Why Most Goals Don't Work - And How To Change That
Once, when I was a few years younger, I had a friend (let's call her Kate) who used to tell me about a friend (let's call her Lucy) of hers. They were two teenage girls embroiled in a bitter love/hate relationship.
The kind where you are desperate to spend time together, but also make each other miserable. The kind of relationship that mostly consists of backstabbing, arguments and the odd drunken trip to the beach. Kate and Lucy had all the ingredients of a toxic friendship, with one extra spice thrown into the mix. They also happened to both have similar mental health problems, which I won't detail.
Somehow, it turned into a competition between them for whose problems were most serious. Whatever happened to Kate, Lucy would try to one-up it. If one of them got hospitalized or sedated or put on a new medication or sectioned or whatever, the other had to do the same and take it a little further. Their psychological problems became a fierce battle in which each had the goal of being the sickest.
One day, I bumped into Kate. We'd only been talking a few moments when she told me that Lucy had died a few days before. We were all about fifteen or sixteen at the time.
Kate mentioned again how competitive they'd been. How Lucy always had to take things further than anyone else. She didn't tell me what happened to Lucy , just that it was the result of her mental health problems. Then Kate said something so softly I barely heard it - I guess she won then.
And she was right. Lucy won the terrible, fucked up, bound to end in disaster game they were playing. She just lost everything else in the process.
If you haven't spent much time around addicts or people with serious mental health problems, that behavior might seem crazy. If you have, it will make total sense.
When a person's life has been robbed of the usual forms of achievement and satisfaction - work, relationships, education etc - it is only natural to look elsewhere.
From my own experience, people tend to go one of three directions*. Either they invest that energy into their recovery, which is obviously the best outcome. Or they get bogged down in obsessive-compulsive behaviors; pacing, counting, complex rituals and patterns that absorb their energy. Or they take what I would consider the worst path. They devote themselves to the goal of taking their condition to its extremes. People need something to aim for and cognitively, I think, it doesn't make much difference whether that aim is getting well enough to lead a sane life, walking up and down a corridor one thousand times a day, or trying to be the most depressed person around.
In this post, I want to talk about goals. That story is probably uncomfortable to read and it was certainly uncomfortable to write about. But I'm telling it to illustrate a wider point about goals.
A few weeks ago, I asked people to let me know via a survey (which is still open if you want to add your two cents) what they would like me to write about. A few people asked questions about goals: my opinion on goals, how I set them, and what I do when they don't work out**.
At first, I wasn't sure how to answer. Then, on a train the other night, I suddenly opened Notepad and typed those first few paragraphs without thinking. I had been looking for a way to understand that story, and I'd found it. It's a story about the ludicrous things people do in pursuit of goals that make little sense.
The Problem With Goals
Goals are like that sometimes. They give us tunnel vision. They become an end in themselves. They become a mountain we hurl ourselves up, breathless, only to stand on the summit and hate it.
Maybe I’m alone in this, but I often have dreams of trying to get to a particular (physical) location. As I stumble through the dream landscape, everything keeps changing around me, I find myself in alien places and keep getting distracted. When I arrive at my destination, my dream self always finds something unexpected. While real life doesn’t involve that type of convoluted logic (or unicorns, talking trees, or houses made out of shoes), it’s not much different. Which is why, whenever a goal doesn't work out, I ask myself an important question:
Did I fail to achieve this goal because:
A) I didn't put the work/effort/time/resources into it (and it would have been possible if I had done.)
B) My circumstances/ambitions/trajectory changed in the interim period and achieving the goal would not have had many benefits?
The distinction is enormous. It's an absolutely vital line to draw and one which can prevent a lot of needless self-flagellation and angst.
For example, imagine someone who wants to become a doctor. They work hard at school, then head off to take a medical degree. A year into their degree they start slacking, don't get their work done for any real reason and eventually fail their course or get kicked out. We could call that a failure.
Now imagine someone who wants to become a doctor, works hard and heads off to take a medical degree. A year into the course, they realize they only chose that path because their parents wanted them to, and they actually faint at the sight of blood or whatever. Their real dream is to become a motorbike mechanic. They persuade a local bike repair shop to let them spend Saturdays helping out, just getting a feel for the work. After extensive research and discussion, they decide to act on that urge and they drop out of medical school, then go take an engineering course or an apprenticeship at that repair shop. I would struggle to label that as a failure. I'd want to congratulate that person for recognizing their goals weren't what they wanted.
From the outside, the distinction might not seem that obvious. Their parents and friends might have a hard time seeing the difference. But, in my own life, I've found that taking that perspective changes everything. Instead of beating yourself up, you focus on what you learned and how attempts to fulfill a goal led to your new situation. Here's Hunter S. Thompson writing in a 1958 letter:
The answer— and, in a sense, the tragedy of life— is that we seek to understand the goal and not the man. We set up a goal which demands of us certain things: and we do these things. We adjust to the demands of a concept which CANNOT be valid. When you were young, let us say that you wanted to be a fireman. I feel reasonably safe in saying that you no longer want to be a fireman. Why? Because your perspective has changed. It’s not the fireman who has changed, but you. Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.
