Friday, January 15, 2010

Why I am against "goal setting"; and my personal "general direction" statement

One of the recommendations that keeps appearing in success, happiness, motivation... self-help liturature is to set goals. Well I have to say that after seven years of studying happiness I have come to the conclusion that goal setting is counter-productive to living a life with more happiness and joy. Does nature set goals? I make this point about nature because

In all the studies of happiness, the planet’s happiest people always turn out to be the people living in the way closest to that of wild ancestral humans - modern day hunter-gatherers, living contented lives on islands, fishing and lounging about. The most miserable people on Earth appear to be the Japanese, and it is surely no coincidence that their way of life is the furthest removed from nature.

I paradoxically took this quote from an essay called "Why we can't find lasting happiness", which you can read here. (And yes, even though it is a very interesting essay, I do disagree with its main claims :-)

But returning to why I am against goal-setting. In my opinion goal-setting leads to too much focus on the goals themselves, judging success based on whether the goal is attained or not, and missing other opportunities that arise -- but we don't see -- while we're pursuing the set goals. In short, goal-setting takes us away from "flowing along with the natural tides of life, actively adapting where necessary or creating where we want to...", which I find to be the best way to live (if we make the conscious decision to live a happier life with more joy...).

Instead of goals, I prefer having a "general direction" or "general directions" in life. For example, one of my general directions is to "inspire people in western civilization to do less and enjoy more", or, to borrow from Jon Kabat Zinn, "inspire people to actually be more like human 'beings', instead of human 'doings'". I will write more about this at some point in 2010...


  1. Hi Tomas. I've read this when I was on Twitter.
    You have a uniqueness of thought. I too am a person passionate about the meaning of life. The thing I would just like to point out, in my observation and opinion, is that goal-setting and coming up with a general direction are not two different boats.
    The way I read your lines on how you presented these two is that it's more one the degree of their specificity, and not really a difference. Goal-setting, in your case, is one that is specified in detail and fixed (a constraint), while the second has an element of broadness. But, looking at the two, they're not two boats.
    Rather, they rode together in just one boat. If I set a goal, I need to be clear to myself where this goal going. And that's where your general direction comes into the picture. With this in mind, the goal remains as a goal, only that it is fluid as long as the direction is clear with me.
    And, when I took on my general direction, what is it really? How would I fulfill something as broad as "inspire people"? If I have to go for this direction, then I have to get down to the specifics. I'm sure you understand what I mean here - I'm going back to the goals I mentioned earlier.
    How then would I "inspire people"? Perhaps, an example would be to write a blog with inspiring stories in it. Then, that's a goal. The point is the general direction now becomes concretized.
    To note, a goal becomes purposive because of general direction, and the general direction becomes concretized through goal-setting. The two are inseparable then.
    It isn't like the story of having two masters: you love one and hate the other. With goal-setting and general direction, you CAN'T love one and hate the other. The two both go together.

  2. I like this quote in regards to happiness:

    The Grand essentials of happiness are: something to do, something to love, and something to hope for. ~ Allan K. Chalmers

    In regards to doing we need to know what to do, how to do it, and when it's done.

    Goals and directions seems to be of the same family.

    Maybe it's the pressure we place on ourselves to get the goals done and how we really come down on ourselves if we fall short of our goals that is the real issue here.

  3. Thank you both for the interesting and valuable comments. You are both right that goals and directions are of the same family or on the same boat. Considering the "writing a blog" example, what I would be against in terms of setting goals is something like "I will write an X number of posts per week" or "I will write X hours per day or week". I think it's this "X" quantity aspect that many people get hung up on and that's problematic when it comes to happiness and joy. But I also want to emphasize that I do believe taking action is good; there just doesn't have to be so much action or so many actions, and the motivation to do something should be intrinsic rather than because I feel the need to do something because I have set an arbitrary goal. And if over a long-term period I feel that I am not "doing anything or enough", I prefer to take a look at what possible blocks inside of me may be causing this, but sometimes I also discover that the real problem is the feeling itself that I am not doing enough or anything, rather than the actual quantity of output produced. I hope that makes sense :-)