Letting Go of Goals

Everest by Matthew Winterburn

I have a confession to make:  I’ve never been a big believer in specific goals.  My “anti-goal” philosophy is not one I’ve shared on the blog previously, in part for fear of rejection or ridicule.  I mean, everyone knows how important goals are, and there’s tons of research on goal theory to prove it.  But I was coaxed out of my shell this week by Oliver Burkeman’s wonderful book, “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.”  His book is about the “backwards approach” to happiness—that it is best achieved by NOT striving for it, and he devotes an entire chapter to the importance (or lack thereof) of goals.

Burkeman tells the story of Chris Kayes, a stockbroker and mountain climber, who happened to be hiking in Nepal at the foothills of Mount Everest when the famous tragedy that took 8 climbers’ lives (as outlined in “Into Thin Air”) was unfolding at the peak.

Kayes became fascinated with the psychology of the disaster that led these expert climbers to their death.  Interestingly, they were doing everything right from a goalsetting perspective:  they had a clear goal, and they were perseverant in their pursuit of it, but the results were disastrous.

According to Kayes, who now teaches management science at George Washington University, the same thing often happens in business: we become so identified with our goals, that the prospect of letting them go becomes unthinkable.  We ignore evidence that should be pulling us away from our goals, preferring instead to invest even more in them when things go wrong.

Where You're Going by Krissy Venosdale

Burkeman also cites researcher Lisa Ordonez, whose paper “Goals Gone Wild” challenged the existing goalsetting research that had already “achieve[d] the status of religious dogma” in the business world.  Ordonez found that goals led people to become single-minded in their pursuit, setting aside ethical principles and ignoring other opportunities that could lead them away from their goals.

To be clear, it’s not that goal setting doesn’t work.  Having a clear goal and giving it sufficient focus is likely to improve your chances of success.   But according to Ordonez, it is this same narrow focus that, while helpful for goal accomplishment, will open you up to the “harmful effects of goal setting.” The question is what are you giving up in return for achieving your goals?

Ordonez talks, for example, about how goals can kill intrinsic motivation.  I have seen many martial artists who lose their interest in training once they achieve their black belt.  Their training was always about the goal, and never became a part of who they were (see this article on “How a Black Belt can Hurt You.”)

Ordonez and Burkeman have reinforced my philosophy on goals.  It’s not that I don’t have goals, but they are more vague and directional (“to be a good father” or “to be successful at work”) than the specific and measurable goals that goal theory prescribes.  And when I do have specific goals, I hold them loosely, knowing that circumstances change, and goals should be continually reassessed.

For many years, for example, I studied martial arts, but rather than pursuing the common goal of achieving my black belt, I focused on being the best martial artist I could, at whatever level I found myself.

Breaking Boards (back in the day)

This strategy allowed me to be free from certain conventions.  I did not have to follow one particular path to becoming a martial artist, and over the years I studied many different styles (judo, aikido, muay thai, kung fu, karate, Brazilian jiu jitsu—much to the chagrin of some of my instructors who considered this kind of style-swapping to be disloyal.)  Along the way, I did get a black belt (two in fact: one in Hapkido and one in Tang Soo Do,) but that was beside the point.

Years later, being loosely attached to my goals also allowed me to leave martial arts.  I was living in a small fishing village in Mexico and driving an hour each way twice a week to train in Muay Thai with one of the national kickboxing champions.  One night I realized that I was spending too much of my time sparring with sweaty guys, and not nearly enough time with members of the opposite sex.  In that moment I decided to stop doing martial arts and to take up salsa dancing instead.  Looking back now, I’m not sure why it took me so long to realize that dancing with Mexican women a couple nights a week would be more fun than getting beat up by Mexican men.  I never went back to martial arts.

References and recommended reading:

Burkeman, O. (2012). The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. Faber and Faber.

Krakauer, J. (1999). Into Thin Air. Turtleback.

Lock, E. A. & Latham, G. P. (1990). A Theory of Goal Setting & Task Performance. Prentice Hall.





by Jeremy McCarthy

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21 Responses to Letting Go of Goals

  1. Judy Krings August 21, 2012 at 3:43 pm #

    Creativity, flexibility, and as Todd Kashdan has said, becoming a curious explorer, not intent on only LATER GOALS way up ahead, Rather, be mindfully aware that goals shift. It is good to embrace uncertainty in the moment and learn to savor what is going on now that adds meaning. To focus and perhaps refocus when another goal seems more fitting here and NOW,

    Goals? I often joke it is all I can do to get through one day, let along keep constantly looking down the road to set more goals as to where I am going. That said, I love studying goal-setting. mindsets and other PP concepts.

