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It's not just the goal, it's your relationship with the goal that matters
The key idea in this article is that what matters most about goals is our relationship with the goal. Is it a healthy or unhealthy relationship? Does the goal energise us or diminish us?
Regardless of whether you use a goal-setting methodology, or just have an image of striving for a goal in your mind, it is the relationship you have to the goal that will determine its usefulness and its likelihood of completion.
I have a rough goal in my mind to publish two or three articles in this newsletter per month, supported by systems of regular research and note-taking. But ‘life stuff’ sometimes takes over. Over a month has passed since my last post, so I’ve failed to achieve my rough goal. That’s OK though, I’ve still been showing up in the background and I tend to think very loosely about goals anyway - I don’t get overly attached to them, instead, I allow things to unfold the way they want to while I attend to the process, my systems in the background, consistently practising one thing or another, consistently doing the work I can fit into my day.
Goals are always about the future, but the future is inherently unknowable, and uncontrollable. We should avoid becoming too attached to imagined futures.
Perhaps goals are merely a reflection of a romanticised purpose to our existence, a futile attempt at proving life has meaning, a direction, a telos. Perhaps creating goals is a kind of sublimation of the natural suffering of existence. Our genes just want us to survive, and doing constructive things with our lives feels like we are surviving - tricking us into having a sense of purpose. We create goals as escapism, to avert our attention from the savagery of nature. Or perhaps life does have a purpose, and we are here to strive, to learn, to experience, to create, and to expand our consciousness, as they say. These are interesting questions to which I cannot claim to have an answer.
The sunflower seed doesn’t have this problem, it is pregnant with purpose - its goal is to sprout, to grow into a sunflower and face towards the sun, tracking its progress across the sky, and to produce its own seeds and see the process repeated. It has its own inbuilt entelechy, it doesn’t need to invent goals for itself. Certain microscopic animal zooplankton have a sense of their location in relation to a food source and propel themselves towards it, or likewise avoid a predator. This is perhaps the simplest notion of goal setting, to know your location in relation to a food source and to reach out for it. A tension between one’s current reality, and desired reality creates a natural goal.
Humans have an inbuilt entelechy in terms of our physical growth and potential. But we have the freedom, or curse, to choose many of our own goals. The gift of adaptability and the many ways in which we can grow and develop - we are far more complex than the sunflower.
The toxic relationship with goals that almost led George Bailey to his suicide
In the 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life, produced by Frank Capra, the protagonist, George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, is driven to such a hopeless point of desperation that he prepares to take his own life by leaping off a bridge into the freezing waters below. Perceiving himself as a miserable failure after the demise of the Building and Loan Company under his charge, and recognising his life of continual compromise, negating his own grand goals while friends and family ventured off in the wide world to fulfil theirs, he wishes that he had never been born, and so his hapless guardian angel, Clarence Odbody, is given the opportunity to earn his wings by showing George the impoverished lives that his friends and family would have endured had he never existed. Through his kindness, compassion and dutiful self-sacrifice for those around him, the film promotes the idea that George Bailey had a far more satisfying impact on the world than he had ever realised, despite never having the opportunity to achieve his grand goals.
Earlier in the film, outside the derelict ‘wonderful old drafty house’ that eventually becomes their family home, a younger George Bailey, full of naïve optimism, is seen courting his eventual wife, Mary, regaling his big ambitions:
“Mary, I know what I'm gonna do tomorrow and the next day and next year and the year after that. I'm shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet, and I'm gonna see the world! Italy, Greece, the parthenon, the coliseum. Then I'm coming back here and go to college to see what they know.
And then I'm gonna build things. I'm gonna build airfields. I'm gonna build skyscrapers 100 stories high. I'm gonna build bridges a mile long…”
And as if those goals aren’t enough to impress his love interest he then offers to ‘Lasso the moon’ for her:
“You want the moon? just say the word, and I'll throw a lasso around it and pull it down.”
Clearly unimpressed, Mary throws a rock to break yet another window of the run-down house and makes an undisclosed simple wish.
