The Problem With Goals

How many people do you know who are actively working towards their goals? Probably not a lot. Goals are great, but they can also be really discouraging. The very reason most people don’t follow their goals is because they don’t realistically think they can reach them. Why is that?

Because goals are far, far away. They don’t move, they’re standing still on the horizon of possibilities, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do to get to them, other than to start walking the distance and getting to work. But there’s always bad days with wind, rain, storms, and nobody likes to walk on those days. Yet if you don’t make progress, it feels like you’re wasting time. And when you finally do get to your goal, you realise there’s a whole new horizon waiting for you, with yet another goal standing still, shining in the distance. It’s like it never stops.

But the truth is, it’s totally okay to take your time, to sometimes pause, and to take longer than expected.

Here’s why.


Results have nothing to do with goals

They have everything to do with the strategy and the system you put in place to get where you want to be.

  • If you’re a writer, your goal might be to have a book featured on the New York Times Best Seller list, or to win the Pulitzer Prize.
  • If you’re a runner, your goal might be to finish a marathon under a certain time, or to qualify for a specific event.
  • If you’re a chef, your goal might be to to get your first Michelin star for your restaurant, or to have your own cooking show.

But realistically, if you keep working at your craft, keep improving, and focus on the long-term progress, you will get results whether you have goals or not. What matters is to do put in work, the rest happens automatically.

The marathon example

I trained for a marathon a year and a half ago. I was part of a running club, and someone told me this story about a woman she knew who wanted to run a marathon too. That person didn’t really know where to start. One day, she went out for a 1km run (0.62 miles). It took her around 10 minutes, which is pretty slow. The day after that, she went for 2km. On the third day, 3km.

She kept increasing the distance by one kilometre everyday, taking breaks only on the weekends. She was extremely consistent with her plan, until she got to race day (42km). Needless to say she improved her speed in the training process too. But she didn’t have a target time anyway, so it didn’t matter to her. Her way of training was pretty unusual, but it was her system, and it worked great for her.

Now, would this woman have gotten results without the goal of running a marathon? Yes and no, but mostly yes.

No

She would not have gotten results because maybe she needed to envision a target in her mind. The goal was the incentive, the thing that kept her going. She needed a focal point to keep going straight, and she did.

Yes

She would have definitely gotten results, because even without a clear target, she could have decided to simply start running. Maybe she would have used a different approach. Maybe her progress wouldn’t have been as fast. But she would have gotten results. Her speed would still have improved, her posture would have become better, her pace… Everything around her running would have become better.

Goals are great for motivation and direction. But progress and results are the fuel of every accomplishments.

Why goals are not that important

A goal is not a unique qualifier

Let’s look at the writing example now. If you’re a writer, your goal might be to win the Pulitzer Prize. Do you know how many people win a Pulitzer Prize every year? 21. 1 per category. 20 of those are for written work, the last one is for music.

What is the number one common characteristic of the people who won a Pulitzer Prize and the ones who didn’t? They all wanted to win. You have to submit your work to the Academy to enter the contest. If you submit your work, it means you want to win. But only 21 people out of all the contestants will win the prize.

So if you ever win a Pulitzer Prize, and when asked what made you win over the others, you answer:

“Because I had this goal of winning.”

You’re not answering the question. Everybody else lost, and everybody had the same goal, including you. That’s true for any competition, whether you write, play basketball, swim… So the goal can’t be the qualifier. What made you successful was your system, which was better than others.

A goal is temporary

A system is continuous. If after winning the prize, you sit back and stop working, you won’t make any more progress, and you can be sure you’ll never win again.

Achieving a goal is only a momentary change. Once you reach a goal, what comes next? If you don’t have a system in place, a work ethic, something else to look forward to, you’ll go back down the slope of all the progress you made until now.

In order to continuously make progress, to hone your craft, and to not find yourself dumbfounded once you reach a milestone, you need to create a system.

Once that system is in place, have fun with it and always put it to use. Otherwise you’ll get a slap in the face when you reach your goal and you have nothing else to look forward to.

You never have enough

  • A goal can’t be a unique qualifier, because everybody wanted to win
  • What makes the winner win is the system he/she used
  • A goal is temporary, and once reached doesn’t exist anymore

This might make it sound like a system is just a series of goals put together on an upward slope. Once you reach one, you need to find another one, keep going up the success ladder, and keep honing your craft.

This MIGHT work in the beginning, with small goals, to create momentum for something bigger. But eventually, you’ll find yourself coming up against one of those 2 walls:

A. Tired of winning all the time
If you crush every single one of your goals, congrats. You have a very good system, and you’re excellent at crushing goals. But is that what life is all about? No, because you’ll come to realise there’s no correlation between your happiness and the number of goals you crush. It never stops, you can always chase more, and your happiness doesn’t increase. What now?

B. No more goals
Let’s go back to the Pulitzer Prize example. If you win this thing, there’s basically nothing else for you to win. There’s nothing higher than a Pulitzer Prize. It’s the sports equivalent of winning an Olympic medal. What do you do after that? Now it actually looks like you’re done, but you’re still not happy, and you want more. What now?

The answer to both these problems is the same: embrace the system, not the goals. It’s about improvement, progress, learning. Not about hitting targets all the time. Besides, it is extremely unlikely that you will crush all your targets without failing once in a while.

And it’s totally ok to fail.

If you learn from defeat, you haven’t really lost

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” 

— Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan probably had goals. But he also failed a hell lot of times. His system was excellent. When he came across an obstacle, he remained focused on showing up and putting in the work. He went through 300 lost games, yet he never stopped honing his craft.

Don’t cross out all your goals just yet. Goals give you a direction, a motivation, something to look forward to. But acknowledge that goals are not the end-game.

If you don’t learn to love what you do, to always be willing to improve without expecting to win, you’re setting yourself up for constant disappointment.

So work on your system. Hone your craft. Embrace failing.

And never stop learning.

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