    Loved the photo as I have been in Nepal this year, One amazing journey.

    Great blog as usual, Jeremy. Many thanks,

  2. Stacy Conlon August 21, 2012 at 6:51 pm #

    Hi Jeremy, I am an avid goal setter, so your post certainly caught my attention and made me think outside the box yet again.

    I do believe having SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound) goals are important because our subconscious mind responds effectively to specifics. But there is a fine line that we can cross if we become dogmatic in our beliefs and resistant to change. In fact, not accomplishing certain goals can mean success in other areas — as in staying alive for those climbers.

    You explore an interesting concept that makes sense: in fact, it is possible to become so attached to our goals that we lose sight in the moment of what’s more important or a better choice. I like to think of this as adaptability related to goal setting. What was true for us at the time we set our goal may not still be true right now. And that matters — it was life-dependent in the case of the Everest climbers.

    Another way to think of this is non-attachment or letting go. What may have served us well at one point in our lives may not be the case as of today. That means we must remain open to changing our goals based upon the current circumstances (and that takes a whole lot of presence and awareness)!

    In the end it’s all about the process, right? We create meaningful goals and stay aware of heading toward them by choices we make in our daily lives. But I think the key here is twofold: movement in a proactive direction and remaining open to making adjustments along the way. The mere fact we are moving toward something that serves us is crucial. If we achieve a particular goal that affects us in a positive way, that’s just the icing on the cake.

    Interesting perspectives. Thanks for a great post, Jeremy. It might be time to revisit my goals and see what’s no longer serving me! 🙂


  3. Jeremy McCarthy August 22, 2012 at 4:56 pm #

    Thanks Judy and Stacy,

    I think SMART goals are effective but sometimes mastery comes from really focusing on where you are now and not being distracted by some future vision. I had this revelation once when I was hiking up to a waterfall in Maui. If you looked up to see where you were going you could easily slip on a rock and get hurt (or at least get all wet.) The best way to get to the waterfall was to be really present and focus on the next step you were taking (see the guest post on “Kaizen” about accomplish big goals with tiny steps.) With all of these things it’s all about balance, wisdom and prudence so I don’t think all goals are bad, but it’s good to know when is the right time to set a goal, and when is it time to let them go.

  4. Caroline Adams Miller August 22, 2012 at 6:10 pm #

    You know I love this topic as well as goals themselves, so I thank you for writing this. You bring up many arguments about goals that are absolutely problematic – not knowing when to disengage and setting goals for the wrong reasons, for example. I, too, am a Hapkido black belt, and although I set the goal of getting a black belt, the “so what?” factor was that I did it with my daughter and that it represented empowerment over a challenge from my youth. I don’t think it’s bad that I disengaged from Hapkido and moved on because that wasn’t ever the intent – I had values and intentions around the accomplishment, and had no desire to ever simply be admired because of it, and that is where certain goals can become damaging. Good goal, but bad in one setting and good in another, all because of the “so what?” factor. Setting goals and working towards them should never be done without a complete understanding of what you’re getting into and all of the variables that can impact whether or not it’s the right goal, the right time, the right petri dish, or the right mindset. I also have yet to see a happy person (“happy” is again, used in a specific context), who didn’t have a North Star (mission statement, five-year-plan, “personal project,” bucket list) guiding them, because being directionless and unfocused makes people unhappy. There’s a great piece of research showing that people would rather do something that is just busy work than nothing because of the ennui that comes from zero purpose or direction. But we split hairs endlessly about the words used here, which are toxic to some and an elixir to others. And so the debate continues, and thanks for keeping it going.

  5. Senia August 22, 2012 at 11:20 pm #


    Superb second-to-last sentence. I much enjoyed reading this.


  6. Jeremy McCarthy August 23, 2012 at 11:35 am #

    Thanks Caroline! (For those who don’t know Caroline Adams Miller she is the author of “Creating Your Best Life” [http://www.creatingyourbestlifelist.com/] which I think of as the encyclopedia of goal setting and accomplishment.)

