Sam Holstein

Life Isn’t About Achieving Goals

Here in America, we are goal crazy. We are all trying to achieve goals. We’re trying to get beach bodies, get a promotion, start a business, shape up our side hustle, renovate our house, and a million other things.

Medium headlines reflect this; headlines of articles I’ve seen in just the last week include “What I Accomplished in My 90-Day ‘Goal Bootcamp’”, “3 Exciting Facts About Goals That No One Talks About”, and “Two Powerful Tools To Light The Road For Your Goals”. I like these writers and have no doubt these are great articles, but the fact that I was able to find these three with less than five minutes of internet searching speaks to our collective interest in goals. Goals! GoalsGoalsAre you achieving your goals!?

In reality, while goal-setting is a useful productivity tool, making goal achievement the center of our personal and professional lives is setting ourselves up for disaster.

When you actually think about it, the goal-achievement mindset isn’t necessary for achieving goals. After all, you don’t achieve goals by worrying about achieving your goals. You achieve goals by doing the work. Everything else we do — worrying about whether they’re achieving their goals fast enough, getting down on themselves, pumping themselves up, buying business cards to help themselves feel more serious — is all window dressing. If it helps you do the work, great, but if it doesn’t, it’s a waste of your time.

The purpose of setting a goal is not to pick a singular focus around which your life will revolve. Goals are much less serious than that. Consider the following equation:

X * Y = Z

Given your resources (X) and your goals (Z), what effort (Y) do you need to put in? Solve for Y.

X(resources) * Y(effort) = Z(goals)

Once you’ve solved for Y, there’s really no point in fixating on Z anymore. All you need to do to make sure you reach your goals (Z) is make sure you are (Y) doing the work.

If you drill down, you find that most goals are, at their core, arbitrary. Consider winning an Olympic gold medal. Olympic athletes spend their early years doing nothing but training in pursuit of a gold medal (or 28 of them). But what is the point of a gold medal? If someone came up to you and offered to sell you an Olympic gold medal for $45, you probably wouldn’t take that deal. A gold medal isn’t worth very much to you. Why? Because you didn’t earn it. The point of a gold medal is the effort it takes to earn one.

This isn’t only true for athletic awards. Modern psychologists have found this extends to all goals. One of the major factors that make people consider whether their life is worth living is not how pleasurable their life is but how meaningful it is. People who do meaningful work in adverse circumstances (think Malala or Gandhi) rate their lives as happier than people who live in the lap of luxury but have nothing to do.

I present this like this is something groundbreaking, but I think on some level we’re all aware of this. When we see rich people doing nothing but wasting away their lives doing drugs on yachts, we may feel superficially envious, but in our hearts, we know their lives are missing something important.

This is to say nothing of the fact that we don’t have complete control over whether or not we achieve our goals. When pessimists say that success in life is all down to the luck of the draw and whether you were born into privilege or not, they’re way off base, but it is true that luck plays some part in success.

The best way to think of success is like a raffle. Every day you do the work, you are earning another raffle ticket. If you only submit one or two tickets, you are not likely to win. But if you submit hundreds or thousands of tickets, the chances you will win the raffle rise considerably.

For most raffles (i.e. goals), you can earn enough tickets that your win is practically guaranteed. You can pile up enough tickets to practically ensure your boss will promote you, for instance. But the most competitive raffles in the land, like “winning a gold medal in the Olympics” or “becoming President”, have so many people entering that it’s impossible to guarantee a win.

That goals are raffles doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile to try and achieve your goals. I chose a raffle as my metaphor and not a lottery because unlike the lottery, it is reasonable to think you will win a raffle, given you buy enough tickets. But if you don’t win your chosen raffle, it doesn’t necessarily reflect a personal failure on your part. The only thing you can control is how many tickets you enter.

It’s also worthwhile to enter the proverbial raffle because even losers win. When you enter a raffle in real life, you either win or don’t win. But when you chase a goal, you still benefit even if you fall short. Even Olympians who never win a gold medal still win a silver or bronze, or at the very least are one of the world’s greatest athletes in their sport. They go on to have very successful teaching and coaching careers in their sport. People who start businesses with the intent to revolutionize their industry may not revolutionize their industry, but they do still create a successful company that employs many people and supports many families and creates a lot of value in the world. Even when we fall short of our goals, we’re still better off for trying.

People who make goals the center of their life, as opposed to understanding goals as just another productivity tool, tend to suffer for it. People who spend years or decades singularly pursuing one goal report a sense of emptiness or loss when that goal is achieved. When Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck went big-time, he expected to feel elated. And he did — for a few weeks. But afterward, he says, a profound feeling of purposelessness set in. After all, when you have climbed Mt. Everest, what mountains are there left to climb?

People are left feeling this way because they defer happiness until they achieve their goals. They tell themselves “Once I reach my goal, then I’ll be happy.” The problem with this is that ‘achieving your goals’ is a Sisyphean task. We spend all our time pushing the boulder up the hill, only to find that once we reach the top, it rolls right back down again. We will never run out of goals to achieve; we will always be pushing the boulder up the hill. If we tell ourselves we can only feel happy when the boulder is at the top, we will not feel happy very much. James Clear explains:

The implicit assumption behind any goal is this: “Once I reach my goal, then I’ll be happy.” The problem with a goals-first mentality is that you’re continually putting happiness off until the next milestone. I’ve slipped into this trap so many times I’ve lost count. For years, happiness was always something for my future self to enjoy. I promised myself that once I gained twenty pounds of muscle or after my business was featured in the New York Times, then I could finally relax.

Thousands of years ago, Buddhists were aware of this problem. The foundational belief of Zen Buddhism is that the present moment is all we have. When we are future-focused this way, deferring happiness for when we’ve achieved a certain goal in the future, we are not living in the present. But as a friend of Alan Watts observed, it is impossible not to live in the present:

I had been attempting to practice what Buddhists call “recollection” (smriti) or constant attention of the immediate present, as distinct from the usual distracted rambling of reminiscence and anticipation. But in discussing it one evening, someone said to me, “But why try to live in the present? Surely we are always completely in the present even when we’re thinking about the past or the future?” (author’s note: emphasis mine)

The anonymous friend had it completely correct. It is impossible to live “for” the future. We can’t “trade” happiness now for happiness in the future. Whether or not we’re happy in the future when our goals have been achieved has nothing to do with whether or not we’re happy now.

If you would like to be happy, both now and in the future, you cannot make goal achievement a condition of your happiness.

What we need to do is clear: We need to stop measuring ourselves against our goals. Setting goals is an important part of making sure you’re directing your effort in the right way, but that’s all. Goal pursuit as a meaning of life leads us into a pit of future-focused anxiety that never delivers the happiness we’re looking for. We need to find a source of happiness that’s accessible no matter where we are in our personal journey. A happiness that’s not dependent on our own performance, but on something greater. Where we find that is up to us.