Why reaching your goal isn’t the goal


Hopefully by now, the new year has gotten off to a good start.  If you’re in school you’re either back at your desk or are soon to be there.  If you’re at a standard job, you’re back at it, after dealing with snarling holiday travel and various obligations.  If you’re self-employed, you’re probably looking around and thinking, “there was a holiday?”  (Just kidding, but only maybe.)

Hopefully you have set some goals for this year too.  And not just resolutions, but specific, actionable goals.  But as you eventually fulfill your goals for this year and beyond, a word of caution.  If you put too much emphasis on the achievement of those goals, you may find that yourself feeling unsatisfied when they are actually achieved.

I did it!  Why don’t I feel great?

I’ve said before that when I finally paid off my final student loan, I held a party.  What I don’t often say is what happened with my next goal, which was to build up my emergency fund (six months of expenses in case I lost all my income).  Fulfilling this goal didn’t make me dance on air or induce me to throw a party.  In fact, when I had fully funded the account, I was filled with disquiet and anxiety, not at all what I expected to feel.

The difference is that the debt-free goal was really an intermediate goal, and its passing didn’t signify an end of anything.  But the emergency fund was, at the time, the final goal.  Not that I didn’t (don’t) have other work to do, financially, but that was as far as I had mapped out for myself.  And once that was achieved, I felt a void that was years-in-the-making.

I’ve seen this throughout my life.  When I graduated college, and had no plan for what to do next.  When I had finally moved to New York, and then wondered what I was supposed to be doing there.  I even remember having a kind of existential crisis when I beat Super Mario Bros. at the age of 10.  (Don’t laugh, it was real.)

This isn’t just me, too. Why do people who spend their lives looking for a life partner become depressed after their honeymoon? Why do people who walk the Appalachian Trail who get to the end sometime turn around and walk back (aside from being just a bit out of their minds)? Why do people become sad when they achieve what they have been working toward?

Okay, what now?

When you focus only on the end goal you risk an emptiness in your life when you achieve it.  That one goal you have becomes your only friend, and like friends or lovers, you know how treacherous a position it is when we only have one of them:  a loss is a 100% loss.  You go from having something to having nothing.

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Instead, you will be better served by diversifying your efforts in the following ways:

  • Have more than one goal.  Don’t be working toward only one thing.  Call it spreading out risk.  Call it eggs in baskets.  But you’ll be better served if you don’t subscribe to the “one-trick pony” theory of life.  That way, even if you achieve one goal, there will other waiting in the wings to keep you focused and motivated.  And you’ll be a more well-rounded person because of it as a bonus.  (Full disclosure: My friend has an entire site devoted to ideas like this.)
  • Have never-ending goals.  I call these “asymptotic” goals because like an asymptote (as you all recall from your high school algebra classes…right?) you never quite reach the point you are heading toward, but instead get closer and closer.  (Think Zeno’s Paradox.  Or maybe acceleration approaching the speed of light.  Sorry, I’m unable to think of a non-nerdy analogy.)  Examples of this type of goal are eliminating food insecurity or combating climate change.  You’ll have to enjoy the journey more than the destination, but it’ll be easier to do that knowing you’ll never (fully) reach the destination.
Yes, this will be on the test.

It’s very important to have goals.  I’d argue that without goals, we find ourselves drifting aimlessly in life, which is never a good life plan, even if you’re a person who believes that everything will work out fine.  But if you avoid getting fixated on the goal itself, you’ll be much better able to stay grounded and moving forward, against the day when you may achieve it.

But enough about me:  Have you ever achieved a goal only to become lost afterward?

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