Life shouldn’t be all about achieving goals
What do you want to experience in your life?
Personally, I think we need to rethink goals and how we use them. Life shouldn’t be all about achieving goals.
That’s a very odd statement coming from someone who’s been a certified life and business coach since 2008. I work with people all the time on setting and achieving goals and help them with the accountability and productivity tactics necessary to achieve their goals. But I always make sure that my clients’ goals aren’t running the show.
At first glance, it seems like a subtle difference between wanting to accomplish something and wanting to experience something. Dig a little deeper and it becomes more obvious that the difference is actually quite fundamental. Accomplishments are binary. You achieve them or you don’t. You succeed or you fail. Goals fall into this same category. At the end of the day, you either checked the box on the to do list or you didn’t. Experiences on the other hand, don’t have a specific finish line. Experiences are part of an ongoing process with varying intensity levels.
The problems with being goal-driven
Far too many people define themselves based on their ability to achieve goals. When you set goals for yourself, whether they’re personal goals or career/business goals, and use them as your primary focus there are a number of potential pitfalls:
1. You might not achieve them
Obviously when you work towards something with a binary outcome, there’s a chance the result won’t be what you want. How will you feel if you don’t get to check off the box?
I see a lot of people falling into the trap of believing that success is simply a matter of hard work. There are a number of success / productivity gurus out there (I won’t name names) who perpetuate this myth with punchy in-your-face phrases like: Hustle! Grind! and Crushing It! The problem with these overly simplistic approaches is that they can make setbacks seem like a personal failing. Didn’t achieve your goal? You obviously weren’t grinding hard enough to crush it, bro.
In the face of setbacks, the goal-driven, win/lose focus can have a dangerous effect on our psyche. It doesn’t take too many losses before “That didn’t go as planned, I lost” or “I failed at that goal” can become “I’m a loser” or “I’m a failure”. It’s difficult not to internalize the rejection that comes along with setbacks because the goal-oriented mentality isn’t often focused on building resilience, the answer is usually “just grind harder next time” or “you weren’t using the right strategy / technique / app / system / etc…”
2. You might achieve them.
It sounds counterintuitive, but another of the pitfalls of placing your primary focus on goals is that you might actually achieve them. There are two possible ways that successfully completing a goal or accomplishment can backfire.
You work hard towards your goal, you put in the hours, you keep laser focused and you finally achieve what you set out to do — fantastic! You’re on top of the world. But that feeling won’t last forever. All too quickly, the feeling of success starts to fade and you’re faced with the post-success letdown. An example that comes to mind was US astronaut Buzz Aldrin who wrote in his autobiography that after walking on the moon everything else in life seemed insignificant.
In the other scenario, you work hard towards your goal, you put in the hours, you keep laser focused and you finally achieve what you set out to do… but it’s anticlimactic. There’s no sense of pride in the accomplishment, or at least not to the same degree you expected. Perhaps you end up feeling like the happiness of achieving the goal simply wasn’t worth the price you had to pay to get there. All those hours. All of that laser focus, ignoring family and friends. And now you’re questioning the entire endeavour.
3. The process can be discouraging.
Being overly focused on achieving a goal can give you a dangerous case of tunnel vision. Often, in the name of success and productivity, there’s a tendency to measure and quantify everything. The mantra of ‘plan your work, then work your plan’ seems like a very sound approach, but when you look at things with a micro focus and are constantly comparing the daily results to your plan, any little setback or deviation can feel very discouraging.
4. Goal drift
When you’ve been working towards a goal for a long time and it seems like it’s still a long way off, it can be tempting to start ‘adapting’ your goals. It’s easy to tell yourself that this is just a totally reasonable adjustment, but if the adaptations and adjustments keep adding up over time, it will be harder and harder to justify things to yourself. Your goals are drifting. You are compromising your intentions. Now this isn’t to say that you can never make any changes or modifications to your original goals, I just want to point out another potential pitfall. This one is most common if you’re experiencing the discouragement I mentioned above in pitfall number three.
5. The Once Trap
In my first book, I wrote about The Once Trap which is when we deny ourselves any sense of happiness or accomplishment until we achieve our goal. The internal dialogue can be insidious:
“All of my hard work will have paid off once I have $10,000 in the bank.”
“I’ll find true love once I get down to 150 pounds.”
