Has goal setting had it's day?

Senior Associate Sarah Cross looks at what may be wrong with current approaches to personal growth and development.

In my work developing people, I often ask my clients, “What do you want in life?” I have asked hundreds of people that question, and the answers are always variations on the same theme: “Inner peace,” “To be happy,” “To make a difference.”

Personal development is often centered on setting goals and then making a plan for achieving them. Common goals usually begin with “I want to do/have/get…” Our approach at Richard Joseph & Associates is different. I see my job not as helping people to achieve a goal but helping them to become the kind of person who can do, get, have or become anything they decide. This shifts the focus from the external world to the internal, and empowers people to make changes within themselves.

As a colleague recently reminded me, the quintessential human challenge is the tension between life and death. The knowledge that we only get one life, the certainty that it will end and the uncertainty around when that end will be, makes us want to enjoy it and for it to mean something.

As Jake Bailey of Christchurch Boys’ High so poignantly reminded us, “None of us get out of life alive.” Because goal-setting is so engrained in our culture, this article explains why a focus on goals is not conducive to gaining the fulfilment that we desire.

I believe that, far from helping us to find fulfilment, our obsession with goals is at odds with it.

Firstly, goals are future-focused. The timeless sayings that come to mind advising on life, such as “Live every day as if it were your last,” “Live in the moment,” or “Live for today,” and the current mindfulness renaissance are all focused on the present.

If your goal is to buy a house, that goal is achieved in the moment that the document is signed. The promotion is achieved in the moment you are told about it. The weight is lost in the moment the scale tells you so. The half marathon is achieved in the moment you cross the finish line. What then? Why, set another goal of course. And in all these cases, you either have 100% success, or failure. If your goal was to complete a half marathon but you only run 19 km and then collapse, you haven’t reached your goal. You’ve failed.

So it seems to me that our obsession with goal setting and the way it is put at the heart of our prescription for making the most of life, is actually setting us up to feel dissatisfied, unfulfilled and unworthy. The constant setting of and striving for goals leaves us feeling that we are not good enough, yet; not fit enough, yet; not wealthy enough, yet; not important enough, yet.

When we set a goal, we are told to make it SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound), so we have to have a timeframe. If our goal is to become Team Leader by this time next year, we know that we aren’t going to be enough for a year. And then if that year rolls round and we haven’t, we’ve failed.

Our status-hungry society promotes the belief that if you want to be ‘successful,’ you must employ goal-setting and goal-achievement as the twin charioteers of your life. When I asked my friends on social media how they felt about goal-setting, one person wrote, “You know the answer. You only have to compare those who set goals with those who don’t. No contest.” Another said, “A goal is only a goal if you have to sacrifice something for it.” So if you don’t regularly and deliberately set goals you are a lazy, ambitionless no-hoper right? But what if it’s a case of the Emperor’s Clothes? We’re all going through life, enthusiastically worshipping the Goal Gods while collectively becoming more anxious, depressed and unfulfilled (mental health statistics speak for themselves).

I think there’s a much better approach to finding meaning and fulfilment. Actually, I think that’s not even the right way to put it. It’s not like you go wandering around life, suddenly trip over something and go, “Gee, there they are – meaning and fulfilment – if only I’d known where to look.” Wouldn’t it be better if we talked about creating meaning and fulfilment?

How could this happen? We need to start focusing on our values and purpose.  When you identify your values – what you hold to be important in life – your purpose will follow from them. Everyone has values – ask yourself what you’d miss most if you died tomorrow; ask yourself, what makes a good person? If you can live every day in accordance with what you consider most important in life, you can succeed every day. Earlier, I suggested that a goal-centric life allows only moments of fulfilment, sometimes months or years apart. How long is a moment – somewhere between a second and a minute? Then you can have hundreds of these moments every day when you live a value-centric life.

Do I advocate abolishing goals altogether? Am I committing modern-day heresy? No. Although, while writing this article, I initially wanted to cast goals the way of mini-discs, Survivor and The Rachel (hugely popular at the time but consigned to the dustbin of history), fate intervened.  Imagine my chagrin when, after managing only to cycle the first 2km of the picturesque Clutha Gold Trail at the weekend (due to being accompanied by my three-year-old), I found myself setting the goal of cycling the 70km from Lawrence to Roxburgh.

I quickly scolded myself and decided I had set a ‘challenge’ and not a goal but I couldn’t shake that feeling that my recent distaste for goals needed further investigation (and that I was playing with words)...

So investigate I did. I asked myself why? Why did I want to cycle to Roxburgh?

Because I want to challenge myself physically.


Because I believe that I grow as a person when outside my comfort zone.

Ok but why this?

Because I feel fortunate to have beautiful landscapes on my doorstep and want to make the most of them.

So what this naturally-occurring goal reveals is that I value the natural environment, being physically active and personal growth through challenge. This definitely fits with what I have identified as my values.

I concluded that when goals arise naturally in the course of a value-centric life, they provide a challenge and an opportunity for personal growth. Goals can also reveal our values and principles, as the skin of the apple does the flesh. A fulfilled life that is value-centric and purpose-focused will be punctuated with naturally-occurring goals that are either accomplished or cast aside as they are found to no longer be relevant to our values or within our control. And if a goal is accomplished, the triumph is not in that moment, but in the growth that has occurred within us and the knowledge that we had the tenacity and courage to live by those values the goal reflects.


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