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The Hidden Evils of Goals


Every culture on Earth has its “conventional wisdom”: widely held beliefs without much evidence behind them. When I was growing up, for example, everyone thought meat, milk, butter, and eggs were an ideal diet. Now we know that mid-20th century diet was slowly killing us—but it took decades of research to change our attitudes, and even now the new knowledge hasn’t completely sunk in.

Here’s another bit of conventional wisdom: To achieve, you must have goals. This belief is so firmly entrenched that suggesting we don’t need goals—that goals may actually work against, rather than for, us—can invoke shock, horror, even rage. But that’s just what I’m going to argue. For writers especially, goal-setting is not always the best strategy. Here’s why.

First, goals are often based on insecurity. We set goals because we aren’t satisfied with our lives. We can’t be content until our first poem is published. Or we find an agent. Or get a publisher. Or win a prestigious award. Our happiness and confidence come to depend on things outside ourselves, rather than on the quality of our lives.

Second, goals force us to judge ourselves and others. If our goal is to publish five short stories this year and we publish only four, we see ourselves as inadequate. We berate ourselves for not orking hard enough, for lacking focus, for being untalented. And, if we succeed, we see ourselves as better than every writer who hasn’t published five stories. Goals create either/or thinking. We are either successful or unsuccessful. Goals achieved are like gold stars on some imaginary record, and every goal not met becomes a black mark.

To make matters worse, the loftier a goal, the more likely it is that we won’t meet it. This comes up against another piece of conventional wisdom: that we should always aim high. Dream big, we are told. Reach for that brass ring. Aim for the highest rung of the ladder. The problem is that there are precious few spaces up there on that top rung. The competition for agents and publishers is daunting. Even getting a short piece published in a small-circulation journal can be difficult. Only a tiny number of writers ever win Pulitzer Prizes or write bestsellers, and a huge number of factors go into their success—not only talent, determination, and hard work, but market forces, connections, and luck.

The worst problem with goals is that they tend not to be fulfilling in the long term. The writer who gets his first novel published is often ecstatic for weeks, even months. Then he begins to think about the next novel. Being a one-book Charley is almost as bad as being unpublished, he thinks. He has to get the next book out there—and it has to sell at least as well as the first or he’ll see himself as (gasp!) a failure. Achieving goals feels good, but its joy is emphemeral.

I’m not saying that we should never have goals. Some people function better with them than without, and others are so addicted to goal-setting that they couldn’t give it up if they tried. But we need to see goals for what they are: strategies that, at best, can help us plan, and, at worst, can make us miserable. In no case should they be the stars that guide our careers or our lives.

Fortunately, there is something better than goal-setting to keep us on track, give us focus, and help us build success. To find out what, tune in tomorrow, when I’ll discuss intention—what it is, how it differs from goal-setting, and the blessings it can bring.

Like this post? Read more at Writing as a Sacred Path.


2 Comment count
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I'll be back

 I’ll discuss intention—what it is, how it differs from goal-setting

OK, Jill. I was rather arguing with you as I read.  But I'll hold off until I read your next post. You may have something worthwhile for me to consider.

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Love this post!

Hi Jill,

I love this post! I'm looking forward to reading more.

Thank you very much. :-)