On The Utility of Goals

Sometimes, we discover new ideas in the same way that we discover new planets. Not by direct observance, but by noticing a strange bending of the light around the ideas that we’ve already charted. An intriguing sense of more to discover around the edges of something that we thought we knew for sure, or where we thought there was nothing to be known at all. Observe these disturbances over time, and we start to see a pattern gradually crystallise. Suddenly, the pieces fall into place, and what was previously empty space becomes K2-236b, a new planet, and with a name. In an instant, our entire universe snaps into a new reality, one that could only be accurately explained by the inclusion of this new entity, and we wonder that we never noticed it before.

I’ve long had this same slight uneasiness around the process of setting goals, like there was some unsatisfying element, some aspect I was missing. I could never quite articulate it, and so I noted and filed it away, a curiosity to take out and re-examine from time to time to see if I had gathered enough experience to solve.

We’ve all been told by now that our goals should be SMART. Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-Bound. If you can look past the slightly ‘management consultant’ packaging, this is a pretty good start. And yet, despite the careful formulation of SMART goals by clever, self-aware, well-meaning, and resourceful people, so many of these goals go unmet, abandoned. Why? There are lots of mechanistic reasons why we may fail to meet a goal. A misunderstanding of the nature of motivation and energy, being overly tyrannical with ourselves, or perhaps the dark side of perfectionism, among others. But there seems to be more to it than that.

There’s something about specifying a goal that draws a line in the sand. Across that line is success, before that line is failure. Was this unease, then, simple weakness? An inability to confront the reality that sometimes I will set out to achieve things and simply fail, the due date passed and the task so clearly undone, and a defence mechanism to avoid that harsh reality? It’s a good question, worth thinking through. However, I’m someone who is drawn to goals and goal setting, a disciple of self-improvement. I manage with disturbing regularity to find new and interesting ways to fail on a nearly daily basis, but don’t seem to have a problem with admitting to them. In fact, to go further, I try to the best of my ability to uncover and specify my shortcomings and seek to turn them into direction for improvement, and so, a mere aversion to self-evaluation doesn’t seem to be the issue.

And yet, we’ve all felt the guilt of abandoning a goal. Something we’ve set out to do, got so far, and then gradually let fall away, a fragment of a self-portrait where the perspective was all wrong. It’s easy to interpret this outcome as an indictment of our character. But, instead, what I think we so often miss is this: we set goals for the person we think we are at the time we set them, rather than for the person we are at the time we will achieve them.

When we start a journey, we make an assessment of where we are, where we want to be, and then come up with a plan to navigate there. We aim at something, but the very process of choosing a target is subject to the limitations of our current knowledge and capabilities. The magic of self-improvement, however, comes in the lessons learned on the journey. Self-development occurs when we’re chasing something just outside our current level of ability, when we have to push out of our comfort zone, acquire new experiences and new competencies, so that our capability expands to encompass that which previously was beyond our reach.

In periods of rapid personal growth, these changes are not trivial. We acquire new cognitive tools, and test them against our old thoughts and beliefs. We modify our behaviours in response to new information, the very definition of learning. Following the road towards a new goal is a self-creative, seemingly spiritually significant process. Parts of ourselves, our ideas, have to die and be reborn, the phoenix from the ashes, as we cast away old beliefs and embody new ones. Our very values shift and are called into sharper focus. Just as I began this article with a metaphor for the discovery of new ideas, so that same process of gradual discovery shapes the evolution of our goals, through the very act of attempting to achieve them. And so, in the pursuit of a goal, sometimes we learn enough to see that a goal that we thought was meaningful to us, is not where we should be aiming any more.

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
-Heraclitus, Greek philosopher circa 500BC

We’ve all had days when we wake up full of impatient energy. We start work immediately at our task, realising later and with astonishment that 10 hours have passed and we haven’t raised our eyes from the pursuit at hand. We didn’t need a schedule, a to-do list, or a framework on those days. Our actions and values were in such alignment that in their pursuit we stepped outside of the very flow of time, perfectly engaged in a task that stretched our limits just the right amount, and in service of travel in just the right direction. We’ve also had days where we appraise, groaning, a busy to-do list of drudgery and empty tasks. We all but drag ourselves through the day, in service to the gods of so-called productivity. Check, check, check, as we check off fragments of our soul.

There is, as with all things, a balance to be found. Goals are vital, critical, the very essence of human meaning, and breaking them down into small tasks is necessary to maintain focus. But be careful not to let too much time pass before assessing, not just your progress, but also the goal itself. Does it still serve me, or am I now serving it? Enjoyment is not necessarily happiness, and there is often a tension between the two. True happiness comes from achieving goals that align with your values, and in service of this aim the fleeting allure of enjoyment must often be resisted. But you must also make peace with and find meaning in the journey, for this is the lesson of the principal of mindfulness. The past is in the memory and the future is in the imagination, only the present is, in some sense, real. We should be content to be there, too.

So, as we move through the New Year, don’t beat yourself up for dropping a goal. You’re not a bad person, you’re just a different person than the person you set the goal for. It’s likely, even, that you were a different person than you thought back then too, but only now do you have the awareness to see it.

We are the most complex things in the universe, all atoms and electricity, poetry and music, hopes and dreams. Do not be disheartened if you don’t fit in the box you built for yourself with three hastily scribbled bullet points on a January morning, whilst trying to suppress an undercurrent of guilt and a mild sense of nausea as a brace of Aspirin fizz their way into your bloodstream.

Set a target, you need one. But it really, truly, is all about the journey. When those new ideas appear in view, don’t be afraid to change what you’re aiming at, and, if you do, remember to move yourself gently.