A Different Perspective on Goal-Setting

I just read an article by “Dilbert” creator Scott Adams in the Wall Street Journal which I found quite insightful.  In the article titled “Scott Adams’ Secret of Success: Failure”  Mr Adams discusses the lessons and skills he has learned from his failures over the years (and there have been many). He further makes a good case on why setting goals and following your passion is asking for trouble.

It took a few minutes to wrap my mind around the concept but after re-reading the article, it started to make sense. He writes:

Throughout my career I’ve had my antennae up, looking for examples of people who use systems as opposed to goals. In most cases, as far as I can tell, the people who use systems do better. The systems-driven people have found a way to look at the familiar in new and more useful ways.

To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose 10 pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary.

If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize that you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or to set new goals and re-enter the cycle of permanent pre-success failure.

The idea of goal setting has been so ingrained in our collective psyche by a variety of books, lectures and advice over the years that many have accepted the paradigm that goal setting is the end all be all of achievement without question. The article invites the reader to consider different methods of achievement that may work just as well. One method that the author points out succintly is the use of a “system” instead of a “goal”.

… being systems-oriented, I felt myself growing more capable every day, no matter the fate of the project that I happened to be working on. And every day during those years I woke up with the same thought, literally, as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and slapped the alarm clock off.

Today’s the day.

If you drill down on any success story, you always discover that luck was a huge part of it. You can’t control luck, but you can move from a game with bad odds to one with better odds. You can make it easier for luck to find you. The most useful thing you can do is stay in the game. If your current get-rich project fails, take what you learned and try something else. Keep repeating until something lucky happens. The universe has plenty of luck to go around; you just need to keep your hand raised until it’s your turn. It helps to see failure as a road and not a wall.

In my experience, I’ve seen plenty of failure along the way, but I’m still of the opinion that specific and measurable goals are still valuable as they serve as a guidepost to achievement. Systems however can also be put in place as an additional method on the road to achieving our objectives.  The article’s explanation of success breeding passion, and luck meeting opportunity, are perhaps the two most distinct and valuable take-aways for me. Tomorrow will always bring uncertainty and some goals will never be achieved due to the randomness of life. Our experiences should inform our choices and be part of a system to build upon; adding discipline and passion to the process can also serve as fuel to keep us going as the going gets tough.

As Winston Churchill once reminded us:  “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

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One thought on “A Different Perspective on Goal-Setting

  1. Great article and post! I think in general, we must move from simple linear thinking to more systems-oriented planning. I do agree with you that measurae goals are important. Ideally, a combination of both, with a clear definition of “success” is necessary.

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