Dive 39: Why you should consider a life WITHOUT goals
Hey, it’s Alvin!
The other day, I saw this message on Twitter: “Just remember 5 years ago, you dreamed about where you are now.”
A feel-good message, isn’t it?
Wait a minute…
This ISN’T where I dreamed I’d be 5 years ago.
5 years ago, I was working as a software development contractor. I was working with a company I thought I’d be with for years to come with one of the best mentors I ever had.
5 years ago, I could never imagine I’d be working for another company in a full-time position, let alone hiking up a mountain with my team.
I could never have imagined meeting the former Senior Director of Engineering at Walmart. I never thought he’d start a newsletter course with the Vice President of an analytics company, that I’d take the course and that I’d start my own newsletter. That dozens of people would read it every week is well beyond what I ever imagined.
If you are where you dreamed you’d be 5 years ago, then you’re either disciplined enough to stick to a strict routine, or you worked hard to stick to a specific goal. I respect and understand both mentalities because I used to be the same way.
But I also realized something…
As a kid who enjoyed planning, I’d try to predict the future. But at no point in my life could I ever predict what life would be like in 5 years. So whatever plans and goals I had that hinged on my narrow predictions would fall apart.
In my mid-20s, I stumbled upon this idea of “systems vs. goals,” from a book written by the Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams. That’s when I realized I didn’t need goals to live my life. I could create a “system” instead. I’ll explore what that means a bit later.
Modern society is obsessed with goals. Companies love pushing for everyone to have goals because companies need goals. Without goals, their investors can’t figure out whether to invest in them. Without goals, companies can’t figure out whether a project is worth starting or continuing.
But you are not a company.
You don’t need to live this way.
What most people don’t talk about is that goal setting has downsides. Repeatedly failing to attain stretch goals degrades performance. They can even encourage unethical and extreme behaviours that have more costs than benefits to the goal setter. Just look at social media influencers who chase clout. Someone literally jumped out of a plane for YouTube views and is facing potential jail time for it.
You don’t need goals as often as you might think, especially not in your personal life.
But how do I improve?
Because companies love goals, they like to sell the idea that you need goals to improve. By their logic, if you want to improve your writing, you need to find a way to measure writing quality. Then, you have to set a goal to achieve a specific quality level within a specific time frame. The problem is, if you don’t achieve your goal in time; you fail. And failure feels bad.
The alternative is to develop a system.
Find a way to improve your writing every single day, week, etc. Then, just do it. You don’t need to set a time limit. You don’t even need to measure anything or analyze any data.
I know that feels wrong. I felt the same way when I first heard about systems. But it only seems that way because most of us were only taught about goal setting since we were kids. It’s the only way we knew our entire lives. A systems approach is a different way of thinking. In some ways, it’s simpler.
For example, I committed to writing a post for this newsletter every week. My readers give me feedback for every edition, so I can apply all the lessons I learned to the next post I write. I know I’m improving, especially when I re-read the oldest posts of mine. I don’t need to measure anything or set any time limits. And unlike a goal-setting approach, I don’t feel like a failure every time I miss my target because there is no target.
But how do I get motivated?
I don’t rely on goals as motivators because I find they don’t work well, long term.
In Dive 18, I dove into how a school reading program ruined my love of reading. The program was designed to encourage reading by rewarding students with a field trip. The catch was we had to read a specific number of books on a specific list in a specific period of time. Like so many kids, I wanted to go on that field trip rather than go to class. But getting that reward meant that reading turned into a chore, even though it was supposed to be an enjoyable activity. Using a goal as an incentive for an activity is backwards because the goal or incentive doesn’t make the activity more rewarding.
The process should be the reward, not the goal.
I started loving reading again when I began reading books on topics I was curious about. I didn’t impose time limits on my reading, nor did I force myself to finish ones that bored me. And, no, I didn’t reward myself with a field trip or anything else when I finished a book. I didn’t need to. What I read stimulated my mind and curiosity, which led me to other books.
Reading became the reward.
So, you don’t need a goal to motivate you. That’s a misconception. What you need is a way to enjoy the process or system.
This isn’t some random untested idea. My friend, Chris Wong, just reached 100 editions of his newsletter, Unknown Unknowns. After two years of writing, he gained thousands of subscribers. As he pointed out in this week’s edition:
Doing something 100 times forces you to strip away everything you find painful and you find something interesting inside.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t have goals, but I don’t believe in obsessing over them. I have systems in place to improve in areas I want to improve in. To what end? I don’t really know. But that’s also part of the fun.
I don’t feel pressured to learn something I don’t want to for the sake of a goal I set years ago that might not make sense anymore. Instead, my life is driven by what I enjoy and what I’m good at because my system-driven approach gives me that freedom and flexibility to do so. As it can for you.
Life’s full of unpredictable twists and turns. Going with that flow means you’re not fighting yourself. Plus, you’ll go places you never imagined. That’s what makes life fun.
I hope you enjoyed this dive Below the Surface of a life without goals. Reply to email@example.com if you have questions or comments. I’d love to hear from you.
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Thank you for reading. Start your systems. And I’ll see you in the next one.