Call it the gift of gab, the curse of being a lawyer’s daughter or the fault of my nerdy reading habit: I can talk about anything. Anything, that is, except for where I will be in five years or any other goals I am supposed to have set for myself at the ripe old age of twenty-one. Unfortunately for me, our society is highly goal centered. Most of us are taught from an early age, whether through visualization, post-its stuck on mirrors or some other strange method designed to shove performance objectives down our throats from coaches, managers and overbearing parents, that goals are the key to success. Dream it, and you can do it! Write it down and you are halfway there! Has all of this goal setting forced upon us in workouts, lesson plans and every team activity really transformed us into more successful, driven, motivated individuals? Well, no. In reality, the rigid and constrictive nature of goal setting may actually be restricting individual potential.
Success, as defined by goals, is all or nothing and inherently quantifiable. So, if your goal was to score ninety percent on a test, and you score eighty-nine percent, you’ve failed. This slim line between reward and punishment can create an obsession with failure, often leading to the desire to create overly simplistic goals. Or, one study found that many people lie to make up for a small margin of failure. That’s our brains’ pain avoidance at work. Overall, rather than pushing the boundaries of achievement and focusing on both the positive and negative steps taken to goal attainment, goal setting focused on an all or nothing objectives becomes detrimental to success as it eventually causes reduced intrinsic motivation due to our natural instincts to avoid failure.
Additionally, goals are often narrowly defined in one area, whether within work, personal life or other areas. This can lead to an imbalance or neglect of focus in other areas, creating not only unnecessary stress, but also inside the box thinking. If the goal is always placed front and center, great opportunities that present themselves on the periphery, and perhaps stray from the goal path, can be ignored. Take a look at some of the most successful people in the world, and you’ll find they often take the road less travelled, set some goals aside or rearrange and balance priorities, to recognize and pursue just opportunities.
Finally, goals foster a reward based system in which bigger is always better, which some even argue can be blamed for the greed that pushed us into the global financial crisis we are still reeling from. While it is important to be rewarded every once in awhile, completing a task just to be recognized for achieving a goal, rather than intrinsic motivation, may result in poor work quality (e.g., “do it to get it done” thinking).
So, rather than set goals, what should we be doing to motivate and push ourselves to fullest potential? It’s not necessary to completely abandon all sight of the future. It is quite necessary, however, to switch how we work towards the future: from all or nothing performance measure motivators, to an environment that fosters creativity and passion in all aspects of life. Discovering a passion and pursuing it via every crazy chance that comes along may sound like the motto of a hippie commune, but it also may be the best prospective path towards a happy, successful life.