Positive perspectives and practices for personal growth.

Who Needs Goals?

Our main business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand. Thomas Carlyle

I don’t do ‘goals’ well myself, in fact I struggle with most established performance related concepts like ‘detail’, ‘planning’ and ‘routine’…they’re all entirely alien to me. I’m a scruffy brained intuitive, creative, non-structured impulsive kind of guy; for me, being forced into the rigidity of planning and goal setting would be like trapping a wild animal in a cage.

Yet, I really tried to conform for many years; after all, setting ‘specific’, ‘measurable’, ‘attainable’, ‘realistic’ and ‘time bound’ SMART goals is the key to achievement and success isn’t it?

That’s certainly the conviction of any sane management theorist between here and Timbuktu; and it’s a firmly entrenched pop performance dogma too. The late motivational speaker and author Zig Ziglar summed up the sentiment perfectly when he said:

People do not wander around and then find themselves at the top of Mount Everest.

Indeed they don’t Mr Ziglar; but maybe they find themselves up a more appealing mountain – one that proved to be more enjoyable to climb, offered greater opportunity, felt more rewarding and turned out not to be quite as risky to traverse?

Whilst the Everest climbers pushed on regardless, risking life and limb in the pursuit of their rigidly focused SMART goals, maybe the DUMB goal setters abandoned mountains altogether when by chance, their gaze just happened to fall upon a rather alluring looking beach.

Sunning themselves on the sand, maybe they found themselves happier and more fulfilled than ever before; and thinking, ‘Wow, I’m glad I gave up the whole mountain thing…this is much better. In fact, I never really did like the cold and the death defying sheer drops after all.’

Maybe their non-rigidity of mind and their abandonment of the pursuit of a specific future opened up a world of opportunity that would have remained hidden otherwise?

Connecting the Dots…Backwards

I find Steve Jobs inspirational in many respects; as a paragon of unconformity he’s certainly a man whose character traits wouldn’t have looked great on a C.V. and yet undeniably, he left his mark as a true visionary of our time.

In his now legendary 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech Jobs said:

You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards; so you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future…Believing that the dots will connect somehow down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart; even when it leads you off the well-worn path….and that will make all the difference.

Jobs’ profound point is that the future, by its very nature is an unknown quantity; something that despite our best efforts, will often refuse to conform to our expectations. There are simply too many unquantifiable variables at work for us to predict with any certainty how things will pan out.

With all those variables flying around, your attempts to ‘connect the dots forward’ will be limited at best, futile at worse; because your ability to predict the twists and turns of the future, right now in the present, is as pretty much non-existent as the future.

Like the best laid plans of mice and men, the future is uncannily resistant to our attempts to contrive.

Goal Fixation

Of course, with a clearly defined goal broken into clearly defined action steps, you can at least attempt to influence the future – there’s no disputing that.

But the problem is that goals have a nasty habit of metamorphosing into a narrowly focused, rigid expectation of the future. We forget, in other words that the future is fundamentally uncontrollable. Instead, we continue to invest our time, energy and resources even when our goals start to reveal themselves as having been ill-chosen or ill-conceived.

A few years ago, I decided to open up an online store. I’d done pretty well for myself marketing other company’s products, so for me the logical next step was to cut everyone else out of the equation and market my own.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out what a monument misjudgement I had made.

The problem was, and still would be, that I’m blessed with about as much business sense as a two year old; and thanks to that lack of business acumen, combined with the realities of a swamped, highly competitive market, meant that I quickly figured out that I’d bitten off more than I could chew.

But could I accept defeat? No. In fact, the worse the situation got and the more obviously futile and self-destructive the pursuit, the more time and money I ploughed into the venture. I kept on going in fact, until I was left almost bankrupt and balancing precariously on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

My goal had become all-consuming. It was no longer just a preferred version of the future; it was the only future I could imagine. Its pursuit had given me a firm sense of direction and certainty over my future – illusory though it was; and combined with the monumental expenditure of time and money I’d invested, I simply couldn’t let it go.

