sunk cost of time, money, and energy. We have publicly committed to it. Many of the people we have built relationships with still value the goal. As a result, it’s hard to give up.
Furthermore, we will be confronted with new opportunities in the future we can’t even imagine now.
Downside #4: Goals can make you feel insecure
Goals predictably make us feel insecure. Here’s how:
First, most people tend to set big goals that stretch them and to set aggressive deadlines. One of the 20th century self-help bibles, The Magic Of Thinking Big, proclaims, “Believe Big. The size of your success is determined by the size of your belief. Think little goals and expect little achievements. Think big goals and win big success. Remember this, too! Big ideas and big plans are often easier — certainly no more difficult — than small ideas and small plans.”
Naturally, we underestimate how long it will take us to achieve the goal, because it is a big goal and likely something we haven’t done before. This is known as the Planning Fallacy.
And, even when we are aware of the Planning Fallacy, it still takes way longer than expected. This is known as Hofstadter’s Law.
As a result of the Planning Fallacy and Hofstadter’s Law, we are almost always behind where we thought we should be, which then makes us feel insecure.
When I set the million dollar revenue goal, I framed the goal, and hung it in the closet so I could see it every morning when I got dressed. Year after year, I full heartedly pursued the goal. The more I missed it, the more I felt insecure, like I was doing something wrong.
Downside #5: Goals can reduce learning
When it relates to learning, several studies have shown that setting performance goals can backfire.
For example, when someone sets a goal to get an A in school, they may end up studying for the test rather than studying to learn. As a result, performance goals can hurt learning goals.
Downside #6: Goals can actually make you feel unmotivated
They can even lead to procrastination. When you set a big goal you inevitably create a mental image of the road in front of you, and science shows that this journey to a big goal has predictable motivation dips:
- Going from zero to one. As the saying goes, “Half of the journey is beginning it.” When you have a big goal that may take months or years of hard work and going outside of your comfort zone, taking the first can feel intimidating.
- The OK (good enough) plateau. When we get OK in any discipline, it is very easy to just coast. For example, when was the last time you tried to deliberately improve at driving or typing?
- The dip (aka — the long middle). After the initial excitement wears off, and you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, it’s easy to give up.
Ultimately, the six main downsides of goals are:
- Goal obsession can lead to being unlucky
- Achieving goals can leave you feeling empty
- The second you set a goal it starts to become stale
- Goals can make you feel insecure
- Goals can reduce learning
- Goals can actually make you feel unmotivated
Many of these downsides can be somewhat fixed with better goal setting. But over time, I’ve come to believe that the problem with goals runs deeper. Many of these downsides are inherent to the goal-setting model itself.
Enter the “other” success model that many of the most famous innovators in history have followed, but that few people are even aware of.
Next, I’m going to introduce the essence of this model and then give you a very simple hack you can do to start getting results from curiosity right away.
For Great Innovation, Stepping Stones Beat Goals
New research and simulations coming from the field of artificial intelligence are painting a completely different picture of success. Surprisingly, researchers Kenneth Stanley and Joel Lehman are finding that the algorithms most effective at solving the kind of big, hard problems that we see in the real world are NOT the ones based on setting a goal, measuring progress, and then checking each milestone off as they complete it.
The goal model is effective when the steps between where you are now and where you want to go are clear. For example, it still makes sense to set goals like losing 10 pounds, getting 8 hours of sleep per night, spending more time with your family, or hitting quarterly business targets.
However, when the steps between where you are now and where you want to go are numerous and unclear, the researchers have found that a different model works better.
In other words, goals are good for exploiting what you already know. The Stepping Stone model, which I’ll explain next, is good for exploring what you don’t.
In fact, Stanley and Lehman go a step further in Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned:
[Ambitious] objectives actually become obstacles towards more exciting achievements, like those involving discovery, creativity, invention, or innovation — or even achieving true happiness. In other words (and here is the paradox), the greatest achievements become less likely when they are made objectives. Not only that, but this paradox leads to a very strange conclusion — if the paradox is really true then the best way to achieve greatness, the truest path to “blue sky” discovery or to fulfill boundless ambition, is to have no objective at all.
