My problem with goals
by Andrew Wien
Posted on February 10, 2021
I have been a huge fan of life goals. I believe they serve as an incredible tool to change your external conditions to increase your likelihood of happiness.
However, I’m now realizing that goals might have the opposite effect for me. Over the past five years I’ve achieved my wildest aspirations and have been surprised by the result.
I left The Boston Consulting Group in 2015 and had no idea what direction I wanted to take my life. So at the beginning of 2016 I went through a process to develop a life mission statement, life goals, 30 year goals, 5 year goals, and one year goals. I was proud of them.
My five year goals at the time were to:
· Live in a place that I could see myself living the rest of my life
· Find my life partner and get married
· Own a home
· Start a family (i.e. have one kid)
· Run my own business
At the time I was single, living out of the back of my truck, and unemployed. All of these goals felt very far away.
I refreshed my goals every year up until 2021. I made tweaks to my life mission statement, made sure the life goals and 30 year goals felt right, refined the 5 year goals and one year goals, and planned what steps I could take to make progress toward them.
What is incredible is this process led me to achieve all of these goals in five years, which was beyond my wildest dreams. I moved to Boulder, CO in 2016. I met my wife in 2017. We got married in 2018. We bought a house in 2019. We had our first kid in 2020. I’ve been growing my business along the way. It’s incredible. My goal setting process turned these dreams into reality.
Given the massive success of setting goals, how can I advocate against them? Here is the thing. If you had asked me in 2016 how happy I would be if in 5 years I achieved my wildest dreams, I would have said something like, “I would be stewing in pure and ever-present bliss.” I imagined myself so content that I would walk around with a permanent smile on my face. How could anything bring me down from that?
I consider myself a generally happy person. I also think I’m continuing to get better at living life. But in 2021, I don’t feel like I’m stewing in pure and ever present bliss. Yes, I get that there is a global pandemic, a seemingly irreparable social divide in our country , and more and more evidence that we are doing irreversible damage to our climate. But if you had asked me in 2016 to fast forward and guess my happiness if I achieved these goals while the world fell apart, I would honestly say the world falling apart would not have affected it that much. I wanted these things so badly that I couldn’t imagine being unhappy with them.
So in 2021, when I tried to refresh my goals, I struggled. I struggled because I realized that I couldn’t think of a future accomplishment that would make me sustainably happy. The problem as humans is when we get what we want, we acclimate to what we have, reset our expectations, and want more in the future. It feels like nothing can ever be enough.
We as a society can easily see people fall into this trap with money and power. More money breeds a desire for more money. More power brings a desire for more power. What we don’t easily see is how pervasive this is to the way society approaches life in general.
I fall into this trap all the time. It is easy to identify in my day to day experiences. Some examples:
· It snows 6 inches the night before I go skiing. Yeah, 6 inches is nice, but more snow would have been better.
· I hang out with friends. Yeah, we had a good connection, but a deeper connection would have been better.
· My wife and I hang out for date night. Yeah, a few hours uninterrupted is nice, but more time would have been better.
· I buy a house. Yeah, it is amazing to have your own home and the autonomy to do whatever you want with the land, but having more space would be nicer.
I realized I was falling into the same trap with my goals. Once I had achieved my wildest aspirations in five years, I reset the bar. I started to realize that it was impossible to work toward happiness later. I wanted to work toward happiness now.
Goals are helpful. Clear goals allow you to prioritize and direct your focus to the things that will actually lead to achieving those goals. They allow you to make progress toward and accomplish things that seem impossible now, but that you can make possible later. They are an incredible tool.
However, I had been using the tool in the wrong way. I had been taking the end of a screwdriver and trying to bash in a nail. It is more likely to lead to my hand bruising than anything else.
So set goals that you care about. (E.g. get married and start a family). Break them down into smaller chunks that you can execute on. (E.g. go on 25 first dates this quarter, or ~2 per week). Then, rather than focusing on enjoying the end, focus on enjoying the process along the way.
How do you enjoy the process along the way? You only follow the process in this moment, so NOW is the only time that you can actually enjoy it. Right now. Not later. Not in the past. Now.
This realization started to bring up questions for me. How do I want to be right now? How do I want to live right now? How do I want to interact with the word and others right now?
I had heard of values exercises. I was recently impressed by one of my friends who had summed up his values in three words. There was something so elegant about that. All you had to was look at your values and decide how to best live them in this moment.
I wanted the same. So I combed through several values lists online, looking through hundreds of values and writing down the ones that were relevant for me. I mashed values together, prioritized them, and put them in categories. I was nowhere close to distilling down the list into three values. However, what did emerge was a clear picture of how I wanted to live my life.
Below is the result. There are five ways that I can view the moment. For each way, there is an underlying essence. I believe it is really only one thing, but it took mashing together 3-5 words and then describing them in a sentence to be able to articulate what that is.
How I want to be
o In words: presence / self-awareness / openness / curiosity
o In a sentence: aware of what is happening now in my body, mind, and the outside world with both openness and curiosity
How I want to think
o In words: autonomy / independence / non-conformity
o In a sentence: while I am obviously influenced by other’s thoughts, I want to learn what is true through my own experience
How I want to interact with the world
o In words: challenge / growth / grit / adventure
o In a sentence: I want to seek out experiences that push me out of my comfort zone and into uncertainty, fear, and not knowing
How I want to interact with others
o In words: connection / compassion / contribution
o In a sentence: I want to feel a connection with others in my body, feel their suffering and wish for it to end, and to show up in a way that contributes positively to their experience on Earth
How I want others to view me (this category still feels important even though I wish I didn’t care about this. Maybe over time it will go away)
o In words: reliable / authentic / honest / consistent / responsible
o In a sentence: I want people to expect that I say what I mean, I follow through on what I say, I don’t blame others for where I am, and I live consistently with my values
In 2021, I am trying a new approach. Rather than focusing on achieving goals, I want to focus on living in each moment in the way that I’ve outlined above. I can’t live into every category at the same time, but for each moment there will definitely be one category that is most relevant.
The experiment continues.