The goal had become more than a goal; it had fused with my self-image – it was part of my identity.

That’s a very dangerous, but very probable path to find yourself going down when you lend too much weight and importance to your goals.

The Goalless Alternative

Goal setting, as I said before, is accepted dogma. Tell anyone that you don’t have a goal or a plan and you’re likely to be seen as a bit of an aimless waster, rolling directionless through life.

That is in fact, how I was afraid to be perceived for many years, and was the reason I really tried to conform to this convention of achievement; even when it was quite clearly self-destructive.

The insight that finally gave me solace came, as these things often do, from nature.

Where are the SMART goals there?

I often sit on the beach watching the guillemots diving into the sea for food. Have they set themselves a goal to catch a predefined number of fish per day? Do they keep diving into the same spot if they can’t find any fish? Are they intent on only catching mackerel and not herring? Do they look restless and stressed out wondering if a freak storm will dash their plans of a quiet night nestled on the cliffs?

No…They do whatever comes naturally to them; they live in, and adapt to the moment; they improvise.

Out of all God’s great creations, we are the only species to have the capacity to project ourselves into an imagined future. Sure, that has its benefits – it enables us to temper our actions in light of the potential consequences, to consider the alternative ways in which circumstances might pan out, and to envisage a brighter future. But as we’ve seen, that ability also comes at a high price.

It can make us narrowly focused and obsessed with our preferred future ideal. And what’s more, this fixation on a narrowly focused future can generate a great deal of anxiety. The pressure of attempting to make that future a reality, together with the unsettling underlying knowledge that we’re trying to control a fundamentally uncontrollable quantity, can easily turn our goals into performance quashing, opportunity blinding and soul destroying crosses to bear.

So great though it is to be able to think ahead and dream big, maybe we do ourselves more harm than good by doing so. Maybe we too would function perfectly well – maybe even better – if we followed the example of my local sea diving guillemots and just lived in the present, and allowed our actions to be determined by our nature and events as they unfold in the here and now.

Maybe a sociopathic hit man isn’t the best person to quote for sage life advice; but regardless, Tom Cruise’s immortal words as Vincent in the film Collateral always bring a philosophical smile to my face:

We’re into Plan B…Now we gotta make the best of it. Improvise, adapt to the environment, Darwin, shit happens, I Ching, whatever man; we gotta roll with it.

Indeed, shit happens; and indeed, we gotta roll with it; just as the guillemots do.

Human Nature

Without any prompting or goal setting what would you do?

Would you stay in bed for 12 hours per day, sit on the coach watching TV for another 8 and spend the other 4 raiding the fridge and looking for convenient outlets to satisfy your base drives?

No…Me neither.

I feel the need for a sense of purpose, to make a contribution, to help others where I can, to feel contented and fulfilled, to take responsibility for my actions, to do something worthwhile and positive, to grow as a human being, to make the world a better place. Things stir my enthusiasm, pique my interest, make me excited, just because they fulfil the above criteria…even, and this is the scary part…when there’s no goal attached.

The truth is we can maintain both a sense of purpose and a broad direction in life without having specific goals, if we allow ourselves to by guided by our innately positive human qualities, as well as our own principles and values.

We might not ever achieve some preconceived idealised version of the future; but the sad fact is, given the intrinsic uncertainty attached to the future, the chances are that you never would anyway; even with those targeted SMART goals.

But wherever you end up, by living without the pressure and anxiety that goals naturally invoke, by freely pursuing the activities that stir your curiosity and interest and that stoke you enthusiasm, you can be sure that wherever you end up, it’ll be somewhere good…somewhere worthwhile and positive. That is all that any of us can ask for; that is enough.

You just have to, like Steve Jobs said in his Stanford speech:

Trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future… [That] will give you the confidence to follow your heart; even when it leads you off the well-worn path….and that will make all the difference.

For a few words of practical wisdom on abandoning the dogma of goal setting, it’s worth reading The Best Goal is No Goal by Leo Babauta.

