July 2

Why Accomplishing your Goals Won’t Lead to Long Term Happiness


It’s possible you read that headline and had a WTF reaction. As a culture we glorify achievement. We create lists like the Forbes 400, Fast Company’s 100 most creative People, and The New York Times Best Seller. All of this fuels a multibillion-dollar self-help industry to which I’m sure I’ve contributed with my podcast and books.

Social media amplifies this by ranking us according to fan and follower counts. If someone posts a picture on Instagram, we can easily see how many people respond and how we line up in comparison. For many young people, this isn’t just an indication of their status, but a measure of their self-worth.

When I met one of our listeners last summer, she told me a story about one of her tutoring clients who came to her in tears. She was distraught because her friend had posted a picture of the two of them on Facebook that got 100 likes and she only got 2 likes for posting the same picture.

If there’s one pattern that shows up over and over in the people that I interview, it’s an internal shift of some sort. It’s decision to love themselves like their lives depended on it and realized that the most important relationship they’ll ever have is the one they have with themselves.

This isn’t just spiritual new age mumbo-jumbo. Plenty of research and neuroscience backs it. So let’s talk about that.

Hedonic Adaptation

When Sasha Heinz was growing up, she had a lifelong dream of getting into Harvard. She described it to me as the  “myopic focus” of her adolescence. She applied early and was accepted. But after arriving at Harvard, the buzz wore off, and it became her new normal.

When I started my blog in 2009, I couldn’t imagine anything making me happier than getting a book deal. Then in 2015, it finally happened. It was not only with a publisher that had published the books of many of my heroes. It was a two-book deal. For about a month I was on top of the world. Eventually, it became my new normal.

If you’ve ever been in a relationship, you know that the first couple of months make you feel like you’re on cloud 9. You can’t stop thinking about each other. You walk around the world with a bounce in your step and an ear to ear smile on your face. But after a couple of months, it becomes your new normal.

When we want something that we don’t currently have, we assume that getting it will make us much happier. But what we overlook is the fact that even if we get what we want more than anything in the world, at some point it will become our new normal. And something else will take place.

  • Graduating with honors takes the place of getting into Harvard.
  • Making the New York Times Best Seller list takes the place of getting a book deal.
  • Selling your startup for a small fortune takes the place of getting your first round of funding

Because of hedonic adaptation, everything amazing eventually becomes your new normal.

When we attempt to derive our happiness and well being from the accomplishment of a goal, we’re trying to solve an internal problem with an external solution. Even if you get what you want more than anything in the world, the problem still isn’t solved, and we get stuck on the treadmill of achievement.  As Nataly Kogan said to me “happiness is an input into a great life, not a bonus you get.

Relative Scale

As humans, we judge things on a relative scale. When I was in 9th grade, I auditioned for the Texas All-State Band. What many people don’t know is that Texas has the best high school music programs in the country. It’s a breeding ground for professional musicians. The Texan obsession with high school football comes with high school marching band.

As a freshman, I had already overcome unlikely odds. My band director and private lessons teacher had forced me to try out for the all-region band that was for sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Because I was second chair, I advanced to the next round, which determined whether I would make the all-state band.

To me, the worst possible outcome was to miss all-state by one chair. If I came in dead last, it wouldn’t have upset me because I never had a chance. And of course, I missed all-state by one chair. And to this day I remember the name of the kid who beat me and the green beret he was wearing.

In our interview on Unmistakable Creative, Sasha Heinz shared an interesting observation about Olympic medal winners.

Getting to the Olympics in and of itself is an incredible achievement.  But, if you look at the podium, the silver medalist is usually the least happy because they didn’t win the gold. The bronze medalist is just happy to be on the podium.

The relative scale by which you judge things and your reference group changes with every accomplishment.

My friend Kamal Ravikant once jokingly said to me “In San Francisco, if you have 10 million dollars you feel poor because the guy living down the hall from you has 100 million. If you sell your startup for several million dollars, you’re rich, but you feel poor because your new reference group is other people who have sold startups and probably have more money.

For many years my reference group was coworkers and people I went to college with. But after I started Unmistakable Creative, my reference group became wildly skewed because it was people like Tim Ferriss, Ryan Holiday, Danielle Laporte, billionaires and other people who had done incredible things. Because of the relative scale and my new reference group, I didn’t consider getting a book deal that big of an achievement. It took me a long time to realize that my reference group gave me an incredibly distorted view of success and accomplishment.

Obsessive Focus and the Loss of Identity

For many people who are on the path to becoming professional athletes or any other goal they work towards their entire life, their goal is their identity. When the goal isn’t reached their identity gets shattered.

From the time he was in high school, Steve Magness was on track to go to the Olympics. He was one of the fastest runners in the United States when he was a senior in high school. But he didn’t have the same level of success in college. And suddenly the goal that had defined his life for so long forced him to reconcile this loss of identity. Today he’s taken his wisdom, written an amazing book on peak performance and coaches college athletes to help them avoid his mistakes.

The Benefit of a Goal is Who You Become, Not What You Get

It’s process, not the prize that causes you to become the best version of yourself. This is why it’s often said that the value of reaching a goal is not what you get but who you become. The process of writing 2 books has turned me into a different person than I was 10 years ago.

  • It’s taught me to develop habits, rituals, routines, and systems that will be a lifelong creative practice.
  • It’s taught me what we should have learned in school but never did.
  • It’s taught me that attention is the currency of achievement.

The list goes on and on. As an author, the part of writing a book I hate the most is being finished with a manuscript. Suddenly there’s a voice in place of this thing I had to look forward to for the entire time I was working on a book.  In many ways, the message of my upcoming book, An Audience of One: Reclaiming Creativity for Its Own Sake is a reminder to myself as much as it is to my readers.

As long as your happiness is dependent on the belief that you’ll only be happy when you have accomplished some goal, you’ll always feel that something is missing from your life, regardless of how impressive your achievements are. Happiness precedes achievement, not the other way around.

When the achievement of a goal doesn’t determine your happiness, it’s easier to be grateful when you do get what you want. As Tim Ferriss said to me, “if you don’t appreciate what you have no, you’ll never appreciate what you get later.

There’s nothing wrong with having goals and dreams. But believing that any one thing will give us everlasting happiness is a recipe for profound disappointment. On the other hand, there’s a profound peace and freedom that comes from not depending on external solutions to solve internal problems.


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