Goals are not always the answer

Annie Duke was the guest on an engaging episode of A Slight Change of Plans. The theme of the episode was quitting and it offered so many new thoughts to me. 

“If you think about the way that we process narratives, we don’t really see the quitters…The heroes are the ones who persevere beyond the point of physical or emotional or mental well-being in order to push past that and cross the chasm. But the problem of course is that a lot of times those people have put themselves in danger in a situation where you really ought to have turned around… From a narrative standpoint, we’d prefer somebody to push past the point of sensibility and persevere and actually perish to somebody who rightly quits early.”

We saw this in the summer Olympics when Simone Biles opted out of some events (didn’t even entirely quit!). While many people applauded her bravery in making that decision, others loudly disparaged her. (I wrote about that here.) 

Even with these new-to-me thoughts on quitting, the notes I took were specifically about goals. Having goals—or having misplaced goals—is part of the not-quitting-enough problem.

“People forget when they’re climbing Everest that the goal of Everest is not to get to the summit.  The goal is to get back down to the base of the mountain.” –Ken Kamler, as quoted in the podcast.

That one struck me.

Annie laid out two primary problems inherent to goals as we commonly use them.

1) Goals prioritize certain values and opportunities over others. What am I giving up in exchange for the time/energy/money I’m using to pursue this goal? And is the pursuit worth it, whether I achieve the goal or not? (And is what I’m giving up going to push me to keep going when I should quit?)

2) Goals are pass/fail, and we feel worse about coming close to reaching a goal than we do about not having tried. Silver medalists are, on average, the most unhappy people on the podium.

Fortunately, she offers some antidotes to our double-or-nothing goal-oriented mindsets.

1) Add an asterisk of unless—“This is my goal unless______.” In the lives most of us live—where reaching goals is not a matter of life-and-death—an example might look more like, “I’m going to finish writing my book, unless school goes virtual again” or “I’m going to declutter the house in January, unless my [intermittent health issue] flares up again.” It’s the equivalent of setting a turn-around time when scaling Everest. Not everyone is going to heed the asterisk, but it at least gives you a point at which to make a decision.

2) Think about the long-term consequences of pushing through the asterisk to try to reach the goal. While I really want this thing right now, what’s going to happen if I don’t heed the turnaround time/don’t sleep enough because I’m writing at night while schooling by day/keep working even when my body is asking me to stop? Taking that moment or two of reflection can help you honor the asterisk.

Worth the listen, and worth the reflection.

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