Since writing this post I’ve also stumbled across another recent ‘no goal’ focused post by Zen Habits author Leo Babauta – Achieving Without Goals  - in which he succinctly hits upon many all the pitfalls of goal setting illustrated above, and further expands upon the alternative approach: – harnessing the inexhaustible power of intrinsic motivation by living in accordance with your deepest values. According to Babauta, his goalless living revolves four cornerstones: – approaching everything with a sense of altruism, curiosity, passion and cooperation.

It has to be said, those four values are so entrenched in the human psyche that they make the ideal starting point for anyone searching for a more liberating, but nevertheless positive and purposeful path; so the post makes a great follow up read.


  1. I am happy with the general course of life and not sure having big goals would bring me more happiness. Sure, I would probably achieve more but overall I am fine where I am. Sometimes when I slow down too much I set some goals, big or mini goals while I get back on track, otherwise, it is more a general direction of where I’d like things to be. People who aren’t happy with life should stop complaining and start implementing goals.

    • Thanks for the comment Pauline. It shows how we’re all different. Personally, the more my productivity is suffering for whatever reason, the more reason I have to avoid the extra pressure of goal setting. Letting go of the objective and simply acting through my own natural drive is the only way I can effectively move forward in such circumstances. But of course, there’s no right or wrong answer on that one – whatever works for the individual is key.

      Totally agree with what you say about feeling unfulfilled; complaining isn’t a particularly effective strategy for getting one’s life back on track. :) Whether goal setting is the answer though, or whether a goalless pursuit of interests and passions would be the more appropriate strategy is debatable I guess.

      The latter would place less emphasis on the disharmony between reality and expectation for sure, which might lead to both less complaining and more accomplishment…even without a specific set goal.
      Gareth Mitchell recently posted…Who Needs Goals?My Profile

  2. Gareth! This is a much needed post. Goals are predictions and predictions are almost invariably wrong. Even weather, with all of our advanced science and measurement, cannot be reliably predicted outside of 2-3 days. As you say, you must trust yourself that you’ll make the best choices to end up somewhere good by following the things that most interest you ans stir your passions.

    I like principles as guiding philosophies, but even they are relative to time and context. I do not accept any dogma and I am happy to see this one about goals debunked in fine fashion.

    I like spending time on stacking the deck in my favor which can be very difficult, then waiting for a gust of luck to come along.

    Now I am off for some goalless practice and then some goalless lessons. Not sure the parents would like to hear that, however – heh, heh, heh….

    • Great summation CJ; and as a fellow creative I’m glad to have your support on this one. In fact, for me, music provides the perfect example. Tell me to practice the guitar with a fixed objective in mind and my playing quickly deteriorates; more worryingly, I lose total interest.

      Of course, it really is a case of different strokes for different folks. Vai for example, advocates a very structured and disciplined practice routine; whilst Malmsteen is famous for despising repetitive practice in any shape or form. The same of course, applies to any discipline or skill; for some, set goals and objectives may be the key to mastery; for others like me (and you too by the sounds of it) the opposite is true – set goals prove to be ruinous.

      I understand exactly where you’re coming from when you say that even principles are vulnerable to the fads of time and culture, and that given their dynamic nature they can’t be relied on as a wholly reliable guide to action. Fundamentally though, I think our underlying positive human nature provides an extremely reliable compass – whatever the age or wherever the setting. If we align our actions with those fundamentals, for example our desire to make a contribution, our sense of altruism, our need to do something worthwhile – we’ll never go far wrong.

      Enjoy the goalless practice CJ and just don’t let on to the parents. :)
      Gareth Mitchell recently posted…Who Needs Goals?My Profile

      • Thanks man. I think discipline and structure can be separated from goals and they are devices that can be used to great effect. Can’t argue with Vai’s results, can we? And as you say, if we just let our better nature guide us, we are usually in fine shape. Thanks for a terrific reply to my comment, Gareth. Hoping you have a swell weekend;)

  3. Gareth, where in the world did you learn how to write? Really, I am asking. You weave your words so deftly! Oh, and the word ‘envisage’ is one of my very favorites.

