The Problem with Goals (#705)

(Today’s tip is adapted from Supercoach: 10 Secrets to Transform Anyone’s Life. For more information, visit…)

My two dogs, Mishka and Abby, have very different personalities. Mishka is bored unless engaged in her favorite game, which, as you might imagine for a dog, is fetch. You take her bone and throw it as far as you can and she chases it as fast as she can. Then she brings it back to you and asks (well, begs) you to throw it again. She wants to play fetch continuously and I’ve occasionally speculated that if I let her, she would keep chasing that bone right up to the point where she collapsed of physical exhaustion.

I call Mishka a “goal dog”, because her behavior is similar to what I see in compulsive goal setters. They continually set goals in every area of their lives, driving themselves forward relentlessly towards the ever-receding goal of “making it”. They rarely stop to consider what they would do if they did make it, and those who do succeed (at least by society’s standards) often find themselves bored and lonely until they throw themselves back into the fray.

Essentially, compulsive goal setting is like playing a game of fetch with yourself – you throw the bones as far as you can (set the biggest goals you can imagine) and then chase after them with hyper-focused attention and continual action. The problem comes when your happiness and self-worth are the bones.

For most compulsive goal setters, their sense of well-being comes from how well they think they are doing. And since they are constantly raising the bar on what “success” and “making it” mean, they are never doing well enough to feel happy and worthwhile. There’s always more action to be taken and more targets to be reached, so there’s never a sense of being content right where they are now. And, I occasionally speculate, if they let themselves, they will keep chasing those goals right up to the point where they collapse of physical exhaustion.

My other dog, Abby, is more of what I calla “river dog”. I call her this based on the writing of supercoach Earl Nightingale (founder of Nightingale-Conant), who described “river people” as being those “who are happiest and most alive when they’re in the river – in whatever business or career or profession it happens to be. And success comes to such people as inevitably as a sunrise. In fact, they are successes the moment they find their great field of interest; the worldly trappings of success will always come in time.”

Abby loves the park, and she loves the house. She loves going for a run with my son, but she seems equally happy and content to hang out on the sofa with our cat. In fact, wherever Abby is, she throws herself into the mix without ever seeming to need things to be a certain way.

Bizarrely, the one game Abby will almost never play is fetch. You can throw her bone as often as you like, but unless you go and get it yourself it will never be seen again.

When it comes to us human beings, I think of these two approaches to life as being less about personality types than behavioral choices. In any given moment, we can decide that what we have is not enough and look around for something to fill in the gaps, or we can decide that what we have is exactly what we want. We can turn our “bone of happiness” into a bone of contention and throw it off into some imaginary future or we can enjoy gnawing on it right here, right now.

Here’s the secret:

There’s nowhere for you to get to – you’re just here.

This thought can be disturbing at first to people who feel that “the next big thing” is continually just around the corner. But if they sit with it, most people feel their shoulders begin to relax as their experience of the present moment deepens.

Of course, just because there’s nowhere to get to doesn’t mean you’ll no longer travel – just that you’ll no longer travel in order to get somewhere that’s better than right where you are sitting now. It doesn’t mean that you can’t upgrade your car, your job, your finances, or even your relationship. It just means that if you do, it will be because you want to, not because you think you have to or you should.

Here’s a story one of my clients told me about a CEO who seemingly had his company’s goals in this considerably more useful perspective:

A four-star general was taking a tour of the company that had been hired by the military to complete a major defense contract.Despite the CEO’s assurance that this particular project would be completed on time, the general felt that the CEO’s team was not 100 percent committed to getting the job done. He argued that they should remain at work and do “whatever it takes” to succeed, even if it meant working much longer hours, taking extra time away from home and family, and putting themselves under additional personal pressure and stress. He told the CEO that understanding personnel management was like eating bacon and eggs for breakfast: the chicken was “involved”; the pig was”committed.”

The contractor smiled and said, “Well, that’s true, General-but the pig is dead, and the chicken is still producing eggs. I want my people to stay ‘involved.'”

The general backed down, and the project was completed on time.

Have fun, learn heaps, and may all your success be fun!


Related Articles

Snakes, Ladders, and Success (#922)

Recently, I’ve been doing my best to take a fresh look at the process of creation, and in particular, how results get created in the world. One question I’ve sat with in that time is “”are goals helpful, harmful, or neutral in the living of a wonderful life?”…

Life is Not a Journey (#773)

We’re just finishing up our Learning How to Thrive retreat in Ojai, and one of the things that keeps showing up as a theme is how differently people would approach their lives if they really saw that there’s nothing additional needed in order to be happy and well…

A Different Way of Thinking About Goals (#861)

Every Wednesday evening for the past 13 years or so, my best friend David and I take our dogs up into the hills near our homes for a midnight hike and what we call “the talk on the walk”. This is a free-flowing talk about anything and everything, and over the years we’ve covered thousands of miles and every imaginable topic from comparative philosophy to politics to strategies for diaper changes…