I’m writing this on New Year’s Eve. As the ball drops tonight, people will be enjoying their final moments of revelry before committing, or recommitting, to whatever goal or wild ambition strikes their fancy. Of late, my goals are more anti-goal than goal. The only thing I’m concerned with is living life in as fully engaged a manner as possible. I’m more concerned with how I’m being in the world than what I’m doing. This approach has worked out well for me, and more to the point, I like that this way of meeting life fully is more objectively valid (more on this later) than chasing a desire that I may not even care about when (and if) I reach a made-up finish line.
So for those who wish to eschew the rest of our ambitious societal norms and not get suckered into goal setting one-upsmanship, what are we to do? After all, it’s been said that “Without a goal, people perish” (I think Jesus said that, or perhaps it was Tony Robbins? 🙂 ). If there is even a hint of a chance of perishing, I would have a hard time, ethically, wishing anyone to abandon their goals and resolutions.
On the other hand, if I saw that for the vast majority of people caught on the hedonic treadmill of modern society, that goals were an obstacle to realizing one’s full potential, it would be incumbent upon me to point out the folly of our ways and do my best to offer an alternative. This is indeed what I believe. So here it goes with an attempt to accomplish these two things: point out the folly and offer an alternative to the treadmill of achievement.
What I’m Up Against
There’s a big chance this topic is a form of career suicide. I’m a coach after all. I’ve written blogs about Goal Setting and even given public talks on the subject. People hire coaches because they want to do stuff, achieve things, be unstoppable, create the impossible, etc. I’m also very good at achieving things. If you give me a BHAG (big, hairy, audacious goal), I’ll chase it down, wrestle it to the ground, and either claim victory or try again until I do.
The goal achievement at all cost mindset is reinforced by the billion-dollar personal development industry. What would happen if Tony Robbins told a stadium filled with thousands of salivating growth-seekers “the truth”:
“You really don’t need me to live a great life. Go home, go for a walk, eat a healthy meal, spend time with someone you care about and get a good nights sleep. Do that every day for the next week and see how good you feel. You will realize that you are all intrinsically OK, and that it’s your trying so hard that makes life difficult!”?
Unfortunately, the vast majority of self-help teaching is predicating on creating an intolerable level of pain and dissatisfaction with the present moment and lusting after the pleasures of an imagined future. Pain in the present and reward in the future are the two reagents in a powerful psycho-chemical reaction, sparking powerful motivation to change, pivot, jump, leap and scurry off into action.
The question is, is this fury of activity really necessary, and what is the cost it takes on people (and their families, businesses, etc.)? Even more interesting to ponder, is there a better way to get what we really want and not just gratify the ego?
Goals Gone Wild
Two years ago I created a big goal to double my business. It seemed doable, yet challenging, and very SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused and timely). I created a spreadsheet with targets for income and various other success metrics that would serve as beacons out in the future, calling me forward towards continuous and never-ending improvement (CANI as Tony is fond of saying). It all seemed so buttoned up, so clear-cut. It was very motivating. Until it wasn’t.
After two months, I started to feel that something was wrong. I was spending a lot of time having conversations with prospects and trying hard to enroll people who were interested in working with me. I was working more hours than I would have liked, and spending far too much time on video calls. I saw that this path was heading towards a life I didn’t want. I also felt like my business was just fine as it was. I didn’t really need to grow it. I was totally happy and earning enough income to live comfortably. Why strive and be miserable? However, my goal was set. With such a die cast, what was I to do?
In a conversation with my coach, he simply pointed out that pursuing habits and goals can be motivating, but also handcuffs, chaining us to a life that was appropriate at one time, but woefully inadequate later on. I sat with this idea: were my goals serving me or was I serving my goals?
Then it hit me: Were my goals ever serving me?
I knew that I was not alone. Having coached over a hundred leaders and high performers over the past several years, I have seen how inconsequential the achievement (or not) of goals can be when it comes to living a great life and doing remarkably well at work. The marks of distinction in a career often come about through unplanned achievement and capitalization on opportunities. The happiness paradox is also well known, that we don’t know what makes us happy, and trying to pursue satisfaction only pushes it away.
