Tuesday, July 06, 2004

The Fallacy of Goal-Setting

by Asim Jalis

A lot of books on time management and achievement focus on this idea of taking control of your life by setting goals. This is how the thinking goes. If you set your goals, define a mission and a vision, your activities become aligned with each other. You can evaluate each decision in light of this goal, determine whether it takes you closer to your goal or further away, and make the right decision. Goals create meaning in life. They give you hope for a better future. They make life worth living. I have been experimenting with this and failing. And so I wonder if this is all wrong (at least for me). How can I pigeon-hole my life into a limiting goal? Every action I take has hundreds of unintended consequences. How can I impose this illusion of control on my life? The premise of goal-setting is that I can dramatically change my life. Now I am sure I have some influence through the decisions that I take. But there is a lot going on over which I have no control. A lot of things in my life have been opportunities presented to me that I have taken or walked away from. And in the end my life is a sum total of this. I control which opportunities I take, but the opportunities arise on their own timetable. Perhaps the real question to ask about life is not so much what my goal should be but rather how I can change the flow of opportunities from a trickle to a flood. It is possible that there are other people out there who are good at sustained single-minded pursuit of goals, I feel that I am not such a person. So perhaps the real game (for me) is to do tiny things that generate opportunities. Incidentally, opportunities arise through action. Action signals to the rest of the world that I am here ready to serve the world in some way. And this signalling leads to opportunities. How can I do more of this? How can I increase the flow of opportunities that flow to me? The simplest way seems to be to connect with people, to help them in small ways, especially when the cost to me is nearly zero. Over the last few years I have informally been forwarding job announcements to my friends in the area that are looking for work. One of the people I connected to a job in this way brought me in for an interview at Real Networks and I ended up getting the job. I had to turn them down for various reasons. However, it proved to me that helping people in small ways almost always has a big payoff. But I still feel that I am not doing things that are big enough. There is more I can do, there are more ways of opening up opportunities, and I am simply not alert enough to them. I am thinking that an XP-like approach might be usable. Develop the skill to define tiny highly-achievable goals, and then achieve them. Break down life into tiny iterations and in each iteration complete the tiny goals. And then patiently wait for bigger patterns to emerge.