Several years later, following a detour from their honeymoon plans, George finds himself shouldering the financial burdens of his customers once more, rescuing them from seeking assistance from Mr Potter, the miserly elitist antagonist. Instead, an impromptu honeymoon suite is improvised by George’s friends at the aforementioned ramshackled house, and it’s here that Mary reveals that her simple wish was to be married to George and to inhabit the old house together.
The cynic might observe that Mary’s wishes were in direct opposition to George’s. Achievement of her goals would necessitate George’s failure. Or to interpret them more kindly, perhaps Mary saw through the unrealistic grandiosity of George’s goals, and knew what was best for him. Putting the interpretations to one side for a moment I would like to assert the central argument of this piece, that the real problem George has with his goals, is his relationship with them.
George has a toxic relationship with his goals. They hold him to an unrealistic ideal, punishing him with comparisons to an imagined future self. He has an unhealthy attachment to his goals which blinds him to his everyday contribution in the present moment, leaving him frustrated and ungrateful. He is abused by his goals, in constant conflict between who he is and who he imagines he could have been. His goals are in control of him, a constant reminder of how he isn’t measuring up in the moment, teasing and torturing him as he always ends up doing the ‘right’ thing for others, rather than pursuing his self-interest. He is so completely attached to who he could have been, and so detached from the admirable person of integrity he really is, that he takes the nasty Mr Potter’s words literally, with his measly $500 equity in a life insurance policy, he is worth more dead than alive. His future identity was too closely bound to his imaginary grandiose goals, and now they could never become a reality, and so he decides to commit suicide.
How could George have had a healthier relationship with his goals, so they would become an aspirational force, rather than a means of self-torture? As with relationships in life, healthy temperance wouldn’t go amiss to moderate the ups and downs. Attraction without clinginess, desire without desperation, enjoyment of the journey rather than focusing purely on outcomes.
Goals within reach of the Lasso
Coming back to the lasso analogy might be useful. Instead of an unrealistic promise of lassoing the moon, we could think of the lasso in realistic terms, to capture something in front of us, a nearby goal, which is within reasonable reach of the lasso. Too far away for us to grab right now, but close enough to sling a lasso around and haul in. The object tied in the lasso is under our control, we just need to put the effort in to subdue it, and to pull it close so we can reach out and touch it. With the goal caught in the lasso, we become its master rather than its servant or slave. The lassoed goal brings some struggle, but our relationship to it is one of overcoming a challenge, rather than victimhood. The goal empowers and strengthens us, rather than diminishing us.
When we look at the relationships we have in our ordinary lives there will be some people who energise us and some, sadly, whom in their presence we feel diminished. Similarly with goals. My assertion is that the only characteristic that truly matters with any goal, regardless of whether it is a loose idea in our heads, or set up using a fancy framework, is our relationship with the goal - does the goal energise us or diminish us?
Aspirations, Goals, and Obligations:
In the interest of simplicity, I propose 3 ways to categorise our human strivings: Aspirations, Goals and Obligations. I’d like to highlight that the mistake we often make is in treating Aspirations and Obligations as Goals.
Not to be confused with ambition, driven by external models of ‘success’, an aspiration is a deeply held feeling of an inner calling, and inner ideal, a vague but compelling picture of the possibility and potential of our future selves which feels right and sits well within us because it is aligned to our inner values and principles. We can get excited about an aspiration in a healthy way because it is one of many possible avenues of growth that we feel drawn to, but not attached to. We destroy an aspiration if we turn it into a goal too soon, where instead of being a highly attractive possibility of what we could be it becomes a yearning that we must have. When an aspiration becomes an unhealthy goal, the steps along the path to the aspiration become a march of enforced drudgery rather than a free exploration of possibility.
I’ve written more comprehensively elsewhere about Aspirations.