Early in my coaching work, I learned that the greatest moments of achievement for my clients were often things unrelated to their singular goal and purpose for hiring me. The goal was simply a catalyst, a reagent that got them playing fully in life. Sometimes the goal was achieved and was as fulfilling as hoped, more commonly, the truly profound outcome of the coaching was something different altogether.
I’ve had people hire me to find a better job and end up quitting their job at going on sabbatical (and being super happy about it!). I’ve had people hire me to get a promotion and they ended up not getting promoted, but losing a bunch of weight (and feeling amazing) while the promotion lay out of reach (and being very happy about it!). I’ve even had people achieve their goal (say, a promotion to management or a wonderful new job) but feel unfulfilled. This last type of outcome is what I’m least proud of.
Yes, there are plenty of cases where people hire me to achieve goals, do so, and are happy and satisfied about the outcome. However, when you see how the sausage is made, it’s hard to see it any other way: When you know that true satisfaction and happiness are what people ultimately are after, and that these elements are not predicated on achievement of a goal, it completely shifts the nature of how you operate as a coach. After all, the role of a coach is to support people in living a fully satisfied and successful life. Goals can help, but they are more often used as a crutch, avoidance mechanism or distraction.
The real power behind your life’s work isn’t your pursuit of a manufactured goal. It’s something altogether different. I’ll go into that next.
There is something you can do, beyond setting loftier goals and willing yourself to rise to the occasion. It doesn’t take any leaps of faith to adopt this new approach, because like it or not, it’s how your life has been working anyway. After all, how many of the grandest moments and poignant achievements of your life were the product of a well-executed strategy – all laid out and conquered in 6, 17 or N-steps?
Instead, I’d like to offer a counter-punch to the goal-seeking and habit-building hobgoblins. Three counter-punches in fact!
1. Saying YES to life
The opposite of goal seeking is to fully embrace the present state of life. This is a simple thing to do, as there is never nothing going on. There is always something to say “yes” to. By “yes” I mean a metaphorical yes, though in some cases it might be warranted for the words to spill from your mouth (e.g. if someone asks for your help).
The wonderful thing about saying yes to life; you save a tremendous amount of energy without having to fabricate a goal, muster willpower and figure out what to do about it. Instead, you simply connect to what seems like the most appropriate thing to do right now, as life is unfolding, and say yes to that – as emphatically and joyfully as you can.
Saying yes to life implies the surrender of the personal ego – full of its likes, dislikes, attractions, aversions, and whims. Does your boss need you to get that report done today instead of tomorrow? Just do it. A friend asks to borrow your lawnmower? Sure no problem. Feel inspired to run a marathon in 6-months? Great, you can do that too. Just start with whatever needs to happen now to make that happen. Feel exhausted and need to take a nap at 2 in the afternoon? That’s cool, go for it.
Note that saying yes to life doesn’t mean you always say yes…it means you say yes to what the deepest part of yourself is saying at the moment. It takes a bit of practice to get the hang of what to say yes to, but if you just start along the path, you can’t help but figure it out. Your mind thrives on the direct feedback life is designed to provide.
Perhaps the greatest example of what life can be like when surrendered fully is accounted for by Michael Singer in his wonderful book, The Surrender Experiment. Even better, try it out for yourself for a weekend (or a week) and see what happens.
2. Be fully engaged
Who is better off, someone who is haphazardly pursuing a stretch goal or someone with no goal but is fully engaged in whatever life (and work and family and etc.) is showing up with? That’s an easy comparison, so let’s make it trickier. Who is better off, someone who is completely engaged in pursuing a stretch goal or someone who is fully engaged in life as it is (with no explicit goal)?
I’m convinced that the latter approach is superior. In fact, the more audacious the goal is, the less likely it is that someone pursuing it with gusto will actually achieve it and be pleased with the outcome. There is a simple explanation for this, that the best things in life cannot be planned, for they are more due to luck, serendipity and randomness than they are the outcome of any brute force work ethic toward a singular aim. This is a rabbit hole worth exploring, and I’ll be writing more about it in future blog posts.
