My thesis, both from my own life experience and from multiple authors I’ll cite later in this post, is that focusing on systems, your craft, or what you need to get done – how you do things – rather than a grand “dream” is a more productive way to accomplish what you want in life than listing and dreaming about “goals”.
Years ago I went on a single date with a woman. Early in the date, she told me that she wanted to go back to school and get a degree, get married and start a family, develop her artwork and gain renown for it, and start a business. “I’m very ambitious,” she said, proudly. I asked her what she was doing to work towards all those different objectives and the date turned quite chilly and came to a close shortly afterward.
Her definition of ambition (or goals) was to have her wishes ready in case she ever discovered a genie. Fine for what it is, I guess, but given that genies don’t exist it all seemed like a waste of time and energy to me. I don’t know anyone who could accomplish the wide range of things she seemed to be after – each was a full-time job in itself.
As an aside, years ago “The Secret” was popular self-help, mystical philosophy. The idea was that just by visualizing what you wanted, the universe would deliver whatever you wanted without any work on your part.
In his book “Succeeding” John T. Reed talks about how goals are a “to do list”. They are things that you’re going to break down into steps to accomplish and will probably be spending massive amounts of time, money, and energy on. Given this, it’s vitally important that you’re pursuing the RIGHT things, which is a big part of what he talks about in this book.
Imagine our goal was to live a life of leisure in the south of France. The first step is to think about that lifestyle and make sure we’d actually enjoy it. Will we be ok living away from friends and family? Will we be ok adapting to French culture? Are we able to function in a different culture? We should take trips to the south of France to verify all these things.
Breaking this down, what will be required for this lifestyle? We should be able to figure out what this will cost annually. Using the 4% rule (or another approach we prefer), we can estimate a lump sum we’ll need to invest to support this. Subtracting what we currently have in our investment portfolio and the length of time until we want to do this tells us how much we’ll have to grow this portfolio by each year to achieve this goal. We also need to understand how to construct an appropriate investment portfolio. We now have a finer grain to-do list – rather than some “vision” we have a concrete road map about what we need to accomplish each year. Would we be willing to work full time while living in France? This would reduce the needed portfolio since it would provide a monthly income. These are important decisions that we now have the data to consider.
In “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big” Scott Adams titles his third chapter “Passion is Bullshit” and denounces goals. The argument is that with goals you fail constantly except for a brief moment where you achieve what you set out to do, then it’s over. It’s very disheartening from a psychological perspective. We see this with people trying to lose weight. Telling yourself that you want to weigh 70 lbs less every day makes you feel bad. Instead, Adams endorses systems. A system is eating under a certain number of calories every day or maintaining a set level of physical activity. These are chosen to help move you towards the weight you want to be at, but instead of focusing on the vision, you focus on the steps. If you ate less than your allocated calories in a day, that’s a success and you should feel good about it. Keep it up and, eventually, you’ll be the weight you want to be at – after having daily successes all the way there.
A slightly different take on this, which Scott Adams talks about in a podcast with Maureen Anderson (jump to 20:23 for this bit), is that goals used to work. In simpler times it was worthwhile to focus on a concrete goal and pursue it at the cost of all else. In modern times, things change so quickly that it’s better to stay flexible and keep looking for better opportunities that may (will?) present themselves. Maybe within the next 10 years, Spain will be looking better than France?
In “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” Cal Newport addresses a similar idea from a career perspective. He talks about the “passion hypothesis” that suggests everyone will be happy if they figure out what their dream job is (their goal), then go do it. He demolishes this idea showing that the people who endorse this idea, such as Steve Jobs, *DID NOT* do this in their own careers. He interviews people who pursued or achieved what they thought would make them happy, then they weren’t. His argument is that there are characteristics of a good career that are worth pursuing, and if we develop expertise in what we’re working on – even if we don’t love doing it – we can exchange this expertise (he calls it “career capital”) for a job and lifestyle that will make us happy. The idea behind this might be that, rather than focusing on the vision of our goal, we should develop an in-demand skill set which will allow us to work on our own schedule where we want (in the South of France, taking a day off for steaks and drinks with friends whenever we feels like it perhaps). Career capital can be exchanged for the lifestyle we want. Again, the focus here isn’t on motivation from your vision, but simply developing expertise, getting better at whatever skills you’re currently using, with the idea that you will be able to exchange this expertise for a desirable lifestyle down the road.
Sometimes these arguments come down to “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” – semantic nonsense that doesn’t get you anywhere. I feel that. Pragmatically, there’s something important going on here beyond such a debate. My point, hopefully conveyed in this post, is that the vision of a goal isn’t worthwhile in and of itself. It is worthwhile as something to verify that you’re moving in the right direction and working towards something you really want. But beyond that focusing on your day-to-day tasks is FAR more valuable than reminding yourself of the goal constantly.
What do you think? Are goals worthwhile? Is passion bullshit?