Are Goals Foolish?

goals Are Goals Foolish?

I’ve had a few people in the last year ask me about my goals for the future. I get questions like, “What does your ideal life look like?” or “Where do you want to be in 5 Years?” Questions like that imply that current life is inadequate and I should be striving for something more. What if I’m happy with my life now?

The Problem with Goals

I believe there is some value in setting goals and striving for more, but most goals and bucket list items seem to be superficial and self-serving. I don’t need a better job, more money, an advanced degree, more Twitter followers or a fancy house to be happy.

I don’t need to climb mountains, get lots of stamps in my passport or take up extreme sports. All of that is largely selfish and meaningless. I’m not trying to impress anyone, so why would I chase such silly pursuits?

There are many things I’d like to get more of, such as: health, knowledge and friends. Maybe I’d also like more patience, confidence and tolerance. However, none of those are an end goal, they are all part of how I choose to live my life.

I will get more health if I continue to eat healthy and exercise everyday. I will gain knowledge if I continue to make time for reading and talking to smart people. I will gain and improve my friendships if I make time for people. A quality life is not a destination you arrive at, it’s about the choices you make everyday.

I once chased goals such as growing my business, reaching a particular income level, buying a new car and getting the house I wanted. It took me several years to finally realize that those goals, which I thought were so important at the time, we’re getting in the way of what I most wanted. They took away time from the activities that brought me happiness and fulfillment every day.

What’s more effective: a goal to lose 20 pounds or just choosing to eat healthy and exercise everyday? There are many fad diets and insane exercise programs that you can follow for a short time to lose the weight, but it almost never lasts. Daily exercise and good nutrition will keep you healthy for the rest of your life.

What good is a goal to make $1 million if you spend $1.1 million? Wouldn’t it be better just to spend less than you earn for your entire life?

I worked in sales back in my university days. My managers would come up with arbitrary sales goals like, your target is $2000 today. Shortly after that, I had a $5000 day. My target then became $5,000. It wasn’t based on any meaningful measure. Sometimes I met the goal, most often I didn’t. One thing for certain, that number had no influence on my performance. If anything, it made me cynical about how poorly the business was managed.

An Alternative to Goals

Goals don’t deliver results, the process does. Invest in the process and you’ll achieve more. 

In my sales example above, dollar value sales goals are largely pointless. They just make employees overly competitive. It would have been much more effective to create a daily process of productive activities like making 10 sales calls per day, writing thank you cards to past customers and perhaps spending 15 minutes a day learning more about the product. Those simple activities would increase sales over time.

Instead of setting a goal to lose weight, create a daily process of drinking water instead of soft drinks and going for a walk after dinner everyday. Those two things alone, if done daily, would help most people permanently keep the weight off.

If your goal is to have socially well-adjusted children, the most important thing a parent can do is sit down and have dinner together with them everyday. How much money you spend on them or the number of extra-curricular activities they do matter much less to their emotional well-being.

It really is that simple.

Daily action delivers improvements, not goals. In fact, most goals reward the wrong behaviour.

Corporate stock-price targets incentivize fraud. Teacher bonuses linked to grades, encourage cheating and grade inflation. Athletes resort to doping and steroids when the rewards for winning are so great. Companies can’t get sales people to collaborate and share best practices when bonuses are awarded for individual performance.

Any goal can be reached if we cheat. Is the objective to win at all costs, or is it to live to the best of our ability?

Life is Good

My life is great now.  I can walk, talk, see and hear. Not everyone can say that. I have a great wife. I have friends I like spending time with. I’m working on projects that I believe contribute to the world. I have time for regular exercise, reading and the hobbies I enjoy. I can’t think of any goal that would make me happier and more fulfilled.

I don’t need material possessions, particular experiences or a certain income level to become happy. I enjoy what I do everyday.

I could definitely make more money, particularly if I choose to work in the oil sector or other jobs I know I would hate, but it’s not worth the emotional cost. I’d much rather make less money doing what I love, versus getting rich doing something I’d hate.

When people ask, where I want to be in 5 years? I generally respond with, “I want to continue doing the same things I’m doing now.” My life is great, there is nothing I need to accomplish to feel fulfilled.

Personal Development Bullshit

I just finished reading a popular personal development book where the author advises to go to work early and stay late because successful people work hard. He also talks of the importance of becoming one of the top performers in your company, implying that success means making as much money as you can. The author goes on to teach how to get good at sales. People who are good at getting others to buy more, make a lot more money.

What a bunch of bollocks. I don’t want to work 60 hours a week selling useless garbage to the world. That is not what success means to me.

I don’t know how many times I’ve read about the Harvard business school class that wrote down their goals and were immensely more successful after twenty years compared to peers that didn’t write down goals. It turns out that study doesn’t exist. It was completely made up.

I’d like my ideas to reach more people. I’d like to make a bigger contribution to the world. I’d even like to make more money. However, I don’t need any of that to be happy. If I can’t find satisfaction in what I do everyday, then I don’t see much benefit in striving for any goal.

