December 30, 2019

The Grinch of Goal Setting

The Grinch of Goal Setting

While December 2019  is the season to be jolly, it’s also the season of goal setting. As we approach a new year we set goals for ourselves so that it can be a better year than the one we just had.

This piece of text is a cautionary argument against thinking that goal setting and achieving our goals will be a panacea to all our problems.

The intention of goal setting is human production and not human happiness.

If we understand that goal setting is about improving our performance and increasing our production, then achieving a goal will never lead to disappointment and dissatisfaction.

But as a tool for meaning and purpose, setting goals is a wholly inadequate piece of process. The way goals are sold to us by the so-called self help gurus is that when we achieve them we will feel secure, powerful, fulfilled and happy. 

This is a flawed argument. If one doesn’t understand the real purpose of goal setting (as a tool for production towards a result), achieving one’s goals often leads to insecurity, inadequacy,dissatisfaction, disappointment and complications.

How Did Modern-Day Goal-Setting Start?

In the late 19th century, American philosopher Elbert Hubbard said that many people fail in their endeavours; not because they lacked intelligence or courage, but because they did not organise their energies around a goal.

In the 1960s Dr. Edwin Locke began goal setting research and in 1968 he published a paper called, Towards a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentives. He established that appropriate goals do result in superior organisational performance. In other words, goal setting could get more production out of its workers to the benefit of the organisation that employed them. 

In 1981 (38 years ago) the SMART Goal acronym appeared in the November issue of Management Review: There’s a S.M.A.R.T way to write management goals and objectives. This piece written by George Doran paved the way for the SMART goal movement … specific, measurable, assignable, realistic and time-based.

Twenty five years ago (1994), Jim Collins and Jerry Porras coined the phrase BHAGs (big hairy audacious goals) while writing their book, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. BHAGs are stretch goals designed to motivate companies and people to achieve lasting success.

In What Context Does Goal Setting Work?

From an organisational perspective, goal setting works to a point (Some of the 18 companies Collins and Porras said were built to last haven’t held up as well as the sales of their book). From a human happiness, meaning and fulfilment perspective, goal setting is a questionable practice.

Goal setting works in organisations because the masters control the purse strings which always puts the employees in a position of weakness. If you achieve the organisational goal you are rewarded, if not, you are fired. So most employees are in the game of survival because they need to have the security of a paycheque for them to play in this world. From an organisational and human productivity perspective, goal setting is a win-lose game.

The intention of goal setting is human production and not human happiness.

From a human happiness perspective, goal setting is a lose-lose game.

“The best laid schemes of mice and men go awry.” – Robert Burns, Poet

Consider how many dreams you’ve had and how many goals you’ve set. Have you achieved everything you’ve set out to? I can only speak for myself, but when it comes to achieving my goals, I’ve been an abject failure. I reckon that most of the goals I set for myself haven’t materialised. It’s a case of ‘man plans and God laughs’. When it comes to me, God must have fallen off his throne and is rolling on the ground with laughter. I’m in a totally different direction to the one I’ve planned. My life’s a perfect mess and that works for me.

Basing our lives on the results we achieve is not a helpful exercise when it comes to happiness, meaning, significance, purpose and fulfilment. It’s a disastrous notion because if we don’t get the results we want, it makes us feel like insignificant failures which end up in feelings of shame, guilt, envy, jealousy, inadequacy, disappointment, disillusionment, despair, low self-worth, regret, remorse, weak self esteem and depression.

We also have to take into account that the amount we input into a task will not necessarily equate to the desired result. Let’s look at those that we deem to be successful. There are many people with more skill, intelligence and opportunity than the *‘successful ones’ and yet they are in the graveyard of failure. What’s the difference between the ‘successful’ ones and the ‘unsuccessful’ ones. Nassim Talieb, the Lebanese economist and author has a word to explain this difference: randomness. Sometimes (most times?) you just need a little bit of luck. You need to be at the right place at the right time. You need to find the right connection. These random and serendipitous moments don’t happen for all of us. So, no matter how good and industrious we are, we’ll never catch the break we need.

* I use quotation marks because success is relative and cannot be synthesised into how much money one makes or how successful one is in business. There are many factors that attribute to what we call success including, health, family, connection, spirit and the like. Because the world is a feat of perception, success means something different to everyone. 

“All paths are the same: they lead to nowhere. Find a path that makes your heart sing.” Carlos Castaneda

Think about the goals you’ve achieved. Has the attainment of the goal really satisfied you? Are you happy even after …? Most of us aren’t.

Goal setting is a Sisyphean task. It feels everlasting and futile because no sooner do you get the heavy rock to the top of the hill and it rolls down again. 

