If you're like most people, you're probably reflecting on this past year and thinking about your goals for the next one. But I'd like you to consider something that sounds counterintuitive in an achievement-obsessed culture-Goal Free Living.
What if you didn't set any goals for 2023?
After looking at my goals from the past few years, I realized I'd set unrealistic and unattainable goals. Unattainable goals kill your motivation. Optimism unchecked by realism leads to fantasizing about things that you never accomplish.
As crazy as it sounds, goal-free living can make you much happier, while setting goals can make you miserable.
Why We Set Goals
Why do we set goals? If you look at the meta reason for setting a goal, it is to achieve something. The reason you want to achieve something is that you believe it's going to make you happier.- Stephen Shapiro, The Unmistakable Creative
When you set a goal, you have some next level you want to reach: maybe it's more money, a bigger audience for your work, etc. But, anyone who has ever reached the "next level" comes to a disorienting realization.
The Next Level Is A False Horizon
Regardless of your current level of success, there's always another. The next level is always about more…. money, followers, fans, or whatever metric increases our status.
• A million dollars isn't cool; a billion dollars is cool.
• Being Number 2 on a Best-Seller list is amazing, but you are not number 1
Everything novel becomes normal. Dreams that come true today become an afterthought tomorrow. The satisfaction we gain from accomplishing any goal is Never Enough to provide the long-term happiness we thought it would.
Most people don't realize that the next level is a false horizon until they get there.
When you set your sights on material success, nothing is enough- Will Smith, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction.
Hedonic adaptation creates drive and dissatisfaction Simultaneously. It motivates us to pursue ambitious goals and leads to personal and societal progress. But it also prevents us from appreciating what we have. The paradox of hedonic adaptation is that it increases motivation and misery.
"Whether or not we use the word goals, we're forever making plans based upon desired outcomes… Goal-free living simply makes for happier humans," says Oliver Burkeman in The Antidote
In other words, accomplishing a goal can become a recipe for conditional happiness. The next level is a false horizon – the satisfaction we gain from accomplishing any goal is never enough to provide the long-term happiness we thought it would.
The Concept of Goal-Free Living
Goal-free living is not about not having goals or aspirations but rather having a sense of direction rather than a specific destination. –Stephen Shapiro, The Unmistakable Creative
Goal-free living encourages meandering with purpose while still moving forward and taking action, but not being so narrowly focused on one particular point. The question that probably comes to mind is, "How do I know if I'm making progress if I don't have a goal?
Focus on a Range of Possible Outcomes Instead of a Goal
How do you know where to aim if you don't have a target? Choose a direction by generating a range of possible outcomes.
• If your goal is to launch a product, you could give yourself a range of between $1000-$3000 in revenue.
• If you want to lose weight, you might aim to lose between 10 and 20 pounds.
Having a range instead of a target helps you focus on the process, not the outcome.
Focus on Your Growth Instead of the Target
Worry less about going somewhere quickly and more about getting better at exploring, getting better at growing your capabilities. -Russ Roberts, Unmistakable Creative
If you assume you've failed because you didn't accomplish a goal, you overlook the benefits of pursuing a goal you didn't accomplish. The pursuit, not the accomplishment, leads to the growth we experience with our goals.
If your pursuit of a goal leads to a positive behavior change, but you don't accomplish the goal, that's still a win. And for all you know, you might be applying that new behavior to pursuing another goal you DO accomplish. And changing your behavior usually leads to better outcomes than setting goals.
For a long time, I thought I'd failed as an author because my first two books didn't lead to a contract for a third. But, I realized I'd gained a skill far more valuable than knowing how to write books.
I developed the skill of Making Ideas Happen. Even if I don't write another book for the rest of my life, that skill will serve me in everything I do. When you set your sights on a fixed point, you miss out on the benefits of the pursuit.
Interesting as a Metric for Measuring Life
Somehow, after all of this, I came to understand that while many of us might default to measuring our lives by summary statistics, such as the number of people presided over, the number of awards, or dollars accumulated in a bank, and so on, the only metrics that will truly matter to my life are the individuals whom I have been able to help, one by one, to become better people. – Clayton Christensen, How Will You Measure Your Life?
There are a lot of ways you can measure your life. Typically people measure improvement with quantifiable and objective metrics: make more money, lose more weight, etc. Interesting is a subjective metric for measuring life.
• First, you can't measure it in dollars, fans, followers, or any other quantifiable metric.
• Second, it's personal. What's interesting to one person is mind-numbing to another.
• Third, it's accessible to anyone regardless of age, race, or socioeconomic status. The only thing you need is the courage to follow your curiosity regardless of where it leads.
• Fourth, it's not a fixed point and creates more room for serendipity, unexpected opportunities, and the kind of growth you can't experience from setting your sights on a fixed point or goal.
When you use Insanely Interesting as a metric for measuring life, you're more likely to become successful on YOUR terms.
Forecast Multiple Possible Futures
- Do as much as you can to invest in the kind of future you'd like to see, but you have to let go of that one future as you would like it to be. Instead, cast out many different possible futures. Then do what you can to prepare for all of them in a way that actually uplifts you and brings futures that are better than you could imagine. -April Rinne, The Unmistakable Creative Podcast
When you set your sights on a target, you limit yourself to one possible future. You're trying to control and predict something that is out of your control and unpredictable. Choosing a Direction Instead of a Destination opens you up to more than one future. And the future you end up with could be better than what you set your sights on.
Choose a Direction Instead of a Destination
The future is not a destination; it is a direction. It is our job, then, to work each day to chart the right course and make corrections when inevitably, we stray. – Ed Catmull, Creativity Inc.
When you choose a direction, you become a traveler, an explorer of the world and your life. A direction expands what's possible in your life. A destination limits it.
My friend Matthew G. Monroe chose a direction. He doesn't have goals. He has a worldview and a philosophy for how he wants to live his life. It's simple but
- Go interesting places
- Do interesting things
- Meet interesting people
As a result, his life is insanely interesting.
Choosing a direction liberates you from expectations, attachment, and a lot of unnecessary suffering. When you choose a destination and have so many expectations for exactly how your life should unfold, you endure unnecessary suffering.
The geography of success on your terms is ambiguous, uncertain, and unpredictable. The only way to navigate it is with a compass instead of a map. Take the scenic route instead of the most convenient one. When you take your final breath, all you'll have left are memories of the places you've been, experiences you've had, and people you've met.
A well-lived life is about optimizing for things you can't quantify. It's one that's Insanely Interesting.