The finish line of life, is death. I think we should strive to live as much as we can every day, not race to the end as fast as we can.

Where do I want to be in 5 years?

Right here. I’ll be doing what I’m doing now. 

If you’re interested in an alternative view of success, you can read my free online book at:

Simple Success Manifesto

Further Reading

Achieving without Goals on ZenHabits.net

Tim Ferriss vs. Leo Babauta Showdown: On Whether Goals Suck

Why Goal Setting Doesn’t Work on Psychology Today

Why Setting Goals Can Do More Harm Than Good Forbes.com

Consider Not Setting Goals Harvard Business Review

Enjoy the Article?

Go ahead, you know you want to! :-)

Subscribe for articles and interviews about achieving your dreams and making a difference.

My name is John Bardos. My wife and I gave up our business, house and possessions in Japan to search for more meaning and fulfillment in our lives. We've discovered that a satisfying life is about rich experiences, quality relationships and meaningful contribution, NOT consumption.

18 Responses to Are Goals Foolish?

  1. I totally agree with what you said, although I will add that individuals should follow their excitement on a daily basis without expectations. Having a map or a daily task is great but when people zero in expectations that is where they miss the mark and feel failure.

  2. Owen says:

    I agree is all about the daily process. Fit everything you would like to achieve into a day, then repeat that day – over and over again. I know it sounds repetitive and boring. It’s not and super productive. I agree, forget goals and focus on the process,

    • John says:

      Thanks Owen.

      It’s hard to focus on the process because we’ve all been conditioned to strive for bigger goals. However, I think it’s far more rewarding and fulfilling. I believe this is where Eastern religions excel over Western ideas.

  3. Bill Shattuck says:

    John

    You’ve hit the proverbial nail on the head.

    You are obviously on the right track to maintaining your personal goals.

    I can relate to the sales target scenarios, as I have just retired after 20 years in sales. The corporate American giant I was employed with, used the same tactics most sales departments use which is…MOTIVATION BY INTIMIDATION. It does work, although keeping employees living in fear of losing the job is just as insane, as man’s habit of dumping garbage in the oceans. These are extreme comparisons I know, but they show mans’ shortsightedness of living in the moment. Neither version ends happily…Employees leave and re-training begins with new recruits, who are trained with the same tactics, and the toxic work environment cycle begins again. As for the oceans becoming mans’ toilet…Again, humankind is living for today and looking for the cheapest way to make the almighty dollar and where to dump waste from that dollar making. The oceans are the preferred choice and have become the least expensive way to get rid of money making waste. There seems to be little concern for the future or the fact, our children will inherit…a DEAD planet.

    I encourage you to keep up the lifestyle you crave…I envy you. Although, remember the footprints you leave behind… Just a thought.

    Cheers
    Bill

    • John says:

      Thanks Bill,

      Yes, the environmental problems are scary. Unfortunately, the entire world keeps on increasing consumption and waste. I’m amazed at how western Asia and Europe have become over the last decade. The whole world is shopping now.

      My wife and I have drastically curtailed our consumption and waste, however, we still fly more than I like. I’ve been looking into purchasing carbon offsets, but I’m not sure that justifies our travels.

  4. Nelson Montz says:

    Dissenting discussion is wonderful: No, I don’t believe you hit the nail on the head.

    Your affinity for nutritious food and exercise is a larger goal than what what most people have in weight loss. Preventing the flab & sickness is an active goal, whether written or not. (Most spend more time writing goals and to-do’s than actuating them.) If we can cheat on our goals then we probably haven’t stretched enough.

    Enjoy immensely the great life now, while keeping in mind, “…and that too can change.”

    We can all nod in agreement, but unless we’ve dispersed the junk & possessions then talk is idle. I gave it all away 7 years ago_ very liberating.

    Some like to give from the inside- some from the outside. I like both. The hour a day I research & work stock & options trading allows this. The only evil thing of money is the person holding on to it and not dispersing it. Trading teaches me other things enroute to what I research. It has taught me more of personal discipline than lack of money or selfishness ever did.

    My 5 year goal? Change & evolve through the process.

    At 66 years old my finish line is not as close as yours. But then…that’s just me.

    I enjoy keeping up with you.

    • John says:

      Thanks for the comment Nelson.

      I’m not sure what you are saying here. Do you believe that setting goals are good?

      I was trying to say that I don’t have a finish line.

      I exercise and eat healthy food because it makes me feel better every day. I write and play guitar everyday because I enjoy those activities. I don’t have any future objective with those activities. I do them because they bring me happiness today. In my definition, those are not goals. That is the point I’m trying to make. Are you saying something different?

  5. Kay Gillett says:

    This article really speaks to me. I love your morals and ethics! Thank you for writing your views so clearly and in an interesting manner. I look forward to more of your writing.

