On the tyranny of goals

After South Africa thrashed England in the recent test, captain Ben Stokes said something I can’t imagine any other team captain has ever said in any sport: “I don’t want England to focus too much on results”. Yes!! He went on: “The message […] will be, ‘Did we commit to everything the way we committed to the first four Tests of the summer?’ If everyone can say, ‘Yes, 100 per cent, we just didn’t execute,’ then things are good. We’ll move on to the next Test match and go out there and try and win.” How refreshing to hear someone focus on process and mindset over outcome. Come to think of it, how many managers in our workplaces take the same approach?

I’ve written a lot about the challenges with goal-setting and an unwavering focus on outcomes. In particular, that they can limit performance within the defines of the goal and blinker us to adjacent possibilities. They arise out of our pre-occupation with productivity, agency and achievement, a dangerously-accelerating product of the factory mindset that requires us to be ever more efficient and optimal. We are trained early, as our eduction system prioritises individual achievement against arbitary (examined) goals, and those seeking higher education and the western version of individual success are constructing a personal portfolio of achievements from often the earliest of ages. And on it continues, not only in the workplace. Businesses have insidiously outsourced to us the administrative duties they used to perform – everything from submitting our meter readings to researching and booking our holidays to packing our own shopping. Now we all have a life admin burden that absorbs a not insignificant part of our week. In this regard I’ve sometimes felt a little antithetical in my thinking, and yet, over the last few weeks, I’ve stumbled across similar concerns from contrasting sources: 

Our society conditions us to think of goal setting as the only way to get things done or get what we want. Goals are not the answer. At best, a goal puts a ceiling on our achievement, often preventing us from dreaming of something greater or different. The mind is incredibly powerful; when you set a goal, your brain will work toward that goal, but just that goal. If a goal becomes your singular focus in life, as it did with me, then not reaching that goal leads you to question your whole self and existence.

Emmanuel Acho, former NFL athlete, in Illogical

Prioritizing comparison and winning above all else, finite-minded leaders will set corporate strategy, product strategy, incentive structures and hiring decisions to help meet finite goals. And with a finite mindset firmly entrenched in almost all aspects of the organization, a sort of tunnel vision results. Had the railroads defined their need to exist in terms related to moving people and things instead of advancing the railroad, they might be the owners of major car companies or airlines today. Publishers saw themselves in the book business instead of the spreading-ideas business and thus missed the opportunity to capitalize on new technology to advance their cause.

Simon Sinek, author, in The Infinite game

What’s more, obsessing about winning is a loser’s game: The most we can hope for is to create the best possible conditions for success, then let go of the outcome. The ride is a lot more fun that way. That’s why at the start of every season I always encouraged players to focus on the journey rather than the goal. What matters most is playing the game the right way and having the courage to grow, as human beings as well as basketball players. When you do that, the ring takes care of itself.

Phil Jackson, NBA Coach, in Eleven Rings

There is a reason why this may feel like a counter-cultural proposition, and that’s because it is. It can feel like we are doing nothing, which of course we might be. And that’s ok, just being with our presence and attending to our current reality. But it’s not ok in a world dominated by to-do lists and productivity hacks, by apps and media feeds imporing more, faster, better. That uncomfortable feeling when you go on holiday and after a few days of doing the obvious tourist trips wake to the realisation that you have nothing planned. What do do! A form of existential panic ensues, for to not do something is to feel like the day has been wasted. But only when viewed from our dominant factory paradigm. 

Nora Bateson illustrates how this seeps into our everyday language. When we talk about going to the shops to buy bread we have set a clear goal, the pursuit of which can be planned, measured, tracked and optimised. It’s also a zero-sum game: you either succeed in buying bread, or you don’t, and if you don’t, you experience the feeling of failure. Yet pre-industrialisation we are more likely to have said “I’ll go to the shops and get some bread”. The simple use of ‘and’ eases the goal-orientated and singular focus implied by the ‘to’ in the first sentence and in so doing, opens up a whole new set of possibilities. What else might I find at the shops? Who else might I meet or talk to? 

It’s reasonable, though, to ask, as Emmanuel Acho does, “what is the alternative to setting goals? The answer is simple, don’t set a goal, have an objective with no limitations. To most, the words “goal” and “objective” seem interchangeable, but there is a small but very key distinction. Merriam-Webster defines objective as “something toward which effort is directed.” There’s your distinction. An objective with no limitations means seeking something without a defined ending. A goal on the other hand is “the end toward which effort is directed.” Even the definition of the word “goal” begins by talking about an ending. A goal is finite, but when you set an objective without limitations, the possibilities are infinite.”