“Wow!? What did I just read?!” That was the first thought that went through my head when I saw this passage.
I felt like a religious devotee who had spent my whole life doing everything by the book in hopes of going to heaven, only to have a rude awakening. Not only did the religious practices not work, but I was going straight to hell.
Stanley and Lehman make big claims, and big claims need big evidence. So, let’s unpack their studies and conclusions at a deeper level.
The 3 Keys To The Stepping Stone Model
So, if goals aren’t the best model for ambitious creative feats, what is?
Stanley and Lehman describe this new model as the stepping stone model.
To accomplish something big, you do NOT set ambitious goals and then work backwards. Rather, you follow the stepping stones immediately in front of you that give you the most novel paths forward, even if you aren’t sure exactly how that stepping stone will pay off in the future. Then, from that new stepping stone, you look for the the most novel path forward again. And so on, jumping from one novel stepping stone to another.
To someone reared in the goals model, this thinking is counterintuitive:
- If you just follow the most novel path, won’t you just aimlessly jump from one thing to another without making any real progress?
- If you just follow the most novel path, won’t you become an aimless wanderer?
Novelty may sound overly simplistic, but it is actually incredibly powerful on three levels:
#1: Novelty is a great shortcut for detecting great stepping stones
When you’re a beginner at something, you can get novelty easily via simple trial & error. For examples, let’s say you’ve never read a book on habits before. As a result, it’s likely that the first book you read on it is going to be mind-blowing even if it is mediocre.
As you become more expert on habits though, novelty becomes harder to find. Trial and error is no longer enough. You need to change how you think. You need a more complex model. For example, after you’ve read 10 books on habits, rather than picking up an 11th book on habit change, you may need to search in another discipline you know nothing about and then see if it provides creative ideas you can apply back to habits.
This may explain why the founders of the five largest companies in the world are all polymaths. With the stepping stone model, one pursues novelty, which very quickly leads to learning across domains. With the goals model alone, being a polymath doesn’t make sense as it is unpredictable and indirect to achieving goals. Elon Musk expands on this:
“A lot of people who spend a long time trying to figure out how to solve tough problems in one industry don’t ask, ‘Well, is there some way we could apply that solution to a different industry? And that can be really, really powerful.” — Elon Musk
Put more succinctly: as you pursue novelty, it gets harder and harder to find. This difficulty forces you to adopt new and more complex ways of thinking in order to find novelty. This more complex thinking leads to breakthroughs.
Stanley and Lehman explain:
The important point is that novelty (and interestingness) can compound over time by continually making new things possible. So instead of seeking a final objective, by looking for novelty the reward is an endless chain of stepping stones branching out into the future as novelty leads to further novelty. Rather than thinking of the future as a destination, it becomes a road, a path of undefined potential.
#2: Humans are uniquely good at perceiving novelty
“Behind any serendipitous discovery there’s nearly always an open-minded thinker with a strong gut feeling for what plan will yield the most interesting results.”
— Kenneth Stanley and Joel Lehman
We often take it for granted, but humans have an almost magical ability to detect interestingness. We don’t need logic and analysis to detect that something is fascinating to us. We can almost immediately find it without even knowing why.
Furthermore, Stanley and Lehman have found that replicating this natural human ability to identify paths that are interesting is currently impossible with artificial intelligence. They add:
Often we feel the urge to explore a particular path or idea despite being unsure where it might lead. Our intuitions and hunches often prod us in directions that might not be justified objectively but still lead to something different or interesting. So it’s no coincidence that the concept of interestingness comes up naturally when discussing novelty. When an idea feels genuinely novel, that’s often enough to make us curious. The idea interests us even if its ultimate purpose is unclear… We understand that if we take the interesting path, it may yet lead somewhere important, even though we might not know where.
#3: Humans are wired to love and be motivated by curiosity
To be motivated, we do NOT need huge goals. Curiosity is an innate and incredibly powerful drive. And, it can be cultivated.
One of my favorite examples of our innate curiosity is this four-hour time-lapse video (compressed into 2 minutes) of a baby playing with toys.