    I would recommend your book to my readers which covers the nuance and context of goal setting far better than I can do in a 700-word article. I think the key, as you suggest, is the wisdom to know which are the goals you should stick with and which are the ones you should let go. I agree with you that having purpose and direction are of utmost importance to wellbeing. But there is such an overemphasis in the literature on ideas of goal-setting, perseverance, visualization, etc. that people may fail to realize that sometimes its OK to not have a goal or to let one go, or to have a goal that is not clearly defined yet. As you say, goals can be good in one setting and not in another, the key is finding the wisdom to know the difference!

  7. Steve Safigan August 23, 2012 at 12:22 pm #

    Jeremy, your blog prompted me to go back to the MAPP literature we were assigned. Here’s what Locke has to say. Although it doesn’t directly address your points, I thought it was at least worth posting.

    “Is goal setting ever harmful? Certainly, if goals are set for the wrong outcome or if there is goal conflict (Locke et al., 1994). Goals that do not change when relevant circumstances change may promote undue rigidity. We have noted that specific, challenging goals given in the absence of relevant expertise may undermine the discovery of useful task strategies. Goals that are set too high can be demoralizing;
    there is a fine line between stretching people and discouraging them. A great deal depends on sustaining self-efficacy in the face of setbacks. Goals can be used as a defensive maneuver by people who try to take pride in their aspirations without actually doing anything to achieve them. Obviously these (and many other) issues are ripe for further study.”

  8. Lisa Sansom August 23, 2012 at 12:55 pm #

    I don’t do goals very well and I’m pretty easily persuaded to abandon them. However, I don’t think this has made me unhappy. I also don’t have a bucket list or a 5 yr plan or even any intermediate goals. I’m still working on figuring out my personal mission (it changes all the time). However, I do wonder if there are motivational factors that count other than goals. For example, I’m highly motivated by learning and curiosity (two of my top VIA strengths). I don’t make it a goal to know *everything* or even to grow in a certain field, and I definitely never try to master a topic. That would be too intimidating. I guess you could say that I float along, but that’s ok too. At least, I’ve learned to be ok with it in a world that highly values goals and where job interviewers routinely ask “Where do you see yourself in five years” with the expectation of positive change and planned progress. I certainly have struggled with this as well (though I’m an excellent coach if someone wants help getting to their own goals!) and so thank you for putting it out there that maybe, just maybe, goals aren’t everything to everyone.

  9. Judy Krings August 23, 2012 at 1:44 pm #

    Thanks for your thread and for taking the time with looking up goal research, Steve. I am with you, Lisa, re: the stress in my mind of looking ahead to 5 years. My entrepreneur businessman husband, asked me to sit down after we were married, to go over our five year plan in every aspect of our life.

    I was working 12-14 hours days then (I was 39 and had loads of energy), but I yipped, “5 years? I am grateful to have made it though TODAY with 3 suicidal clients!” Now I understand his critical thinking strength trumping, while my creativity, curiosity, and other strengths needed more flexibility. How I wish I had know about PP and strengths then. I would have gotten it. He was dumbstruck at my balking at goals. I felt they were HUGE pressure, and I already was accomplishing everything I wanted. He was right. As a team, he valued my input or what we both wanted. I needed to learn he was being respectful. I did. We STILL look at life so differently, but what a great team.

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  11. Jeremy McCarthy August 27, 2012 at 2:34 pm #

    Thanks for posting that Steve. It doesn’t surprise me that Locke was cognizant of some of the shortcomings of goalsetting theory. I think the problem is the same as with most of positive psychology–that the application gets far ahead of the research. The extreme points of view are what is most likely to get published (especially soundbites in the mainstream media) and so dialogue around this kind of research tends to flip back and forth between the extremes rather than really considering how it works in a balanced way.

  12. Jeremy McCarthy August 27, 2012 at 2:38 pm #

    Lisa and Judy, thanks for your sharing your perspectives. I especially laughed at Judy’s comment about just trying to make it through TODAY! Also relating this concept to strengths is an interesting way to think about it. For example, I am a rare individual who has “self-control” as one of my top strengths. it may be that this strength allows me to be productive in the absence of clearly defined goals whereas someone with different strengths may do much better with a specific goal they are striving towards. I also think time perspective plays a role in this so maybe Judy’s husband is much more focused on the future where goals are important where as Judy is more in tune to the present. Sounds like they make a good team.

  13. Steve Safigan August 27, 2012 at 3:22 pm #

    Jeremy, that was my exact thought about you when I read your article (referring to your self-control possibly moderating your need for clearly defined goals).

