Just keep swimming. Photo: ©James Bareham

Goals Are For Losers

Don’t just take my word for it, listen to others who have worked this out for themselves.


It’s that moment of release in a football match, the culmination of the rising tension and expectation, the final shot. The moment the player throws his arms into the air and screams, the crowd explodes, the commentator takes leave of his senses. It’s the money shot.

But goals are for losers.

Which is strange because we’re taught that goals are important. Goals for losing weight, getting a promotion, learning Tagalog. How are you going to move forward if you don’t have goals? How can you mark your progress without ticking off the goals? What kind of loser doesn’t have a goal if not goals to aim for?

The implication is that, if you don’t have goals, then you’re just going to drift aimlessly, listlessly through life like a waterlogged tree trunk in the ocean, at the mercy of every passing current and wind.

So how come goals are for losers? Don’t just take my word for it, listen to others who have worked this out, everyone from Hunter S Thompson to the Ancient Greeks to Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert cartoons.


It was Scott Adams who summed it up: ‘To put it bluntly, goals are for losers.’ Hunter S Thompson takes that to its logical conclusion: ‘The answer, then, must not deal with goals at all, or not with tangible goals, anyway.’

The point Hunter S Thompson is making (admittedly as a young man) is that those goals may stay the same, but we don’t. The goal as a child of growing up to be a fireman changes because when we’re adult we often don’t want to be a fireman, yet it’s us who has changed, not the job of fireman. So cleaving to old goals is going to make us unhappy because we’re trying to change our selves to fit another template. That’s not going to end well is it? By the way, do look at the link as the post is great, but the Brain Pickings site is greater still.

But Scott Adams in this wide ranging book recounts how he spotted when he was a young man that even achieving a goal is almost always a Bad Thing. He gives the example of someone setting the goal of losing ten pounds in weight. The entire time they’re over this weight they’re failing, disappointed, not reaching their goal. Many never will reach it and will be just a bit more disappointed at life and themselves. But if they do reach that goal?

Then they can celebrate briefly, before realising their life now has no goal. And of course there’s the sneaking feeling that, having achieved that goal, it will be much harder to keep to that weight and they can’t relax now. There’s a constant state of tension in aiming for a goal, that is in no way lessened by achieving the goal.

Think of a swimmer, training for the Olympics. Years spent swimming before dawn and after work, building up and up for what may be a couple of minutes of their life. A life totally committed to that one goal. How many people are doing the same for that one final race? Dozens. How many are going to achieve their goal? One. And then it’s over for another four years for all of them. While I admire such dedication to excellence, I really do, that’s the extreme version of a life dominated by goals.


But if the goal was replaced by a system then we’re in business. A system, in this case, like aiming to stay reasonably fit. Every time you go to the gym, play a game with your son, go for a walk, you’re keeping to the system, reinforcing the system and your ability to keep to it. One side-effect is that you’ll probably lose weight slowly, say about ten pounds, and your system will stop it going back on.

You can apply the system versus goal yardstick to much of what you do, from work to play to finance. Scott cites Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg as men who run systems rather than going for goals and they’ve been moderately successful at it.

There are entire industries aimed at stopping you thinking of systems and instead going for goals. Get a new possession and you’ll be happy — a car, a smartphone, an electronic umbrella. You’ll be blissfully happy if you can get down to your perfect weight (a goal achieved through buying a very expensive system); or if you had a straighter nose (buying expensive and health-threatening surgery) or if you could suddenly earn ten grand a day (no shortage of people willing to take your money to show you that the quickest way is to run a scam).

But the biggest and most important system of all is how you live your life. There are many such systems, from philosophy to religion to cargo cults and Scientologists. One is that of the Stoic philosophy. In his excellent book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, the author William B Irvine asks this question:

‘What do you want out of life?’ He goes on to say that we need a coherent philosophy of life so that we are able to answer that question. And to realise the things we want in life, like a good job and a loving partner, are not the same as what we want out of life.

He goes on: ‘Why is it important to have such a philosophy? Because, without one, there is a danger that you will mislive.’ That’s a bad word isn’t it — mislive. So to avoid a life where we mislive, we need a system for living.

That sounds a worthwhile goal.

Photography by James Bareham
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