Why setting goals can be dangerous

by | October 1, 2012

Failure is most often defined as not reaching one’s goals. The imperative to set goals is found in virtually every self-help/success book.

“A fellow must know where he wants to go, if he is going to get anywhere,” says Dr. William Menninger. “The people who go places and do things…know what they want and are willing to go an extra mile.”

There is some truth to that, of course. But there’s an even deeper truth that must be realized for goals to have any positive meaning or impact in our lives.

“I can teach anybody how to get what they want out of life,” says Mark Twain. “The problem is that I can’t find anybody who can tell me what they want.”

Certainly, defining what you want — your goals — is fundamental to success. But even more fundamental is knowing not what you want, but why you want it.

Truly successful people understand their “why” before striving for any “what.”

Before you set goals, you must first develop a clear and authentic definition of success. Your worthy “whats” are determined by truthful “whys.”

Achieving inauthentic goals does not constitute success. In fact, it’s usually a more tragic failure than not achieving the right goals.

“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

What if your goals are misguided? What if they’re the product of parroting imposed social scripts, rather than writing your own?

What if, to paraphrase Stephen Covey, you climb your goal ladder only to find that you had leaned it against the wrong wall?

As D.L. Moody put it,

“Our greatest fear should not be that we won’t succeed, but that we will succeed at something that doesn’t matter.”

Are you pursuing material wealth because it’s truly part of your personal, authentic definition of success, or because the message that wealth equates success is drilled into your brain from birth?

Worthy goals can only be determined after you’ve defined success for yourself.

No one wants a drill; we want a hole, or what a drill can do for us. A goal is a drill. But what are your “holes”? What do you want your goals to do for you, or for the world?

For example, I have a goal to publish another book (drill). But what I really want is to help others exercise their power of choice more wisely — to think, dream, learn, do, and become more (hole).

In other words, the goal of publishing a book is secondary to my definition of a successful outcome. Goals are simply means to greater ends.

Your definition of success determines which goals are worthy of your purpose and which are misguided, inauthentic distractions. Any time you change your definition of success, the goals you pursue and how you achieve them also change drastically.

All too often you feel like a failure when you compare yourself to others. But this feeling does not come because you haven’t achieved the same goals as other people. Rather, it comes because you’ve failed to define your own success and have bought into their definition.

Envy is the result of not being in tune with who you are, what God wants you to do and become, what you were born to accomplish.

For example, you may envy a young millionaire. But if you knew his wealth was earned at the expense of his family, would you really want to trade places with him? Does he really have what you want?

Envy dissolves when you define success for yourself, as based on 1) an intimate relationship with and firm allegiance to God, and 2) an authentic understanding of your unique gifts, passions, values, and purpose.

Failure is not falling short of one’s goals. It is the result of pursuing the wrong goals for the wrong reasons.

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