Think about how amazing this video is. Staying focused for four hours is hard for anyone to do, but this baby is able to do it naturally without even trying.
This is how babies go from zero knowledge of the world to incredible amounts of learning — simply by following their curiosity.
The research, case studies, and examples that I presented in this article have an obvious and easy conclusion…
If you want to accomplish huge creative feats, embrace your inner curiosity. Goal setting is powerful, but best used for short-term goals where the path between where you are and where you want to be is clear.
The less obvious and more important question, though is, how?
A Simple Way To Incorporate Curiosity Into Your Life
Unfettered curiosity is wonderful; unchanneled curiosity is not.”
— Ian Leslie, author, Curious
How do we embrace the serendipity of curiosity while handling the predictability of our bills?
How do we productively channel our curiosity? In other words, how do we avoid neomania — getting constantly distracted by the latest tech gadgets, the newest articles, the newest social media posts, and the newest books — for no other reason than they trigger our innate curiosity?
For me the answer to these questions comes down to what I call the curiosity filter.
Many of us, especially the most ambitious, have a goal filter that we take through life. When we come across books, people, and opportunities, we ask ourselves whether it will help us accomplish our goals.
As an experiment, try adding a curiosity filter. When you come across books, people, or opportunities, ask yourself:
Am I so fascinated by this that I’d be willing to spend serious effort learning more?
This filter is powerful on two levels:
- How much you’re willing to sacrifice your time for a fascination is a good proxy for how fascinated you actually are. This proxy helps protect against shallow curiosity where you’re pulled in by clickbait titles, notifications, and subject lines that feel interesting in the moment, but don’t actually matter.
- Having a high bar for fascination prevents information overwhelm. The more you get in touch with your innate curiosity, the more and deeper curiosities you will have. The “hell yeah” filter prevents you going int too many directions at once.
And, ultimately, four things will happen the more you say ‘hell yeah’:
1)You will ignite an inner fire and access a whole new system of motivation beyond will-power. Famous Hollywood producer Brian Grazer summarizes this motivation source in his book A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life:
“Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will; indeed, it has led many people into dangers which mere physical courage would shudder away from.”
2)That fire will turn into an inferno. As Einstein eloquently said:
“Curiosity is a delicate little plant which, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom. It turns out that like many delicate plants, in order to flourish, curiosity needs to be cultivated.”
3)You will channel your curiosity into a reservoir of knowledge. Every diverse skill and idea you learn is ultimately fodder for future creative breakthroughs. (We go deeper into how to learn faster and better in this free webinar.)
4)You will enjoy your life way more!
Ironically, the fact that I’m even writing this article is an example of the power of the stepping stone model. I started writing seriously in 2013 when I became a contributor to Forbes. I was running my old business full-time and feeling burned out. So I decided to use the writing opportunity to explore my curiosity — to give myself permission to do something that wasn’t connected to an immediate outcome. In other words, I used the curiosity filter.
For each article I wrote, I read 3–4 books and spent 80 hours. From a typical productivity perspective, my approach made no sense. From a curiosity filter perspective, I very rapidly went from burned out to on fire.
That curiosity took me on a meandering path from articles on work-life balance, to articles on relationship building, to learning how to learn — all topics not at all related to our business at the time.
It made no economic sense. But, it made sense to my soul. It made sense in the stepping stone model. And now, in retrospect, it makes sense in the goal model — because now, I am writing and teaching full-time about learning how to learn.
The only way that I could write this article is by having written the previous ones. The only reason why the book Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned resonated so deeply with me is because I had been unconsciously following the stepping stone model.
I pursued my previous business with the traditional goal-setting model. It left me burnt out. I’ve built my current business by following my curiosity and by following short-term goals, and I’ve never been more successful or happier. Over the past few years, I have:
- Contributed to Time, Fortune, Forbes, Inc., Entrepreneur, and the Harvard Business Review.
- I have earned more money than I ever have.
- My writing has been read tens of millions of times.
- Built a 200,000+ person email list.
And none of this was planned when I started writing for Forbes.
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