Is Goal Setting Harmful?

Stop twenty people in the street and ask them what a Life Coach does and my guess would be the majority will have no clue. However, the few that do attempt an answer will probably mention goal setting in some way shape or form.

And they would be right, Life Coaches do indeed help people set goals. But what if they’d be better advised not to? Is it possible that for some people setting goals not only doesn’t work, but can be harmful and counter productive?

Most industries have their conventional wisdom and it is, to a large extent, a good thing. It would get incredibly tiresome continually having to verify things we know to be true over and over again.

However, sometimes conventional wisdom needs to be challenged if we are to progress. Surely it’s our duty if we suspect it may be wrong to ask questions without the fear of being thought of as a heretic.

Goal setting is in terms of self development is almost untouchable, it’s the Sacred Cow of the life coaching and personal development industry. In fact it’s not far short of being an industry in its own right.

There are specialist goal setting coaches, goal setting websites, courses designed to help you set goals and the bookshelves are crammed with ways of setting ‘can’t miss’ goals written by goal setting Guru’s.

Some of the giants of the self development industry like Norman Vincent Peale, Jim Rohn, Napoleon Hill, Brian Tracey and Zig Ziglar have been hammering home the goal setting message since, it seems like, the dawn of time.

Quotes like the ones below abound and regularly get trotted out to drive home the message; If you don’t have clearly defined written goals you’re somewhere right around the level of plankton on the evolutionary scale.

“All successful people have a goal. No one can get anywhere unless he knows where he wants to go and what he wants to be or do.” – Norman Vincent Peale

“Success equals goals; all else is commentary.” – Brian Tracy

“If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you? Not much.” – Jim Rohn

For the last year or so I have started to wonder about goal setting and it’s ultimate efficacy. I was working with a client earlier this year who was a serial goal setter and serial goal hitter. Here was a guy that was moving goal by goal through life in textbook style with unencumbered ease.

Yet he was as miserable as sin and wasn’t getting any pleasure on the journey toward his goals.

Then more recently I’ve had 3 similar clients. All excellent goal setters, all excellent goal hitters, but all were left with a sense of emptiness when they finally hit a goal and they immediately felt the need to set bigger and better goals to fill the void.

This makes no sense.

According to Messrs. Peale, Tracy and Rohn, success is setting goals, so how can some people not feel successful when they are so good at it?

Unless heaven forbid, the Godfathers of self development are wrong in making such sweeping statements.

After all, we now know the famous Yale study that showed the 3% of students with written goals out performed the 97% without them, is a self development urban myth. That irrespective of how many times it gets dusted down and trotted out it never really happened.

There is no research (that I know of) to support the belief that there is a correlation between written goals and people feeling happier.

And surely that is what it’s all about, being happy.

Isn’t goal setting just something we do because we think it will make us happier? I really cannot think of any other reason.

Don’t get me wrong, I do believe for a number of reasons that written goals are in the majority of cases more likely to be achieved. But that isn’t in any way the same as saying they define success, or they are likely to lead to greater levels of happiness.

The problem I am seeing with being an efficient goal setter for some people, is that there’s often the feeling that when they hit the goal it will be great and they will feel vindicated, worthwhile and be able to relax and enjoy life.

Then they do hit the goal and it’s like:

“Er, oh, is this all there is? Hm, maybe I need to set another bigger, better goal to focus on.”

And off they go again not realizing that they aren’t enjoying the ride because they are so focused on how they will feel at some point in the future when the next big goal really does deliver.

Or worse still, they miss their target and feel like they wasted all that time and energy for nothing.

I have a secret to tell you.

I no longer have a single written goal.

And even more shockingly, I am more than happy about that.

The only goal I have at the moment is to giveaway 1,000,000 copies of How To Be Rich and Happy.

Unless you count blogging about it, nowhere on this earth is it written down as a SMARTER goal, the method I developed and have used numerous times with clients.

I am playing the devils advocate somewhat with this post because I’m not against goal setting per se.

I will undoubtedly continue to teach my clients ‘How To Set Goals‘, but only those that I feel sure can enjoy the ride and not get totally consumed by the next big goal to the exclusion of everything else.

Goals are a means to an end the same way money is a means to an end. It’s not the money we want, it’s what we think it will give us. And it’s not the goals we want, it’s what we think those goals will give us.

I know this is contentious  and I also know it goes against not only conventional wisdom, but some stuff I have written in the past and that’s why I really want your take.

This is still work in progress in my own mind and I’m not at all sure I’m right with this, so what do you think?