  14. Judy Krings August 27, 2012 at 4:26 pm #

    Thanks for your kind comments, Jeremy. Ken and I DO make a good team. He taught me how to think like a business person. He says I encouraged him to open up his heart again after his first wife died of cancer at 37. Our VIA’s are very opposite in most ways. We tease and say the two of us together make one really decent soul. He is the entrepreneur strategic thinker, and I create the nuance day-to-day energy and motivation. Yes, there are times it has been push and pull, but that makes for fun, too. Best is we are both forgivers and lovers. Life is fascinating, and we know we are both very grateful to be together.

  15. Lisa Sansom August 27, 2012 at 8:37 pm #

    Re: self-control as a top strength – I wonder if there are many strengths that could allow individuals to move forward in the absence of explicit goals. I mentioned how curiosity and love of learning move me forward, and sometimes (in the Gallup world) my “strength” of Responsibility (with “strength” in quotes because it’s not particularly energizing – Realise2 calls it a learned strength and I tend to agree). But I can also see how zest, for example, would keep people moving forward even without explicit goals… Seems to me there is an interesting research project here…

  16. Jeremy McCarthy August 27, 2012 at 9:50 pm #

    Those are good points Lisa I’m sure there are many strengths that you can use that help you move forward without goals. But I can also imagine the goal proponents would say that strengths might help you in lots of less than ideal situations. Strengths might help you survive riding a motorcycle with no helmet but that doesn’t make a helmet any less recommended. So I think it’s probably safe to say that goals are useful and important regardless of your strengths, just maybe not AS important as the dogma around goal theory would have you believe. I think Burkeman’s book promotes a more mindful or even “meta” approach to goals which I thought was relevant and interesting.

  17. Judy Krings August 28, 2012 at 6:24 am #

    Great response, Jeremy! Even though freedom loving and appreciating me bulks at the word word “GOAL”, truth is, every day, I have LISTS of what I want to accomplish that day. I usually get most of the list done. I do harness strengths, but also LET GO of tenacity as it gets in my way trying to get it ALL done. That also diminishes my self-regulation strength.

    I tell myself, “I have CHOICES. What do I want and choose?” Promotion goals mostly, but prevention, too, as that way I will not fail at a “goal”.

    Semantics, maybe, but it works for me. And humbly, I do get done what I focus on to make Appreciative Inquiry proud!

    Reality is I have a ton of goals all the time, but I need, want and choose to look at them as opportunities. Not “have-to’s”. Success and happiness for me is when I get to cross them off the list and smile. Perception is everything, right? I need to perceive “I can and do do this today or whenever it gets me where I chose to go.”

    All that said as a here and now gal, I KNOW I need to do some planning for what I can do to serve others and operate out of my best self in the future when I work less.. That’s where Ken’s strategic planning will ignite fire to my rocket to future meaning.

    Hugs for a terrific discussion.

  18. Kathy Gabriel September 19, 2012 at 9:29 am #


    I’m a very recent addition to your blog. Reading this article tells me I’ve ‘landed’ in the right place.

    I’ve been there … setting goals, making ‘to do lists’, focusing on the future, needing to know certain things in detail ahead of time, thinking about all the possibilities; what might happen (go wrong!), etc. … until I found a better way.
    I call it the ‘unscripted approach’: allowing my self to be led. A somewhat mysterious process … intuition maybe?
    I’m not sure if there is a lot of research behind it, but it has served me very well thus far. Even the knowledge and skills acquired ‘before the conversion’ have found their place in the present scheme of things.

    When your life plans/goals change suddenly, you are sometimes forced to consider alternatives…the results of which may pleasantly surprise you.

    I will take a look at Oliver Burkeman’s book. That “backward approach” may connect very well with my unscripted approach.

    Thanks for the permission as well; you’re already up and running.

  19. Jeremy McCarthy September 19, 2012 at 9:44 pm #

    Thanks Kathy, welcome to the blog! I think “unscripted” is a good word. It implies you might have a general idea of the kind of role you want to play but you have the freedom to change your reactions as the events and characters around you play themselves out. I look forward to checking out your blog as well!

  20. Kathy Gabriel September 21, 2012 at 8:25 pm #

    Just a thought … wanted to say that the terms …”backward approach” , “meta”-approach’, “unscripted approach”, seems to be inviting us to explore those parts of ourselves, our creativity and serendipitous occurances, which we have managed to ‘box out’. Bold steps into the ‘unknown’.

  21. Judy Krings September 22, 2012 at 8:33 am #

    Fun brainstorming flexibility, Kathy. Thanks for adding more colors to the creative crayon box

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