Goals: Welcome to the dark side?
If you want to excel in your profession or at your craft...
If you want to be a better partner, friend, parent...
If you want to be fitter and stronger...
If you want to be happier…
You must set....
It’s taken as a given in our culture that goals are THE foundation of performance and wellbeing.
I'd say our culture is goal obsessed.
BUT is there a counterproductive or even destructive side to goal setting?
The answer is YES according to researchers based out of Harvard Business School whose 2009 paper Goals Gone Wild synthesizes research and case studies on goal setting and comes to three conclusions:
There is actually picture of a warning label in this paper and it says something to the effect of: WARNING GOAL SETTING MAY CAUSE
The authors give a number of fascinating examples of 'goals gone wild.' One is the story of the May 1996 Everest climb as told most famously by Jon Krakauer.
For an in-depth analysis of how destructive goal setting may have contributed to this tragedy see Destructive Goal Pursuit: The Mount Everest Disaster by Christopher Kayes.
Kayes is a former stock broker, business consultant, and is currently a professor and the chair of the Department of Management at George Washington University. He was on the mountain the day of the climb and has spent years analyzing what happened. He proposes that destructive goal setting was a major contributor.
While the Goals Gone Wild paper mainly focuses on the problems of goal setting within organizations, it does touch on the negative potential impact of goal setting on individuals.
And we can all find examples of destructive goal setting in our personal lives:
Do I think goals are destructive or dangerous and do I think ALL people would be served by abandoning ALL goals?
And at the same time I think that goals do have the potential to cause problems. Big problems. Goals Gone Wild explores these in detail.
So what are we to do? How can we motivate ourselves in a healthy way and stop our goals from going wild?
I think the first step is to understand how and why goals can cause problems.
For the most part I think the problems we see with goals boil down to two main issues.
Both of these factors can obscure our perspective, impede wise decision making, and eat away at our appreciation of the present moment and therefore at our well-being.
I think that if we can set and work towards goals while staying tuned into the big picture of what matters most and staying tuned into the present moment we can develop a healthier relationship with goals and goal setting.
Stay tuned for more on how to do this coming your way in a few weeks!
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I'm a psychologist and mindfulness teacher based in Edmonton, Alberta.