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Goal-setting is Overhyped
Stop self-identifying with your goals.
The summit of Mount Everest was in their sights. The months of preparation were about to pay off. They were going to reach their goal just 750 feet away. In the face of trouble, the group remained positive and determined they could achieve their objective despite their growing odds. Unfortunately, positivity and determination would kill them—literally.
This true story is a cautionary tale for anyone convinced to reach for their goals by any means necessary.
In the book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman investigates the destructiveness embedded in the over-pursuit of goals. In Burkeman's estimation, this kind of positivity could lead a group of mountain climbers to their death on the face of Mount Everest.
1996 was a particularly fatal year for climbers summiting Everest. But it wasn’t because this year had more unpredictable weather or a more challenging terrain than other years. Anatoli Boukreev, the primary guide for the climbers, deserves some of the blame. Overall, however, the most searing clues about the deaths had to do more with the irrationality of reaching the summit. There were basic warning signs signaling it was time for the climbers to turn around and return to base camp, but they ignored them: they were running out of daylight and oxygen. All the climbers received this elementary training. However, with the summit in their sights, they couldn't resist the opportunity to reach their destination.
This type of goal-chasing at all costs might not be as fatal for us, but the psychological and behavioral effects can damage our approach to work and our emotional health. An expert on organizational behavior, Chris Kayes, who was also in the Himalayas during the 1996 Everest fatalities (he was not climbing), believes that the more the climbers focused on their goal, the more it melded into their identities. The climbers equated their objective with their identities. “The goal, it seemed,” Burkeman writes, “had become a part of their identity, and so their uncertainty about the goal no longer merely threatened the plan; it threatened them as individuals.”
We fall into a similar self-effacing exercise when the impulse to reach our goals by any means necessary becomes the priority. But we are not our goals. As Burkeman investigates in The Antidote, flexibility, rather than a fixed mindset, is essential if we want to pursue excellence. Flexibility requires relinquishing our idealized projections of success in exchange for the possibilities that lay in uncertainties.
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An obsession with goals, or the idea of reaching those goals, is related to a fixed mindset rather than a growth mindset. A fixed mindset is rooted in the fears of uncertainties, while a growth mindset is confident in the challenges of change. But, as Burkeman points out, “There is a powerful alternative possibility: we could learn to become more comfortable with uncertainty, and to exploit the potential hidden within it, both to feel better in the present and to achieve more success in the future.”
Our circumstances change often. So we need a different approach that allows us to "examine what means and materials are at our disposal," writes Burkeman. From there, we can reassess "what possible ends or provisional next directions those means might make possible." This is a missional class of lifestyle that might be more suitable for us who exist in this ever-evolving world.
A missional-minded lifestyle, rather than a goal-driven one, is more useful in the long run. “A goal is different than a mission,” writes Joshua Medcalf in his booklet, Chop Wood Carry Water: How to Fall in Love With The Process of Becoming Great. “No one can stop you from pursuing athletic excellence, but there are many people and teams that can stop you from winning games or a championship.”
Being strictly goal-oriented will leave us floundering for our next identity-seeking journey when achieving a terminus. On the other hand, we could fail to complete a goal and feel the weight of our identity sinking beneath the surface of our desire for purpose.
Our team is less likely to become complacent on a mission, however, and so are we. Even if our team is 1-8 heading into the last game of the season, they can arrive at practice with a missional mindset that boosts their effort level when an already failed goal of a “successful” season feels meaningless. Seasons end, and so do careers, but the effort embedded in each mission sticks with us in whatever endeavor or journey we find ourselves on.
Of course, we play the game to win, work hard to fulfill our needs and wants, and serve our neighbors to improve our society. But, embedded within every goal is this idealized concept of perfection that awaits our undying allegiance unless fulfilled.
The mountaineers who died climbing Everest in 1996 achieved their goal. They were successful: "They ascended to the summit," writes Burkeman. "The tragic unintended consequence was that they didn’t make it back down alive."
So maybe we can see goals for what they are instead of who we are. Perhaps when we do we’ll exchange the ever-changing goals-oriented mindset we’ve been accustomed to self-identifying with for a mission-mindset that sets us on a path of continual progression over deceptive perfection.