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Stop Setting Goals and be Happier

“I’m a goal-oriented person,” is something you may have bragged about in an interview.  It’s a revered quality.  It indicates you’re a planner, you do things on purpose and with forethought.  If you’re not goal-oriented, you’re standing still.  You’re not pushing yourself to be better.  But, do we really need goals?

Goals allow us to measure our future selves against our present selves.  But when we reach our goals, we often aren’t the same person we once were.  Perhaps looking back from this future vantage point, we realize our mistake.  We should have set a different goal for ourselves.  But how could we have known?  What if we simply didn’t set the goal in the first place and instead set a direction?  Then our future selves would be in a position to shift according to the situation we found ourselves in.

Systems, not goals

Scott Adams of Dilbert fame wrote a book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.  In it, he makes the case for utilizing systems instead of goals.  Goals set you up for failure. Systems put you in a position to succeed.  A goal, as Scott defines it, “is a specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future.”  If you want to lose 10 pounds, that’s a goal.  A system, on the other hand, “is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long-run.”  If you want to eat healthily, that’s a system that will likely cause you to lose 10 pounds.

If you want to be rich, you might set a goal of making a million dollars in ten years.  A less disappointing systems approach might be to get a job and learn everything there is to know about running a company.  Ask questions, volunteer for everything, and spend time with the decision makers.  Eventually, an opportunity will arise – a promotion, a job at a better company, your own business – and you’re system will have prepared you for the ensuing riches.

Be ready for success

In a recent interview, Adam Carolla talked about having no goals.  “No one really thinks you’re a loser when you’re screwing around in your 20s.  But at 30, I want to be doing something.”  Before comedy, he was a construction worker living with roommates in North Hollywood.

After some time, Carolla got his break.  KROQ made an on-air request for boxing trainers to participate in a comedy bit with Jimmy Kimmel – long before Jimmy Kimmel Live was on late night TV.  This was it.  Adam had been practicing at open mic nights and training with the Groundlings.  He also taught a boxing class on the side – another way to practice performing in front of people.

Construction allowed him to subsist.  Comedy was his ticket to a better life.  Instead of setting specific timetables and markers like “When you’re 30, you’ve gotta be on TV, have your own show,” he employed a system to put himself in position to answer the door when opportunity knocked.

Just do the best you can

In a conversation with Tim Ferriss, Jason Fried, founder of Basecamp, denigrates goals.  “I’ve never had any goals,” Jason proclaimed.  “I just do the best I can in any given situation.”  He goes on to point out that goals are man-made, arbitrary guesses.  Meaningless sources of angst.  Falling short of a goal results in a disappointment overshadowing the improvement you made.  The happiness of overshooting a goal quickly fades as the realization of over-achievement seeps in.  Jason offers up a tidy summation he attributes to Jim Coudal:

“The reason that most of us are unhappy most of the time is that we set our goals not for the person we’re going to be when we reach them, but we set our goals for the person we are when we set them.”

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