Because pain is as much a part of life as pleasure is.
Lots of self-help writers these days write about how goals make you feel terrible and therefore you’re better of without them.
For example, Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, claims:
“Goal-oriented people exist in a constant state of failure or waiting for the goal.”
The Problem With Goals
Their thought is that goals make you feel (a) bad if you fall short and (b) ‘empty’ when you succeed. Either way, the joke’s on you.
Some sorrow when you to fail to achieve what you wanted to may seem like an unavoidable and not particularly bad or noteworthy fact of life. But, these authors urge us to consider, should we really accept it so uncritically? Better think twice before you allow your happiness to be influenced by some goalpost you invented out of thin air.
For instance, let’s say you set out to lose 5 pounds this month, but only drop 4. You “failed.” That would be a reason for many people to be upset. Yet it’s a ridiculous reason to be upset. Why would I ever want to be upset with losing 4 pounds?
To make matters worse, even if you do make it, you’re screwed. The destination you so longed for often lets you down. You’re ‘there’, but feel strangely unfulfilled. Wasn’t this — the new house, the promotion, that viral article — why you sacrificed all these family dinners? And for what?
All too quickly, the joy evaporates and your mental state returns to its pre-success baseline. You curse yourself when you realize you’ve merely exchanged one daily grind for another hamster wheel.
The popular interpretation has become to dispense with goals and settle for processes. Instead of pushing yourself to reach an objective, just create a system and award yourself a participation trophy for following it.
You don’t need to look at metrics like sales because you know you’ve been working hard, and that guy on Instagram said that’s what it takes.
I don’t want to dispute that systems have their place in making progress. But if you don’t want to end up in mediocrity, you better think twice before you give up goalsetting.
A Constant State of Conquest
Let’s take a closer look at the con-goals arguments. They’re actually not very good.
To begin, if you have an existential crisis after you’ve reached some target, you’ve done goal-setting wrong. Hitting a goal is great, and should be celebrated. That said, if you keep pre-emptively growing your ambition, you can keep thinking about how to improve, and you’ll never hit a lull in progress.
You can easily avoid losing momentum by making sure there’s always a dot on the horizon you’re striving for.
If you’re cynically disposed, you could, like Adams, interpret this as “a constant state of failure.” I prefer a different outlook. It’s not a state of failure. It’s a quest for an interesting life.
I was watching Chef’s Table last week, and Francis Mallman’s take on it is worth sharing:
“You don’t grow on a secure path. All of us should conquer something in life. And it needs a lot work. And risk. You have to be there — a bit — on the edge of uncertainty.”
Happy Ever After
The other objection was that attaining a goal doesn’t guarantee eternal bliss. In fact, the ecstasy fades rather quickly. A couple of days, tops.
Nothing makes us feel good for too long. Whatever it is — even big stuff like children and marriage — the biological effects of it are temporary. In the words of Tim Gray, “Happiness has a short half-life.” Goals are no exception. They’re not a miracle drug. They can’t override our innate neurological limits.
I don’t see why that would be a reason not to have them.
Pain There Will Be
The final point — about how not reaching a goal makes you feel shit — is the most important one.
Because it’s true. There is a kind of mental risk in being committed to a certain cause because bad news about it will hurt. However, this doesn’t have the implication anti-goals people ascribe to it.
Because you know what else makes me feel terrible? If my dad gets sick. When my girlfriend is angry with me. When my Ajax Amsterdam loses a game. When I see bad shit on the news. Is that emotional vulnerability a reason for me to stop loving the people I love and stop caring about what happens in the world? Of course not.
Yes, commitments can cause pain.
The problem about that isn’t with goals or expectations. The issue is your attachment to not experiencing unpleasantness.
Don’t you care enough to experience discomfort to get to the other side?
It’s All About Priorities
“I see what you mean,” you reply. “But I’m not going to risk future suffering for some random goal I’ve set myself. I’m not stupid.”
“No, look, you’re confusing things. When my partner is upset, of course that gets to me. But anything I’d imbue with goals —which would be the personal and work projects I devote my waking hours to — isn’t like that. They’re not in that category. I don’t want to risk emotional vulnerability for not reaching these work or life plans.”
Is that really true? If the endeavors you spend your days and your life don’t matter to you — then what’s the fucking point?
Here’s the grain of truth in your line of thinking there: if you need targets to bring in the energy and motivation, you’re probably doing something that’s not meaningful enough by itself. In that case, the post-success void will hit you hard indeed.
That’s why your commitments should be connected with your values — with what you take to be deeply important in life.
The right place for a goal, then, is as a tool for you to be extra awesome at something that you already — before you injected it with goals — considered to be worth caring about. Whether it’s eradicating polio if you’re Bill Gates or trying to make the world a tiny bit better in your own unique way — doesn’t matter.
If you care about something, shouldn’t you want to feel bad when this thing goes awry? Otherwise, it seems to me, you’re a fair-weather idealist/entrepreneur/lover/creator.
Some Pain Serves Your Overall Happiness
Of course you’re going to face painful moments. If, whatever your area of focus, the future you’re pursuing is boldly bigger and different from the present, then you’re going to fall flat on your face a lot.
That doesn’t mean you should stop having goals and risking failure. As Joe Rogan said on his podcast the other day:
“I believe seeking comfort is one of the worst things a person can do in terms of achieving overall happiness.”
Your overall good is better served if you let your temporal happiness slip somewhat, for example, by accepting the depressions involved in finishing your great novel.
To sum up, folks who argue against goals are too focused on ‘how do I avoid unpleasantness and criticism,’ and not focused enough on ‘how do I make a difference?’
This is a mistake: the real killer isn’t pain, but lack of meaning.
Finding meaning requires finding something bigger than yourself and throwing yourself into it.
It’s going to be complex and confusing. You should and can get used to that. It’s going to hurt. You should get used to that.
Without purpose, you perish.