Simon Sinek elaborates: “Because they are playing with an end point in mind, Carse tells us, finite-minded players do not like surprises and fear any kind of disruption. Things they cannot predict or cannot control could upset their plans and increase their chances of losing. The infinite-minded player, in contrast, expects surprises, even revels in them, and is prepared to be transformed by them. They embrace the freedom of play and are open to any possibility that keeps them in the game. Instead of looking for ways to react to what has already happened, they look for ways to do something new.

I remember taking a holiday in La Palma and the flight was diverted to Tenerife where we stayed overnight due to unseasonable storms which meant we couldn’t land on a tricky runway. My industrial mindset saw this as a failure of the plan, a waste of time and money, a sub-optimal situation that was eating into the limited time I had away. It was easy to be frustrated, we’d already lost one night on the island. A case of ‘I’m going on holiday to La Palma’. My partner, instead, saw this as an adventure. The holiday had already started the moment we shut the front door. And we’d never been to Tenerife. We finally checked in and went straight out for a walk and an explore after ages sat in the plane, and found the most amazing pizza place where we ate and chatted and watched the sun set. Ultimately, we went on holiday and we went to La Palma. Breaking out of the industrial mindset is hard but makes such a difference. 

Of course, a challenge usually levelled is that ‘if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there’. This is of course true, but only in certain contexts. If I know that I want to become a dentist, I can figure out what I need to do to achieve that goal. The path may not be a smooth one, but if I keep course-adjusting I can get there. And in there is the heart of the issue. If we set ourselves a plan akin to assembling a piece of Ikea furniture we may be fortunate enough that nothing crops up to derail us from our path. But life’s not like that, as I’ve reflected on before. How many of the nine sprinters lining up for the Olympic final in the 100m sprint will achieve their goal? Sure, all of them – well, at least some of them – will believe they can win. In reality, we know that after four years of sacrifice and dedication, there’s only ever one gold medallist. It’s a zero sum game. And so it is with all of us driven to achieve our goals. If we know what we want and pursue it single-mindedly, we’re forced to optimise. It’s inherent. Be better, faster, more effective; do things quicker, more efficiently for less input. We’re back in the factory language of extraction, exploitation and competition. I win! And someone loses. 

And then we face the challenge, should I be the winner, of what do I do when I achieve my goal. Suddenly purpose fades away and I’m left drifting, It’s a well-known phenomena in sports. Despite winning 28 Olympic medals swimmer Michael Phelps opened up about how he contemplated suicide as “after every Olympics I think I fell into a major state of depression”. It’s a challenge playing a finite game in an infinite world. And who knows what opportunities and possibilities pass by as we are blinkered in my pursuit of our goals? Perhaps being a dentist isn’t actually the fulfilling vocation I anticipated. What then? Perhaps I could have course-corrected along the way if I had paid enough attention to what was happening around me. Maybe I’d have noticed the emerging feelings this wasn’t quite right for me, such that I took what I had learned, and where I was, and moved in a more life-fulfilling direction. But I can’t do that if I’m blinkered in pursuit of a goal.

How can we get into a place where we’re not hijacked by the tyranny of productivity and the desire to define, plan for, and achieve something, but rather to develop an infinite mindset? Three practices have proven to be helpful for me, however sporadic my engagement has been over the years. First, to let go of linear- and reductionist-thinking. Not everything needs a plan and a goal, so be mindful about where this might be unhelpful. Next, simply paying attention to, and switching our language can help overcome this ‘linear anxiety’. I find this helps me to slow down, be more present and focused on the here-and-now. For me, practices such as meditation, breathwork, running and archery have been helpful. Finally, this in turn helps me with what I find to be the toughest challenge, which is embrace uncertainty.

As Nora Bateson says, we need to “nourish the flexibility we don’t even know we’ll need. The not knowing, the ambiguous and unknown is not a reason not to engage. It’s an infinite source of inquiry, exploration and play”. It’s in the gaps that the ideas emerge, not through demands for productivity. This, for me, is inspiring – the potential of the unknown. And rather than seeing the unknown as the sole preserve of the fearful, it is also important to recognise that fear and anxiety is, if anything, greater in the known. 

Perhaps it’s appropriate to leave the last word to Herman Hesse, poet and novelist: “When someone is searching,” said Siddhartha, “then it might easily happen that the only thing his eyes still see is that what he searches for, that he is unable to find anything, to let anything enter his mind, because he always thinks of nothing but the object of his search, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed by the goal. Searching means: having a goal. But finding means: being free, being open, having no goal. You, oh venerable one, are perhaps indeed a searcher, because, striving for your goal, there are many things you don’t see, which are directly in front of your eyes.”

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