What if your goals are the source of your misery? It's an odd question given that the internet is littered with success porn, self-help is a billion dollar industry, and we're taught at every moment in our lives to be goal oriented. But in doing so, we fail to take into account the eternal gap between who we are and who we want to become.
We elevate those things we want, those things we would prefer to have, into things we believe we must have; we feel we must perform well in certain circumstances or other people must treat us well. Because we think these things must occur, it follows that it would be an absolute catastrophe if they did not. No wonder we get so anxious: we've decided that if we fail to meet our goal it wouldn't be merely bad, but completely bad- absolutely terrible. - Oliver Burkeman
One of our greatest delusions is that accomplishing our goals will lead to everlasting happiness. Whether that's making a certain amount of money, losing a specific amount of weight, or getting married, eventually what you once thought would bring you so much joy becomes normal because of hedonic adaptation. The pleasurable emotions you once derived from something you previously didn't have will eventually decline.
There are times in all of our lives when we get something we wanted more than anything in the world. The buzz we get from it feels amazing, but it doesn't permanently solve our problems or change the way we see ourselves.
There was a time when I thought getting a book deal with a publisher would make me feel like the king of the world, prove all my naysayers wrong, and make me feel like I had finally arrived. But it was a false horizon that made me realize there's no such thing as an "I've made it" moment. That's when the work really begins.
Even if you succeed by selling thousands of copies or hitting a best-seller list, that doesn't mean you've made it. As an editor told Ryan Holiday, "Success gives you the conditional opportunity to try again." You get to spend another two years alone in a room, tapping away at a keyboard, out of the spotlight, where nobody is paying any attention to you.
Actors and musicians don't suddenly have magical lives when they finally get cast in a leading role, win an Oscar, or their album sells a million copies. Some of them end up committing suicide while appearing on the surface to have everything.
Take hedonic adaptation into account when you're setting goals. Even if you get what you want more than anything in the world, the career, the romantic partner, the Ferrari or the Mcmansion, eventually it will be your normal life.
Did You Really Choose the Goal?
Our motivations are heavily informed by the media. Our social feeds are populated by endless images of wealth, travel, power, relaxation, beauty, pleasure and Hollywood love. This virtual runoff perpetually seeps into our consciousness, polluting our sense of reality and self worth every time we go online. We compare our lives to these largely artificial constructs and structure our plans accordingly, hoping to eventually afford a golden ticket to these misleading fantasies - Ryder Caroll
In many cases, our goals are arbitrary. We want to become millionaires because books, blog posts, and other forms of success porn define this as financial success. We want "fuck you" money because TV shows like Billions show us it's the key to a glamorous life. We want to build unicorns because it would turn us into Silicon Valley royalty.
But so often these aren't goals you chose. They are handed to you from the world around you. You're taught to choose from the options in front of you, while blinded to the possibilities that surround you.
Take something like the financial goal of becoming a millionaire. Most people set the goal, but if you ask them what they would do with a million dollars they list a few things, but don't know much else. In our conversation on the Unmistakable Creative, Yanik Silver told me about a client who wanted to become a billionaire. When he made a list of what he wanted to do with his money, he realized that he didn't need to become a billionaire for any of it. If he made less, he might not end up on the cover of a magazine, but at least he'll have the life he wants.
Are Your Goals Based on Lived Experience?
When I applied to business school in 2006, my dream was to work in the entertainment industry. I wanted to be the next Ari Gold or pick what went on the air. But in my first semester at Pepperdine, I got a rude awakening. MBA's didn't get hired for creative work and if you wanted to do creative work, you had to start at the very bottom.
Instead of getting a summer internship in the entertainment industry, I ended up as the social media intern at Turbotax. It wasn't exciting, but paid extremely well. I started my first blog at that job, planting the seeds for my life as a writer, podcast host, and creator. If it hadn't been for that job I might have never realized you could use the internet to express your creativity.
I thought I wanted to pick what went on the air and be in management in the entertainment industry. But deep down, what I wanted was to create what went on the air, and today I get to do that with multiple forms of media: books, podcasts, animation, etc.
Often our goals aren't based on lived experience. People decide they're passionate about becoming doctors when they've never taken a science class or set foot in a hospital. People say they want to be investment bankers without a clue about how much work actually goes into the job. If you want to base your goals on lived experience, don't follow your passion. Pay attention to what you find engaging instead.
I'm not against having goals. At its core, The Unmistakable Creative is a personal development company. But, even a Harvard Neuroscientist's advice on goal setting isn't going to make a meaningful difference if you're working on the wrong goals. Maybe your goals are the source of your misery. Try living without them for a while. You might accomplish more than you dreamed was possible and become a hell of a lot happier.