Goals are things we can throw a lasso around and be in control of. We have a healthy relationship with them so they motivate and energise us. We have systems in place to ensure we are consistently pulling on the lasso to bring the goal closer. We feel strong and empowered with each step towards completion. We are masters of the goal, not its slave. We feel challenged by the goal, not overwhelmed or victimised by it. If the goal is too big and will not yield to our lasso, it is probably more of an aspiration and needs to be broken down into something less overwhelming so we may once again feel motivated by taking steps towards it. There will always be some tension in the rope of the lasso which represents a healthy challenge, but we must be willing to let go of the rope whenever the challenge becomes overwhelming and leads us into anxiety or burnout. The goal is pursued with the consistent practice of mastery, without becoming an obsessive compulsion.
Those things we are compelled to do as part of our ordinary lives, those ‘To Do’ items, necessary as part of our everyday survival - completing our tax returns, completing the ‘goals’ set for us at work, tidying, cleaning, and maintaining the house. Typically these ‘goals’ are avoidant, we are avoiding unwanted outcomes by completing certain tasks. They are not in themselves, particularly motivating, energising, or life-affirming, but they are necessary to clear the way for goals and aspirations which are. They are best performed with an attitude of pragmatism, rather than resentment. If we mistakenly label these tasks as ‘goals’ we risk seeing more worthy goals in a negative way and developing a toxic relationship with them. Make a clear distinction between goals and obligations and we will avoid becoming victim to our goals.
I would argue that work goals, and career goals, are far more skewed towards being obligations than we’ll readily admit to. These goals have a performative aspect to them, goals defined in ‘work jargon’ to appease the cult of measurement or goals that conform to societal norms that we accept without question. Rarely do they energise us, they are often performed as a duty that comes with the transactional nature of work.
I tend to have a romantic view towards mastery, picturing a craftsperson attuned solely to the function and beauty of their work in the present moment. Not motivated by accolades of success, but by the intrinsic rewards of creative work as the optimal human experience. I’ve therefore valued a sense of goallessness as a romantic ideal, not being constrained by time or external measures when pursuing one’s craft. Yet paradoxically, I’m constantly setting little goals for myself, challenging myself to achieve the next step, and taking satisfaction in following through to completion.
So how can these two apparently conflicting approaches peacefully co-exist without rendering me hopelessly torn?
I think the answer lies in having a healthy relationship with our goals so that when we are pursuing them, we are able to do so with a sense of goallessness. Trusting that the thing we are doing is automatically pulling on the lasso, without us needing to worry about it. Goals are always in the future but the future is an illusion and we risk denying the present moment if we allow ourselves to be overly attached to the goal. A healthy relationship with a goal involves trust in the process, and trust in our systems to pull us towards it, allowing us to be fully immersed in it. We worry about the future and grieve the past - but in doing so we lose what is called for in the moment, our full attention to the process. By focusing too much on the goal, and being outcome dependent, you’re not focusing on the moment. If you are immersed in creative work, then aiming for sincerity and truth in your work may be more important than the achievement of a mere arbitrary goal.
I’ve edited an awful lot out of this article because in writing the article I had new insights which deviated from my original intent, in a good way. I have learnt through the struggles of writing, and that is what makes writing and creativity, in general, a fulfilling path of mastery.
Many of my edited-out thoughts related to a critique of goal-setting methods such as the SMART framework as well as my attempts to come up with a taxonomy of goals to categorise their different aspects so I could analyse and discuss each category according to their characteristics and efficacy. During this process, however, happenstance brought my attention to a LinkedIn post bywho writes in . He has published an excellent critique of SMART goals in The Stupidity of My SMART Goals - Mistakes and Learnings, and an equally thoughtful categorisation of the nuanced dimensions of goals in Types of Goals - Understanding the Nuances of Effective Goals. These are well worth reading and bookmarking and I felt that it would be better to focus on my core insight of the importance of our relationships with goals and provide links to these works, rather than reproducing a similar sentiment.
Goals and aspirations are just concepts in our mind, mental representations that tell a story of a wished-for situation coming true. Often those stories are borrowed from what we see of other people’s stories, our successful friend has just bought a fast car so now we want one too. Sometimes, however, those stories come from deep internal reflection and feel more genuine. Whatever their source, mastering our goals begins with mastering our relationship with our goals.
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