Are they goals or gaols?

Sonnie Bailey

23 October 2020

Is there something about the traditional view of goal setting that rings hollow to you?

It does for me.

Maybe goals and five-year plans work great for you. You do you! I definitely have clients who like having clear goals and clear milestones, and I tailor my approach so it resonates with them.

But personally, I haven’t really stuck with a “goal” in any formal sense for a long time.

In fact, over the years I’ve developed a pretty strong personal aversion to goals and “five year plans” and the like.

They’ve worked for me in the past. But at this point in my life, they ring hollow.

Below are some assorted thoughts on goals.

Different perspectives on goal setting

Quite a few authors have influenced my views:

  • Scott Adams, who says “goals are for losers”, and thinks that instead of being goals-oriented you should be systems-oriented.
  • Tim Harford, in Messy, talks about the many, many downsides of goals, especially in organisational settings. (I talk about Messy here.)
  • In The Antidote, Oliver Burkeman talked about “effectuation” – instead of starting with the end (goal), start with the tools and materials at your disposal, and use that as the springboard.
  • There is a Harvard Business School article “Goals Gone Wild” that has influenced me pretty strongly (Rich Meadows wrote about it well). In summary: goals are powerful, but should be treated like prescription-level medicine, not over-the-counter stuff.

SMART is sometimes dumb

I recently had a chat with someone who knows their stuff when it comes to websites. The aim was to pick her brain about how to improve this blog and a couple of other sites I manage. Before I spoke with her, I reflected on the fact that in order to make decisions about any of these sites, I need to have at least some idea about what I want to achieve.

Hmmmmm. It turns out that maybe I do have goals.

But maybe these goals are different from the types of goals that are often written about.

The most common approach to goal-setting seems to be the SMART method. Goals should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound.

But most of my goals don’t fit within this definition. Most of my goals aren’t measurable. Nor are they super-specific. And most of them aren’t time-bound.

The purpose of this blog isn’t to generate a specific amount of traffic. I couldn’t tell you specifically what it is about. But there are some general values and a vague direction that inform the decisions I make. I want to continue enjoying writing here. I want to keep achieving what it’s achieving – in the sense that it generates some work for my business, and also helps me cultivate relationships with a small-ish number of thoughtful, kind, nice people. If I were to put my goals into numbers, the magic would disappear.

The same is true in almost every other domain of my life. In fact, most of my goals are non-specific, non-measurable, and are more about the journey than the destination.

Many of my goals are about maintenance. For example, I want to:

  • Maintain the financial trajectory that my wife and I are on. (I’ve got a vague high-level goal, like equity of a rough amount in our home(s) and a rough level of investment assets (in today’s dollars), but I’m not set on this, nor exactly when we’ll get there.)
  • Maintain our health, as much as possible.
  • Cultivate the relationships with the friends and loved ones I’ve collected so far.

 If I put any of these into specific, measurable, time-bound terms, it would squeeze much of the joy out of my life.

 Kicking SMART goals in the ARSE

In the spirit of acronyms relating to goal setting (whether that be SMART or VAPID), let me introduce ARSE.

By my assessment, goals should be:

  • Aligned with your values and priorities, including who you want to be and the life you want to lead
  • Realistic, so you don’t start using magical thinking and creating expectations that will inevitably make you disappointed
  • Sustainable, so that you can and will continue working towards the goal, even in the face of setbacks. Into this, I’d add that a good goal is more about the journey than the actual achievement. (In Scott Adam’s terms, the focus should be on the system more than the goal.) 
  • Embiggening – to borrow Oliver Burkeman’s words: don’t ask “‘Will this make me happy?’, but ‘Will this choice enlarge me or diminish me?’”. More succinctly: will this embiggen me?

When you say “yes” to one thing, you’re saying “no” to other things

When people set big goals, they often don’t think about what they have to give up in order to achieve them.

There are two aspects to this. For one, if you have a big goal, you need to rearrange your life.

Just because you’ve set a goal to write a novel, it doesn’t mean that two extra hours each day will magically emerge from nowhere. You need to find that two hours somewhere.

