The Dis­as­trous Nature of Goals

Published on November 18, 2022

Get your shit together Startups and Entrepreneurship

When you're doing something intrinsically unpredictable, such as first steps in entrepreneurship, it's hard to set fixed goals and almost impossible to reach them.

You cannot say 'I am gonna earn a million dollars from this idea in a year from now', at least not if you're a reasonable person without loads of cash under your mattress to make it up or any other cheat code at your disposal.

For a regular bootstrapper, it's not a goal. Not even a possibility. It's a disastrous mode of thinking.

More realistic and modest goals, such as 'I am setting out to prove this idea working or not within the next 3 months' aren't much better in my opinion.

Although this time it is possible to admit that it's at least plausible to do so, they are no good anyways.

Such goals don't inspire. Like could an A/B test result with a 0.95 confidence interval inspire you? Probably, but certainly the most fun, energising and aspirational aspect is gone in such setting.

But the worst isn't that. The worst is that the goal divides your life in two chunks, the before and after, and neither is really enjoyable. Before the goal is achieved, assuming it even could realistically be achieved in the first place, you're unhappy. Simply because you haven't made it yet.

After it has been achieved, you're likely to have a short spike of positive emotion but then what? Especially if the goal was realistic in the first place and, therefore, likely not life-changing at all?

This property of a goal is precisely what I dubbed 'the disastrous mode of thinking'.

It did feel like a disaster for me in many cases.

When I planned our recent move to the UK, which would be a big and life-changing event, especially given the need to get a global talent visa, I was energised. I usually am, when in urgency and stress.

I had spent an enormous amount of time, money and attention to prepare the case to get the visa. I looked forward to it, although the process wasn't really enjoyable. It was hard and stressful.

But when I received the visa and moved here with my family, I wasn't really happy for long. Of course, we'd enjoyed it for the first week or so but then I was presented with an even longer list of things to do. Find a place to live, establish healthy family routines in a new environment, choose a school for my son, find something meaningful to work on.

The list goes on and on, and every single item on it is essentially another goal. Lots of stressful things that have to be done right, on time, which only bring a temporary relief and present another set of subsequent steps towards something bigger.

Another typical example, which I have also experienced a few times in my life, is setting out to buy something. Like a new fancy car I thought I always wanted or deserved. I'd save money and prepare for a long time in many other ways to only briefly enjoy the thing I've bought. We all know how quickly the feeling of accomplishment, especially from a purchase, wears out.

Finally, when I worked on my Cost of Living Calculator, I was pumped. It was a cool idea, a problem, which wasn't solved properly as I envisioned it could be. Quite a useful project, at least for me, and fun to work on too.

During the months I had spent tinkering with it, I had a few moments of enjoyment. The first prototype in a spreadsheet; the launch; first feedback from the users; seeing a few thousands visitors over just a few months in analytics. All these moments felt pretty cool but only for a short period of time.

Each of them would ultimately pose another set of questions I didn't know the answers for. Or even worse, the ones I knew the answers for. Like the user retention problem, which I decided not to solve and abandoned the project as something I don't see enough commercial potential in.

It is not entirely negative though. There's a bright side, the lessons learned.

But the problem with the goal-oriented mindset remains the same. It's a mode of operation that defines a single constant. Failure. A life that is only sparsely filled with moments of pleasure and feelings of accomplishment.

For some, it may work well I assume, but for me, it's certainly a huge drain of energy.

I have thought for a long while that something isn't right with me. No matter what heights I reach, I never seem to be enjoying any of them, not for long for sure.

Now it seems that the problem isn't with me, the problem is with the goal setting.

Scott Adams, whose book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big heavily inspired these thoughts, famously wrote:

Goals are for losers

It seemed odd to me at first, although I totally appreciated the idea.

But in reality, it doesn't mean that only losers set goals or that setting goals has no utility. It simply means that constantly settings goals and failing to achieve them, which seems to be inevitable in unpredictable circumstances of life or business, makes you feel like a loser.

The alternative must be creating and focusing on systems, which make your odds of achieving whatever you want, or living a life you want, higher.

Hunter S. Thompson wrote to his friend:

... beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life

It is the same thought framed a bit differently.

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