No Goals, No Passion, No Problem

A Values-based Approach to Growth and Development

I see a lot on the web about goals and passion these days. Nearly every piece of writing about personal development talks in terms of goals and passion. Companies and people sell books, courses, and coaching structured around helping you realize your passion and set and achieve your goals. But something strikes me as missing in all that.

Yes, passion is useful to have. It is the driving force that pushes people toward things. But passion can be misdirected — and it often is. Nazis are very passionate people, as are religious extremists who declare holy wars. On the less egregious side, people can be passionate about metrics that mean a lot now, but matter little over the long term. So passion is really only part of the equation.

The same is true of goals; they’re also only part of the equation. Again, nazis and violent religious extremists have goals — they’re just utterly terrible ones. Lifelong underachievers and procrastinators also have goals — probably way more than most people.

As I see it, the problem with passion and goals is as follows:

  • Passion just pushes you in some given direction. The problem is, that direction can be the wrong one, and it can also change based on your whims. Passion alone is merely a powerful engine that push you very speedily in tight circles.
  • Goals are just things you want, but there’s no guarantee that goals don’t conflict with your actual needs, or the values you practice.

That brings me to the missing piece I referred to earlier: values.

Values are the things that you hold dear — that matter to you the most. They’re not goals because they’re not things you’re working toward. They’re also not passion because passion is an attitude, not a principle. Also, values require a more rational and calm approach than passion affords. A value is something you live by, and live for. It has the power to guide actions and provide the foundation for relationships. A value is what’s behind trade-offs and compromises. And if a goal or a passion conflict with a value, the value will win out every time.

What I am proposing, then, is pretty radical: toss away goals and passion (for now — you can go back to them shortly, though in a different way). Rather, adopt a way of living that is value-centric, and the rest will follow.

But what does that involve? A really great piece in Forbes by Harry M. Jansen Kraemer Jr. gives 4 principles that underly a values-based approach to life and leadership. I’ve put my own spin on his elaborations below.

  1. Self Reflection: Perform and continuously perform an honest, fearless, and searching exploration of what you really think, feel, and care about. Use it to calibrate and get your bearings. Arrange your life and efforts around what you find there.
  2. Balance: You must be able to see things from various perspectives. Open-mindedness is critical to development — personally and professionally. The more rigid you are, the more you’ll miss out on.
  3. True Self-confidence: More than acknowledging your strengths, true self-confidence is about knowing your weaknesses, and working on them continuously. The focus is on knowing that you’re a good and worthwhile person, but striving always to get better.
  4. Humility: Keep things in perspective. Your successes don’t make you superhuman, and your failures don’t make you unworthy. Treat everyone like they’re the one person you have to talk to that day. You’re just a human being like they are.

So for a while, perhaps I’ll try a new approach: no goals, no passions, just a few values to live by.

The great thing about values? Unlike goals, they don’t end — they keep informing your actions and your life. And you can feel good living by them right now — and tomorrow, and the next day. If you don’t achieve your big goals, no worries — so long as you adhered to your values.

Just a thought.

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