Kill your darlings: why goal-setting doesn’t work

Goals. If there was ever a word for which ‘kill your darlings’ was better invented, I honestly can’t think of one.

At new year there is a lot of talk in business circles about goal-setting. You can barely move online without articles telling you that sitting down with blank sheets of paper and mapping out your year ahead is A Good Thing. (Seriously – just google it and see how many results come up.)

“Right – what are you going to do in 2017? How are you going to achieve it? And by when? What’s the breakdown? Come on, you must have some idea!”, chide those empty white reams in front of you.

Admittedly, this kind of motivational thinking can work. It can help to focus you and ramp up your existing drive. It can even set you up for success – if that is the way you operate.

Goal-driven mentality can be limited

However, it can also set you up for disappointment. In extreme form, a goal-driven mentality can be limited, machine-like thinking, blinding us to the possibilities along the way.

As the great psychiatrist and observer of human behaviour, R.D. Laing, put it:

“The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.”

I prefer to think of achievement in terms of process and enquiry, rather than setting a fixed endpoint. We can break this down into specific questions:

  • What opportunities are being presented to me?
  • What kind of outcome am I seeking?
  • What is the likely end result?
  • Is it genuinely interesting?
  • Is it aligned with my mission?
  • Is this what I actually want?
  • Will it make me happy?

You’ll notice here that we’re making a distinction between externally focused results and internal ones. For example:

  • ‘I want 2,000 followers of my blog by March’  (external)
  • ‘What do those 2,000 followers mean? Why do I want them? What will this do for me?’ (internal)

Flexibility is vital to survive

Understanding what a goal actually signifies is more meaningful than tunnel vision towards some arbitrary destination we might not even reach. (Let’s face it, life does have a habit of making other plans.)

And as we know only too well, flexibility is vital to surviving in business, relationships and life generally.

Instead of goals, what we can do is to let go. To turn detective and take things as they come. This doesn’t mean we abandon our ambitions, but when genuine opportunities do present themselves, we don’t end up dismissing them out of a misguided sense of direction.

Instead of filling that blank sheet of paper with fixed goals, taking a moment to question whether those courses of action are worthwhile, what effect pursuing them is likely to have, and where they are likely to lead, is the mark of an adept individual.

Is the route viable?

The skilful traveller never puts blinkers on before heading for the hills. They look at a map and assess whether the route is viable in the first place – potentially saving themselves a lot of grief.

You’ll know as a creative that staying connected to our source and vision is so important. We certainly notice it when we aren’t doing what we were meant to do; it can make us feel off-kilter and unfulfilled.

For every goal set, many also fall by the wayside. This isn’t such a bad thing, because it can give clarity and reveal true purpose. The photographer Edward Steichen discovered this for himself:

“When I first became interested in photography, I thought it was the whole cheese. My idea was to have it recognized as one of the fine arts. Today I don’t give a hoot in hell about that. The mission of photography is to explain man to man and each man to himself.”

The skilful traveller recognises that their mission is far more than the goals they set. The musician Herbie Hancock understood this well:

“Creativity and artistic endeavors have a mission that goes far beyond just making music for the sake of music.”

Will your goals this year produce a viable and satisfying result? Are they aligned with your mission? Will they make you happy?

Or will you kill your darlings and free yourself to explore instead?


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