  6. Reid Kane says:

    John, you know I am a big fan….here is an alternative:

    For all of my life, and I am an old guy now, “retired” for the 5th or 6th or more time and this is how I have approached my working life: I work for a year, or 2 or 5..whatever my interest is in the particular job…then “retire” for multiples of the years worked. If I worked for a year then I am off for 2..or 3..until the $ gets down again. The type of job is not important however it must be somewhat interesting, pay well, and I must be respected by those I work for and with. That’s it.

    Then I am off with my wife again doing whatever and wherever. Been all around the world. Have stayed put and moved constantly..whatever has motivated me at the time. I agree 100% in the not being tied to a desk until “the time is right”. Take a risk..it won’t kill you, and they won’t eat you….(probably)..lol…

  7. Marcelo says:

    Thanks John, this post comes exactly at a moment when I am trying to focus more on the processes and less on the outcome (so far yielding good results and I am finding that I am getting closer to the outcome)!

    I was shocked that Yale/Harvard study never existed! I based many of my beliefs in that study and it has been cited by respectful authors like Brian Tracy! So I was surprised to find its a hoax. I guess now you can’t trust best selling books either!

    • John says:

      Greetings Marcelo,

      It’s good to hear from you? How’s Florida?

      I’ve always loved those motivational/personal development books, but there’s so much garbage out there now.

      The message is that everyone should strive for more. Why does everyone need to buy, consume and achieve more? That is precisely the mentality that is screwing up the planet.

  8. Hi John,
    First, I want to tell you how much I enjoy your blog. I’ve been subscribing for over a year now and I like your thoughtful comments and perspectives. This blog hit home as I’ve been trying to define what success is for me. For most of my life, I thought that success equaled setting achieving your goals, earning more money and buying more things, working long hours at a job that I hated. A couple of years ago I realized how UNHAPPY I was with my life and started to try to figure out how to get out of this miserable soul-sucking rut. My husband and I sat down and talked about what we really wanted – to travel- and set a plan in motion (I think this part of the story mirrors your experience, too). It took a year to sell and donate everything we had and close the door on our old life. We took off in September 2012 to travel slowly starting in Mexico, lived in Guatemala for 5 months (volunteered and taught English at a girls’ public school), visited Belize, El Salvador and are now in Honduras.
    For people who once decided our New Year’s resolution would be “To be more spontaneous” (no kidding!) not having a clearly defined goal is tremendously FREEING. Not having a goal removes the pressure and stress of trying to reach some defined finish line and the fear of failure. Not having a goal means I’m free each day to decide what I want to do, where I want to go and what will make me happy. And now, for me, being happy equals success.
    Anita @ No Particular Place To Go

    • John says:

      Thanks Anita.

      Congratulations on being able to make your travel lifestyle a reality.

      I agree happiness = success.

      Money and possessions can make our lives better, but after a certain point, they stop improving our lives and just add stress, while requiring us to work more hours.

      I have a chapter on that in the Simple Success Manifesto. :-)

  9. Sauriol says:

    I think $2000 is posible for us :)

  10. I think goals are helpful for directing effort. My goals are more like guidelines than a checklist because the fun and experience is in the pursuit not usually the attainment of the goal. Even creating the habit of drinking water and walking serves a goal – losing weight (which is an awfully vague goal and not particularly useful).

    • John says:

      Hi Tim,

      Thanks for the comment.

      I don’t think I fully understand what you are saying here. When you say that your ‘goals are more like guidelines’, I take that to mean that they aren’t ‘goals’ in the personal development sense of the word.

      Like you said, losing weight is a very vague goal. I agree completely. To keep the diet example, goals like ‘losing 10 kilograms’ are not effective. Diets don’t work. There are shortcuts to losing weight, but they never last and they are actually harmful to our health.

      These types of goals encourage the wrong behaviour, because the ends justify any means. It’s much more effective to eat healthy and exercise everyday. I drink lots of water, eat healthy and exercise daily because it makes me feel good, gives me energy and is good for my long-term health. There is no finish line to cross. There is no objective to reach. It is a daily practice. To me, it’s more about mindful living, rather than chasing some objective.

      In modern economies, the primary ‘goal’ is to increase GDP and profits. Corporations and individuals will do almost anything to achieve that goal. The problem is that real measures of well being like health, clean air, clean water, safe communities, well adjusted children, peace, wildlife, natural areas, etc. all get trampled. The goals, by their very nature encourage destructive behaviours.

      In Europe, Asia, Central and South America there is still an appreciation for culture, history, nature and community. America, Canada, Australia and the UK have largely lost that. I believe it’s because we’re all chasing foolish goals.

      What do you think? Are we talking about the same thing here.

      Thanks for the discussion! I love conversations like this.

Leave a reply

Please enter your real name and not an alias. People like to talk to real people. I'd love to hear from you, but please comment to extend the conversation, not promote your business.

CommentLuv badge