Goals are for Losers (and Other Interesting Reads)


I hope that 2016 is off a fantastic start for you!

Like many people, I have always enjoyed using New Year’s Day and the weeks that follow as an opportunity to set goals. I’m a habitual resolution maker (both big and small) with a long history of satisfying successes and disappointing failures.

Working towards the futures we imagine for ourselves is a tricky business, and I enjoy learning about how other people manage their aspirations and ambitions almost as much as I enjoy working with my own. Below are three articles or books that I’ve spent some time with recently.

I. Research for the Goal Setter

If you are a goal setter, spend a few hours reading through Harvard Business Review bloggers Gretchen Gavett and Sarah Green’s linkset: Achieve Your Goals in 2014 — Here’s Research That Can Help. While many of these aim to help us with our professional lives, all are easily adaptable to our personal lives as well.

Gavett and Green write:

  1. Successful people do nine things differently than everyone else.
  2. The rest of us hold ourselves back in five major ways.
  3. But don’t stress! Just change the way you think about stress.
  4. To spot new opportunities, imagine yourself in the future.
  5. And act like a leader before you are one.
  6. Decide what not to do in order to make time for the work that matters.
  7. Keep meetings on track. Please.
  8. Try not to make decisions when you’re nervous.
  9. Money can actually buy happiness (if you give it away).
  10. Give away your time while you’re at it.
  11. Basically, be generous.
  12. And say “thank you.”
  13. Be quiet (sometimes).
  14. Ask for feedback.
  15. Pick the right battles to fight at work.
  16. Don’t be too confident.
  17. Challenge yourself with a growth mindset.
  18. Go to sleep.
  19. Seriously, go to sleep.
  20. And go for a walk, too.
  21. Remember: It’s really hard to change.
  22. But it can be done.

II. “Goals are for Losers”

Right now I am enjoying the book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life, by Scott Adams. Don’t be inclined to dismiss the advice of a cartoonist (Adams is the creator of Dilbert). Adams spent a long time immersed in the business world and has an uncanny ability to distill complex and unconventional ideas into compelling, accessible writing.

In one chapter of his book, “Goals Versus Systems”, Adams writes:

To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose ten pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary. That feeling wears on you. In time, it becomes heavy and uncomfortable. It might even drive you out of the game.

If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or set new goals and reenter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure.

Adams argues that systems—things you every day that increase your odds of happiness in the long run—are far more powerful than the limited willpower people typically draw upon when trying to reach “goals”, or things you’re waiting to achieve someday in the future.

III. If You Let Your Goals Become Your Identity, They Might Kill You

Another book I enjoyed recently was “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking”, by Oliver Burkeman. In his chapter “Goal Crazy”, Burkeman retells the story (as most famously told in the book Into Thin Air) of eight professional and amateur mountain climbers who died attempting to summit Mount Everest, ignoring evidence that their journey had become suicidal.

Bureman references the term “goalodicy”, coined by another climber to describe the syndrome when people become so fixated on their goals that those goals become “not just an external target but a part of their own identities, of their senses of themselves.” Goalodicy leads to “summit fever”:

Mountaineers, of course, do not speak in the corporate language of targets and goalsetting. But when they refer to “summit fever” — that strange, sometimes fatal magnetism that certain peaks seem to exert upon the minds of climbers — they are intuitively identifying something similar: a commitment to a goal that, like sirens luring sailors onto the rocks, destroys those who struggle too hard to achieve it.