Think about it. How often have you achieved a goal and it feels anticlimactic? You knew you were going to reach it and when you did, there was no surprise or wonderment in achieving it. 

How often have you achieved a goal and fallen into a depression afterwards? Because the reality is that it was more fun and meaningful doing the process of achieving the goal, than actually achieving it. 

How often have you reached a goal and found that it was kinda ‘meh’? It didn’t spark feelings of happiness. It possibly led to feelings of confusion, disappointment and disillusionment. In my case, the achievement of a goal barely raises my pulse. I find out that it is not as amazing as I thought it would be. It’s not actually what I wanted. And, it’s created a new level of complexity when all I was trying to do was to simplify my life. 

When it comes to human happiness, goals are lose-lose.

There are many reasons why achieving our goals can be dissatisfying. I’ve noted down some that have come to mind:

  1. We seek the good approbation of others. One of our strongest human needs is to be significant. We crave praise from others. Sometimes we don’t get the praise, or if we do, we feel it’s not enough. In fact, sometimes we get the reverse, other people are envious or jealous of our success and withhold praise and gossip about us. The following saying sums this up beautifully: We buy things that we can’t afford and don’t need to impress people who don’t care. 
  2. We seek security. Most of us have a money goal. We need to get money so that we can survive. The money goal is absolutely necessary in the world today if we want to eat, have a roof over our heads and provide for our families. The challenge arises in how much is enough. Human nature is such that the more we have the more we want. And, if we can’t get more, we feel dissatisfied, disillusioned and insecure. Also, the more we have, the more we have to lose … a sure recipe for insecurity. Most of us spend all our time trying to protect what we have. When the grim reaper comes, as he will, inevitably each and everyone is going to lose it all. “No amount of money in your bank account can fill that hole in your chest called insecurity.” Shaykh Ebrahim Schuitema
  3. We come from a place of emptiness. Most of us believe that we were born empty and that’s why we strive to fill this hole in us. It’s a never-ending Sisyphean task. Even when we perceive that we fill a hole, there’s always another one to fill. If we believe we are empty our only course of action is to take as much as we can to fill that emptiness.
  4. There’s always a better gunslinger in town. No matter what we achieve, there’s always someone better than us, more well-off, has a better car and a better house. This leads to envy which motivates you to destroy and attack someone else because you don’t get it yourself. It also leads to jealousy where you compete with someone who has what you want because you feel you can get it.

What’s The Answer?

Set goals for yourself, by all means, but don’t confuse that attainment of the goal with security, happiness, significance, fulfilment and meaning. Achievement of goals are a measure of your production not of your human worth.

  • Don’t judge your worth by the result you’ve achieved in your life. Because even if you have ‘failed miserably’ by your standards or the standards you perceive others to judge you by, you are still worthwhile to someone. You were created for a purpose, your purpose may just not be apparent to you right now.
  • Understand that in most instances the work we do (process) gives us more fulfilment and joy than the actual outcome. Do work that makes you proud and the work that is useful and you will feel happier, powerful and fulfilled. The self help gurus have got it right when they say that it’s about the journey, not the destination. If you look at most ‘successful’ people I doubt that most of them thought they’d reach the level of success and fame they did. All they did was to create a magnificent work of art, work at it day in and day out for however long it took and, the rest was history. 

“When man achieves his dream, there is neither reason, nor failure, nor victory. What is most important in the Promised Land is not the land, but the promise.” – Jean-Michel Guenassia, The Incorrigible Optimists Club

3 Comments on “The Grinch of Goal Setting

June 7, 2020 at 9:59 pm

Thank you Jacques, I’m really appreciative of your assessment of goal setting. I have often tried to get a good handle on my own distaste for goal setting and have failed. Yet, I know that in my life I have experienced what I was meant to experience, achieved what I was meant to achieve and have arrived at the exact place I was meant to arrive. Often, doors open unexpectedly, opportunities presented themselves or nothing happened and all my plans and goals changed in an instant. Had I put as much value on my goals as some gurus say one should, I would have been very unhappy. Instead I enjoyed the suddeness of the new path and the adventure of finding the greatest benefit it presented. The result is that I am very content, which may be better than happiness. And I hold out great hope that this adventure still hold many new and wonderful surprises.

Jacques de Villiers
June 8, 2020 at 11:44 am

Hi Peter,

I like the mystery of what is coming at me. I think you hold a similar view to me.
Have a great day.



[…] piece of text to argue that the intention of goal setting is human production not human happiness. It’s worth a read to see how goal setting started and how it is used to squeeze productivity out of us. It follows […]


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