“I’ll be happy once I win the Olympic gold medal.”
The Once Trap is a pitfall that robs us of any sense of progress. There’s no joy to be found in the small victories along the way because everything hinges on achieving the “once…” It also diminishes our sense of growth and how far we’ve come. The Once Trap supercharges the stakes of the goal, sometimes to the point of being paralyzing.
And then there’s just good old-fashioned change. Let’s say that you’re working towards becoming CEO of your company. You’re putting in the work, climbing the ladder, shaking all the right hands and making all the right moves. You’ve worked your way up to the position of VP. Then your industry shifts. Some disruptive technology comes along and shakes up the entire industry. Or perhaps your company gets acquired by a competitor who only wants it for the intellectual property and promptly closes down your operations.
If you are goal-oriented and the rug gets pulled out from under you, how do you react? How do you adapt to the fact that the prize you’ve been working towards for your entire career no longer exists?
Vision over goals
I mentioned earlier that I always make sure my coaching clients’ goals aren’t running the show. We do this by working together to clarify their vision for what they want to experience in their life. Experiences, or more accurately the emotional payoffs we get from experiences, are ultimately what we’re all after. In my example where you set the goal of becoming CEO of your company, it wasn’t the job you were after — it was the experiences and emotional payoffs that you expected the job would give you. Perhaps it was prestige, power or a sense of pride. Or maybe it was something else. But it’s never about the goal — it’s about how we think achieving the goal will make us feel.
This is why the “That’s it?” pitfall can hit hard and be incredibly disillusioning. It happens when we think that something (like taking on the role of CEO) will have a specific payoff (like the CEO’s financial compensation package) but then discover that the payoff feels hollow. In this example it wasn’t about the money — it was how you expected the money would make you feel.
“The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.” — Hellen Keller
If you define your life and your sense of identity on the goals you set for yourself, you’re at risk of falling victim to the pitfalls I listed above. I want to add one more aspect to the “Change” pitfall, namely: time. Let’s say that things worked out well for you. You had a wonderful career and worked your way up the ranks to become CEO. You enjoyed a decade in the position and then it was time to retire. The company gave you a wonderful send-off with a nice party and a great retirement package.
This is different from the “Now What?” pitfall. This is an existential one. If you’ve defined your life and your sense of identity on the goal of being the CEO of that company… who are you the day after you retire? This is sadly quite common and I’ve worked with many clients who are surprised to find themselves facing this identity crisis, whether it was from retirement or an unexpected change such as divorce, job loss or the death of a loved one.
The key to avoiding these pitfalls is to shift from a goal-based focus to an experience-based focus. Take the time to reflect on what sort of experiences mean the most to you. Use these experiences like the coordinates you lock into a GPS. Once they’re locked in, you can begin to plan your trip. You can set out on the journey with the confidence that if something needs to change or adapt, it won’t feel like you’ve been thrown off course. You’re still heading to the same destination, you just happen to be taking the scenic route and all along the way you’re living the experience you want. Goal-based living is about a momentary sense of accomplishment and gratification. Experience and vision-based living is about enjoying the entire process. It’s totally cliché to say ‘it’s the journey, not the destination’, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
“Success procedure: run your day by the clock and your life with a vision.” — Zig Ziglar
Clarifying the Roles of Goals
I’d paraphrase Ziglar’s quote from above and say: Run your days by goals and your life with a vision. Goals shouldn’t be the objective of your life. Goals should be used to move you forward and support you in living out your vision. If you think of your vision as the master coordinates that are locked into your GPS, then the goals are the waypoints along the journey. They may need to shift or change but that doesn’t mean you’ve lost your way. You’re always on track.
Goals shouldn’t be the objective of your life. Goals should be used to move you forward and support you in living out your vision.
It can be very daunting to set a vision for your life. First of all, it can sound completely pretentious to announce to people “I have a vision for my life”. Secondly, uncovering / discovering your unique vision is not as easy as it sounds, which is why most people either default to living lives that are goal-based or end up following visions set by someone else. There’s a profound peace of mind that comes from knowing the GPS for your life is set to the best possible coordinates for you. It also gives you a tremendous sense of power and resilience, all of which make for an incredible journey along the road of life.
If you want help setting your vision, my What Matters Most program guides you through the process.