Of course, there is another category: goals that we fail despite putting in the work and/or because we aren't strictly capable of achieving them. Those are a separate issue, although I don't think that's a reason to get annoyed at yourself. It just means certain expectations need realigning
I'm a massive proponent of short-term goals, milestones, rites of passage - anything that stakes out a chunk of our lives and declares I was here. I have an almost compulsive obsession with time, and what happens in certain blocks of time, and feeling they are used well. Yet at the same time, I gave up on setting long-term goals a while ago. I did it for a simple reason: it never worked.
Not because I didn’t put the work in, but because life always seemed to change in the time between setting a goal and reaching the finish line. I still set short-term goals every single day and use a barrage of spreadsheets to manage them all. It's a powerful exercise, yet I don't set long-term ones for a simple reason: life changes.
Just look at how my life has altered in the last year alone. Cue self-indulgent reflection because, heck, it's nearly the end of the year.
In 2017 I left university and rethought my trajectory in life. I traveled to a bunch of new places (Paris, Versailles, Cheville, Berlin, Verona, Venice, Liverpool, Dubrovnik.) I spent a month alone in the countryside. I lost a family member for the first time. I went through a painful breakup. I got a cat. I spent a few months living in the shittiest flat imaginable where nothing worked and I didn’t know anyone in the area and hated everything. I moved into a decent flat and found a wonderful community of like-minded people. I took 3 am coaches to see friends on nights when everything felt hopeless. I made bad decisions, read a lot of books, learned more than I knew to be possible, saw my favourite musician in the world live three times, got a few tattoos, cried in inappropriate places, got lost in strange cities, had weird conversations with Uber drivers, old men in cafes and foxes I encountered in the street at midnight. I panicked and floundered and lost my temper and was decidedly irrational - at times. I turned 20 and had a crisis over that.
Along the way, every long-term goal I thought I had for my life fell apart, in a good way. I realized I didn’t have a clue what I wanted or where I wanted to be. Yet the short-term goals I set (those with a window of about a month or at most three months) served as powerful motivators.
While writing this post, I dug out a list of 10-year goals I made at the start of this year. Most of them are laughable. So much so that I won’t include them here (email me if you're really curious.) Some are laughable because they are so tentative, and I have surpassed them in ways I never expected. Some are laughable because they mean nothing to me now, and aren’t a part of my life. If I woke up tomorrow and they had all been fulfilled, I would be pretty pissed off. The list from the year before, when I was depressed, is even more unfathomable. Stuff like getting outside for a half an hour walk, or going to a coffee shop on my own. There are still goals on that list that I failed at. In most cases, that's because they ceased to be relevant. In a few, I simply didn't put in the work and I hope to return to them at some point. In 2018, I intend to continue setting goals in the way I did this year: reassessing everything at the start of each month then setting short-term goals broken down into daily steps.
There is another point I remind myself of in the face of failed goals:
If there is no way to fail at something, it isn't really worth doing.
That might be a contentious point and I'm sure there are exceptions. Yet, for the most part, it's true. You can fail at a relationship, or a creative project, or a business venture, or a financial goal, or learning a skill or raising children, and so on. You can't fail at sitting on the couch (or in my case, the floor because I have a weird hatred of sofas) scrolling through Facebook, or at spending 12 hours watching Netflix. You can't exactly fail at remaining trapped by inertia or sticking with the status quo.
If you have the guts to set yourself goals, fight for them, and be invested in them enough to feel frustrated when you don't reach them, that is impressive in itself. It shows you are willing to put up with doing things that might go wrong. Things that are worth doing. Things that might be hard or painful.
The Mystical Land of 'There'
Goals assume that, at some point, we get There. Where is There? I don’t know. My entire life has been lived with a vague sense of always wanting to get There - the magical point when everything falls into place, everything makes sense and life reaches a stable equilibrium. When I think of my childhood (and I think of it a lot as I’m technically just 2 years into adulthood) I remember it as a time of waiting. Constant waiting. Sitting at school waiting for morning break, then waiting for the midday break, then waiting to go home, then waiting for the weekend, then waiting for half term, then waiting for the summer holiday, then waiting for the next year. Sure, I worked hard, but the awareness of the next step never seemed to leave my mind.
It is only in hindsight that I realize how formal education causes us to view our lives in segments. Everything is structured. You know you’ll get up in the morning and have classes at the same times, breaks at the same times, with the weekend capping off the week. But I always remember waiting to get There- and where There was changed all the time. There is no There, no place where every goal works out and there's nothing left to chase.
In the summer, I got the title of one of my favorite songs tattooed on my arm. It's a reminder that none of us is really getting There. We are nowhere and it's now.
*I'm obviously not in any way shape or form a trained mental health professional so this is purely an observation.
**Oh and you may have noticed that my answers to people's questions aren't really answers at all, more reflections on the topic . That's deliberate.