Being fully engaged simply means asking yourself the question: “Was I fully engaged in my life today?” and being willing to honestly sit with the answer that arises.
3. Explore, don’t achieve
Let’s contrast two humans, identical twins with similar life experience. Both are currently managers at a fast-moving tech firm. Let’s call them Emma the Explorer and Arun the Achiever. Both really want to be outstanding in their careers. Arun is hell-bent on being a VP of Engineering and hacking his mind to be in a peak state all the time. He recently took a Strengthsfinder survey is going to unleash his strengths on his company to achieve his goal 🙂 (can you tell I’m not a fan of these cookie-cutter assessments?).
Emma, however, just wants to try things, learn a lot and make progress by being her best on a day to day basis. Emma has no specific method or technique for achieving her goal.
Who will get further in their career in 5 years?
I’ll put my money on Emma, all of it.
In their little known but groundbreaking book, “Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned,” the authors share insights from their work as Artificial Intelligence research scientists. Their ideas, born from computer simulations and drawing support from close examination of great outcomes in various fields, have a startling implication to those looking to achieve anything truly great. The stepping stones to success are never clear at the outset. Therefore, the best strategies are always those that (1) take on the mindset of an explorer who is willing to try novel solutions and (2) is focused on the next logical step as opposed to a fixation on achieving a distant goal.
It’s an idea worth exploring!
What It’s Like To Be Goal-Less
The highest states of performance are a byproduct of serving the present moment to the utmost. Flow states are often characterized by this condition: heightened awareness and full engagement with, the now. Focusing on a goal takes away energy when the point is to be engaged in the now, doing something that matters now even if the thing that matters now is a preparatory step for something being planned in the future. Yes, even planning can be done in the now. However, the more you get the drift of doing what is needed now, the less planning seems to be required.
Following the stepping stones of life, those next steps (often it is only one) that are visible from your current perch, is a much more effortless journey than trying to force a path through the untamed wilds of your expectations, en route to a made-up future. The question then becomes, what will happen if you follow the signals life is offering, as opposed to your own plans?
There are all kinds of sayings that might give you pause before you give up your goals. You know, the whole “without a vision, people perish” thing I mentioned earlier. There’s also this quote you may have heard – that I’m butchering – “if you aren’t following your own plan, you’ll become part of someone else’s.”
The problem is, neither appears true. Quite the opposite, the most outstanding things I’ve achieved in life only make sense in hindsight. Setting and working hard to achieve a pre-defined goal only served in getting me moving and engaged in the world, whereas my shining accomplishments always would come about through uncertain means. To know that I don’t need a Sword of Damocles – masquerading as a goal – hanging over my head to achieve greatness in life is a huge burden lifted off my shoulders. Even better, to see that even in spite of myself, I can achieve wonderful things adds humor to the mix.
If you’ve read this far you probably fit into one of two camps:
You are feeling some relief at the idea of not having to get on yet another hamster-wheel as you start the new year. Instead, you can do a gut-check for what feels really great to pursue right now. Be present, do what occurs to you to do and let the future take care of itself.
Or, if you haven’t abandoned this article by now, are shaking your heads in disbelief tinged with confusion. If my life is not working the way I want it to work, how can I change it without setting goals? What should I do now? Where will this kind of life lead me?
Let me suggest that your life will carry on just fine, and without the mental noise of feeling the need to be somewhere you aren’t, a deeper and more truer signal will inevitably shine forth. You might even be inspired to follow a calling (in your career) or have a profound vision for the future (for your business) or feel truly inspired to create a shift in your home-life. In all these cases, the next step is always the same, engage at the moment, with whatever action is relevant now.
Time spent dreaming of a far-off goal is time not spent engaging with the reality of the present, connecting with the people currently in your life who warrant your attention, and actively sowing the seeds for the future (whatever that future will be) through your present-moment focused action.
Now I am off to the gym. I have no goal to pursue, but I am inspired to try a few new exercises and lift some heavy objects off the floor.
What do you think? Are goals helpful or harmful (or a bit of both)? Please let me know in the comments below!