‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’
‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
‘I don’t much care where–’ said Alice.
‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.
–– Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
You won’t reach your goals by accident. You won’t become the better version of yourself by hoping for luck to favor you. You need to be deliberate in what you do and be ready to open new paths if necessary. Alexander the Great (356–323 BC) did not create one of the ancient world’s largest empires by the age of thirty by waiting for things to happen. Michael Phelps didn’t win 23 Olympic gold medals by improvising.
You can choose to believe the myth that people are born with a magical combination of DNA, connections, and lucky breaks that conspire to determine what we can accomplish in life. Or you can confront the reality that there is a wide-open path for all of us if you choose to do something about it.
Goals give you a clear picture of what we want to accomplish. They give you direction and focus. They help you distinguish important activities from less relevant things. Goals won’t let you lie to yourselves into thinking you are making progress just because you have no time for anything or end your days exhausted.
Living in the moment is about quality of life. But as important as this is, you don’t want to live just any moment but the right moment; the moment that will bring you closer to where you want to be. Peter Drucker said that efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things.
Do you need to have goals?
Sometimes people that have achieved great results say that they’ve never had goals. Maybe it’s true, but usually, they can relate to being obsessed with an idea. Or maybe they’re just outliers, and they are falling prey to survivorship bias.
Other people object to goals because goals defined today are thought by your current self, but your future self would see things differently. I think this is just the nature of life. In hindsight, you can see what you would have done differently. But going forward, there are many possible paths and they are not delimited. You must decide on a direction even if you don’t have all the answers. The path will become clearer as you walk.
From another point of view, even if you are not your future self, you can go on a mental trip to the future. You can ask yourself: what could you accomplish if you had ten years to do it? What would the long-term impact of a new habit be if you practiced it for ten years? Also, you can ask yourself where you don’t want to be in ten years, and try to understand what would lead you to that situation so you can avoid it.
By reflecting on what you want to accomplish, you face the question of what success looks like for you, which is not a minor thing. By defining your goals you are defining where you are headed. If you set your destination wrong, it won’t matter how much effort you put in every day. St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AC) wrote centuries ago: bene curris, sed extra viam. You run well, but out of the path.
Four things to keep in mind about goals
You can do anything you want, but you can’t do everything you want. Time is limited. You need to decide which goals are worth your time and effort and postpone or just discard the others.
Some things to keep in mind about goals:
Goals need to be explicit. If your goals are too vague or generic, they may reflet your good intentions but they won’t be useful or lead to action.
Understanding why you want to accomplish something is essential to find motivation. When thinking about something you want to accomplish, ask yourself: What’s in this for me?
Your goals must match who you want to be. As James Clear puts it, “your actions need to be aligned with your values, identity, and deepest beliefs for your actions to remain consistent over time and to achieve long-term goals.”
You need a process for choosing your goals. You could rely on your intuition and try to figure it all out by yourself. Not the wisest path, though. Building your process by learning from what worked for others will produce substantially better results.
Journey before Destination
Defining your goals is just the beginning of the journey. Marshall Goldsmith says that we are superior planners and inferior doers. Defining your goals is important, but you still need the commitment to reach your destination.
The ability to take things from ideas to reality is essential. There is no silver bullet for doing this. To be a 10x performer at what you do, you need to get 10x more value out of the limited time you have.
If you are interested, this is a rewrite of a chapter of my book Effective Goal Setting, which I published some years ago.