Goal setting is broken: It’s okay to not have a long term goal

For a long time, I believed that I was wasting my life because I didn’t have a goal. The conventional wisdom is that if you don’t have a goal, then it’s necessary to set one. We’re told that long term goals give our life direction and without one we’re just wasting time. There are many people who buy into this way of thinking and then worry and think it’s a bad thing that they don’t have a goal.

But this way of thinking is wrong. We need to unlearn goal setting because goal setting is a backwards process.

People who don’t know what they want in the long term shouldn’t set a goal. Goal setting is a top down approach: you set a goal and then tailor your life around meeting that goal. If you set a goal before you know what you want in the long term, then you might set the wrong goal. Don’t set a goal to become a doctor just because it’s a high paying and well respected job. If you’re not truly interested in it, then you’ll be miserable. Being a doctor is hard. Doctors have a much higher suicide rate than the rest of the population.

I think the high suicide rate for doctors can be attributed partly to goal setting. Many people are pressured by society and culture to become a doctor, or they just buy into the hype that a doctor is a great job. They don’t know what they want to do in their life, so they take this pressure and make it their goal to become a doctor. They don’t really enjoy the work they’re doing to become a doctor, but they think that it’s worth sacrificing their youth because being a doctor is worth it. But when they finally get to become a doctor, they realize that they don’t actually like the job. And they think they’ve “wasted” their whole life up until then. Just doing a google search for “I don’t want to be a doctor anymore” gives hundreds of results of personal testimony that if you don’t enjoy the work it takes to be a doctor, then you shouldn’t set your goal and aspire to be a doctor.

It’s the same way for every career. You don’t want to spend your college years and then the next 10 years of your life pursuing a career that you don’t have much interest in. You don’t want to set a goal just to set a goal. It’s okay to not have a long term goal. When you’re not supremely focused on one path, you can truly discover yourself. You find your passions. If you set a goal that doesn’t align with your passions or before you find your passions, then you’ll miss out on many opportunities.

So let’s move away from the process of goal setting and move into a bottom up model: do things you find extremely interesting and opportunities and goals develop out of those interests. This is fundamentally different from goal setting as you’re not trying to fit yourself to match the goal. You’re being who you truly are and the goals will just come from that. You’ll be happier. You’ll be true to yourself. You’ll be more successful. Let your goals grow organically from your interests.

We can learn a lot from athletes. When you look at why they play sports, they play because they love the game. It’s not for the fame or the fortune — the ones who play for that flame out. And you can only make a comfortable living if you’re in one of the big sports. Most olympic athletes are broke.  No athlete sets out and first makes it their goal to become a professional athlete. They all love the game first and let the goal of becoming a professional athlete grow out of that love for the game.

This is tied in with not putting happiness until after you reach your goal. If you have that mindset, then when you reach your goal, what next? You’ll look for your next goal. And you’ll put happiness until after that. It becomes a cycle where you’re always working towards your next goal and putting happiness after it. It’s not the best way to live. You won’t enjoy reaching your goals. So don’t do that. Do what you enjoy right now and success will follow. You never hear about someone regretting that they did something that they enjoyed, you only hear of regret when it’s from people doing things that they didn’t enjoy.

And so now I know I’m not wasting my life. I don’t have any long term goals, but that’s okay. I’m finding out who I am, I’m finding out my passions, I’m doing things that I enjoy and find extremely interesting. Writing for this blog is one of those things that I enjoy. And because of this blog, I’ve gotten a job offer to help positively impact math education.

If you do things that you love to do, opportunities will come from that. So don’t set any goals and realize that it’s okay that you don’t have any goals — just start doing what you love to do.

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Filed under Finding Yourself, Fulfillment, Self Improvement

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