    Ok, goals. Well, you’re speaking to a former Program Coordinator for adults with developmental disabilities. I wrote goals for a living many years ago. In addition, I was a public school teacher for ten years. Again, goals and SMART, yes, they must be smart indeed. In my current business, I do not write goals for students. So how in the world do they progress? evolve into capable writers? Well, I simply give them choices for topics and support them as they have at it – as they give it a go and start to figure out just what it is they like to write. It’s much more pleasurable. As far as being measurable? Well, an added bonus is the higher report card score, but do they really care about that? Only for the $25 from grammy and grampy. What they truly care about is hearing me chuckle at the funny parts and mm-hmm at a turning point and sharing the final piece, after the revising and editing and hard work of writing has been done, with their parents.

    As for me, I am lost without routine and habits. I fear I could sit inside my head for much of the day were it not for the fact that I have a five mile walk, writing at the cafe, and weights on M-W-F. If not, I would puff up and poop out. I have to exercise to keep me tethered to the ground. I have to schedule it, but I don’t have a goal, so to speak.

    Being absolutely present. Well, Gareth, I continue to work on that, but I promise not to write a goal for it. Thank you for your writing.

    • Thank you for the compliment Tammy. I try to weave my words around the quotes of those a great deal more capable than myself, and in so doing I masquerade behind their eloquence. :-)

      What you say about your students is very apt. As you demonstrate, skill is more often than not the product of passion, enthusiasm, interest, as well as a sense of approval and encouragement from others – and even without the ‘specific’, ‘attainable’, ‘realistic’ and ‘time-bound’ (my least favourite), those positive emotional states almost universally produce ‘measurable’ improvements – and that after all, is undeniably the most important facet of the acronym.

      I’m quite anti-schedule as well as being non goal orientated; and funnily enough it’s the topic for my next post. Schedules for me, like goals, put me under an intolerable pressure that almost universally backfires…a by-product of a rather impulsive personality type. But of course, I appreciate that’s far from applicable to everyone.

      I like your style on that one Tammy: – a structure to action but without any specific performance criteria attached. That sounds like a perfectly balanced compromise to me – and again, funnily enough, is something by default I find myself often slipping into. I am, after all sitting in a bar drinking a cappuccino as I write this, which is something of a routine of mine. I have no specific productivity goal attached to sitting here, the only ‘goal’ is to be productive…but that doesn’t detract from the fact that my productivity manifests, just like you say, out of a routine of sorts.

      As for staying present in the moment, I think that’s a life long journey for us all – it certainly isn’t as easy as it sounds. :)
      Gareth Mitchell recently posted…Who Needs Goals?My Profile

  4. Gareth,

    I have to ponder this one. A great post, and I have read other proponents of “no goals”, but man…I have been a driven, goal oriented guy forever! From being a musician to doing the things I do now, I have always had my eye on a “prize”.

    That said, as soon as I hit a goal I go on the next one, which may lead me to live a life of not staying enough in the present.

    Again…I’ll ponder…
    Tony recently posted…How to Get Out of Debt Once and For AllMy Profile

    • Do you know what Tony? I honestly don’t think there’s much to ponder in your case. Your goal driven mindset has clearly led you to accomplish a great deal over the years; and as they say, if something ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it.

      I think it’s those who endemically underachieve – regardless of the veracity of the goals they set – who really need to revaluate their approach. Thanks to our goal orientated culture, it’s unfortunately those individuals who tend to end up snaring themselves further in a counterproductive goal-setting trap.

      The message to those individuals here is that there is a viable positive alternative path: – a goalless approach to life that abandons extrinsic rewards in favour of one’s intrinsic motivators – including an individual’s specific passions and interests, as well as our hardwired positive character traits such as altruism, interdependency, the desire to make a contribution and the like.

      My only caveat to successful serial goal setters would be to monitor both the emotional and life impact of aggressive and rigid goal setting; because the unintended by-products of excessive goal setting are often stress, perpetual dissatisfaction and the sacrifice of life-balance in favour of narrowly focused and all-consuming objectives.