The disconnect of goals and changing your mind

posted by Jeff | Monday, September 9, 2013, 7:52 PM | comments: 0

If there's one thing about the Internet that you can count on, it's that it is full of people trying to help each other from being miserable. Get happy! Live the dream! Reach your goals! (And yes, much of it comes as sales and marketing in the guise of help.) I'm all for attaining such things, but there's also something psychologically dangerous going on here. I'll get to that.

I was talking with some people about politics, when the classic subject came up about an elected official committing the sin of the "flip flop." On the surface, sure, I get that changing your opinion about something to pander to voters is annoying, but regular people, and even politicians at times, change their opinions because they've considered more inputs that have altered their conclusions. For reasons I can't explain, this is viewed as weakness, that you should instead stick to your guns. However, I consider this a sign of maturity. Sticking to something despite information that invalidates or alters your disposition is just being a stubborn jackass.

This line of thinking eventually got me thinking about goals of varying scope. We all set goals, as small as minor tasks or as big as some life achievement. Having goals isn't inherently bad, but I've noticed that people tend to all share certain bigger goals. They want to be richer, more fit, have a certain career stage, be married with a family, etc. Again, I'm not sure that these aren't worthy and important goals, but I can't help but notice that I've met a lot of really miserable, rich, fit, C-level people with a spouse and two kids (and the material stuff that we all know doesn't really matter). Makes you want to stop and look at what's going on here.

All of these big goals are largely a product of our cultural domestication. We didn't come up with these on our own... they were given to us. The picture of the American dream is pretty well drawn, and frankly reasonably attainable if you're willing to work for it. We don't question if the juice is worth the squeeze though.

Here's a for-real example from my own life. Way back at the ripe old age of 31, I landed my first gig that paid the equivalent of six figures. I couldn't believe it. I had been trying to get there for a number of years, and I finally did it. I doubled my income every three years over the span of nine.

As you probably guessed, I hated it. I was so bored, and it wasn't what I expected. The money wasn't worth the soul-sucking dissatisfaction over the work. At that point in life, I had a lot of the things I thought were part of the dream, the things I made as goals, and I wasn't particularly happy. What I did at that point was quit my job, and write a book. At least in terms of career, I started to consider the information and experience that shaped my views. Shortly thereafter, my first marriage started to fall apart, and I started putting it all together... that this process of goal setting was inherently flawed.

This is the psychologically dangerous thing that I was talking about. Setting goals and then mercilessly pursuing them is predicated on the idea that the goal you set is immutable and a permanent destination. Changing your mind, in part, means failure to meet your goal. Failure sucks. If it's not failure, then it's compromise, and compromise means half-assing it. The problem is that this mindset is completely incompatible with the notion that the ongoing absorption of information changes the entire premise of every belief, thought, and yes, goal that you have. Goals can become obsolete.

That sounds horribly unromantic, and maybe tragic, doesn't it? You have some grand thing to shoot for, only to learn over time that intervening information makes that grand thing suboptimal. If that weren't bad enough, and you're a real type-A personality, attaining the goal might leave you feeling empty because it's no longer something you're moving toward. You have to fill that hole with something.

I have largely replaced long-term goals with a lot of vague ideal conditions. I'm not looking for discreet end results, in part because the stuff that happens right now is chock full of awesomesauce. Some of it helps me move to those vague ideal conditions, sure, but the journey is what I'm in love with. If I come up with some kind of design or prototype at work that is clearly going to add value, that's a good feeling regardless of whether or not it leads to something bigger. Sometimes being around others yields that same joy, whether it's Diana mastering a quilting technique or Simon quoting funny things from a TV show. Those things might not be goal-oriented, but that's the point.

I'm not down on setting goals. They're a useful device for achievement and time-boxing work. What I'm against is the cultural suggestion that abandoning goals in the face of reason is somehow weakness or a personality flaw. Quite the contrary, I think it's a sign of maturity.


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