Most of us do things in our day-to-day lives because they are adaptive. (Social media may be a different story, but are you really going to give up the dopamine-laden rewards of infinite scrolling?)

Goals can be valuable in some circumstances

Focusing on a goal can create a sense of myopia. Other parts of your life are seen through the lens of your goal. Like a horse with blinders, you can miss things.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing: when I was younger and had less going on in my life, myopia was probably an adaptive trait. It gave me something positive to focus on.

That’s no longer the case now. Through good luck and good decisions, I’ve built a good life with an amazing runway for the decades to come. I don’t need or want to narrow my perspective.

But if tragedy struck, or the need arose, I can imagine being more goal-oriented because it would be adaptive.

A fungi has fungoals

(I mean, “a fun guy has fun goals”.)

One exception to my anti-goal approach relates to “fun” goals.

For instance, 2018 was the first year I ever succeeded with a New Year’s resolution. My resolution was to “drink more”. My children were finally of an age where I could spend more time being sociable; where sleep wasn’t the most precious resource. Really, the goal wasn’t actually about drinking more. It was about being more social.

As much as anything, this goal was a fun conversational gambit.

With friends I joke(?) about working hard to finishing an erotic, supernatural, mystery novella titled The Orthodontist’s Wife. Will I complete it? Maybe not. But I have fun talking about it!


Daniel Kahneman has suggested that the difference between mild success and wild success is luck.

Good luck and bad luck play a big part in our lives. A young athlete might find their prospects disappear after a car accident. A talented young person might meet the right person at the right time.

The exact contours of these lucky or unlucky breaks are impossible to know ahead of time. Yes, you can take steps to improve the surface area of luck. But you can’t know what the breaks will be, and when they occur.

The way I see it, goals might help you with the “mild success” Kahneman talks about. It might get your the corner office, but is less likely to get you the private jet.

Lots of things are subject to factors outside of your control. You want to be the GOAT tennis player? Bad luck if you peak around the same time as Federer or Nadal. Want a #1 album? Bad luck if Taylor Swift drops a secret album the same day you do.

In a sense, my career model is based on heistonomics. It’s mostly based on swinging-and-missing, in the hope that one day I swing-and-hit.

At a high level, my goal is to be prepared for when the lucky break occurs, while managing against the possibility of bad luck.

My goal is to enjoy the experience of swinging-and-missing as much as possible. At this point in my life, having specific goals and expectations isn’t mentally healthy.

Goals make me feel like a loser, and I’m not a happy loser

Apparently, some people are “happy losers”. Apparently, this is a good trait to have if you want to be a successful salesperson:

“Salespeople are Happy Losers. Whether they know it or not, they are like addicted gamblers; they are after the thrill. On some level, addicted gamblers know that they are going to lose most of the time, but they are excited by the outside chance of winning. Salespeople share that temperament. They are pros at losing. They are rejected at least 90% of the time, I’d say. Why would anyone choose that job? For the chase. I assure you, salespeople are never going to be an endangered species. There will always be people who enjoy and want this job, just as there will always be addicted gamblers.”

I’m not a salesperson, and I’m not a happy loser.

The times I’ve set goals, they’ve been pretty significant. (Why set goals otherwise?) I often haven’t met the targets I’ve set myself. When I’m not winning, I end up feeling worse about myself.

In this sense, goals often deflate me rather than inflate me. I want to enjoy the journey of life! What’s the point?

The journey is the goal

Most goals are instrumental in nature. They are means to an end.

Do you really want a net worth of $2 million? Or do you want what that represents – perhaps a sense of security, confidence, and choice in your life?

Do you really want to be famous? Or do you want something to balm some sort of hole in your soul?

There are often many ways to achieve what you really want. There are many paths up a mountain.

At the end of the day, the key thing is making sure that you’re climbing the right summit, informed by your key values and priorities in life. It’s likely that these values and priorities are large and hard to express, and almost certainly don’t lend themselves to measurable, time-bound definitions.

If you’ve got lots of paths up the mountain, it makes sense to take the journey that you’re likely to enjoy.

Perhaps the journey should be the goal.

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