The Problem with Goals

We live in a culture that values and grades (explicitly or implicitly) how much we achieve. So you might say we are conditioned to think about “what’s next on our list.” In school we did not have to make that determination; the tests spelled out what we needed to know and did that for us. We were told that was “learning.”  No one made the distinction for us that learning really had to do with the preparation we needed to figure things out, and make our own internal assessment, decisions, and choices.

With our conditioning to achieve came the logical conclusion that setting and accomplishing goals was how to go about this patterning.  Little attention paid to the downside of goal setting, striving to accomplish, achieve, and to be recognized. Goal setting programs were once highly touted.  If you weren’t achieving, or having a plan in place to achieve your 1, 5, and 10 year goals, then maybe you were just a slacker type person probably not worth hiring. (This interview question, by the way, has fortunately been dropped when change began to happen so quickly organizations hardly knew what each day would bring and the “known way” of doing things became obsolete.)

In addition to being conditioned by the cultural need to achieve, we typically bought into a similar prevailing conscious belief that it was in the “getting” that happiness occurred, rather than discovering what many suggest now – that happiness is an “inside job.” And we might not really have been personally interested in the goal as much as being “ruled” by the power of the “should” behind it, typically to get approval and please.  Like, “You should climb the corporate ladder to get a high paying job.” Hence, another problem with goals is not necessarily the goal; the problem is that that many goals are driven by those ‘shoulds’ we learned as children, taught by well meaning parents, and supported by society norms, which held that it was in our best interest to follow their lead.

Another critical factor is most often we become unconsciously attached to achieving the outcome. – because of the power of those ‘shoulds’ held in our unconscious minds.  And it was this attachment that set up a no-win scenario. Going after an “attached  should” is like chasing a ghost that is believed to be out there, somewhere, not quite in our grasp, and causing us to be caught in the web of having to focus on and figure out how to get the future to be here and now. This, obviously, is impossible. Little were we taught that being in the present moment “Now” is where life actually happens.

As was true for me growing up, many of us may have lost touch with our authentic passions as a result of being guided by well meaning parents.  For example, my parents, shaped by having lived through the Depression, thought the most important thing in life was safety in wealth, so they encouraged me to become an Engineer or Surgeon because those professions made the most money. I still shake my head today when I think back and see how out of touch they were with my truth. Fortunately, I learned this important lesson growing up and knew not to pass this thinking on to my kids. Rather, I encouraged them to choose and express only those heartfelt desires they actually resonated with, and now coach individuals to clarify their unique life purpose and manifest those dreams that align with their authenticity.

Back to the problem with goals. In addition to ‘shoulds and attachment, other downsides to goals include:

  • The short term happiness rush of achieving a goal often fades fairly quickly. This is especially true if the focus is on having goals, versus having truly personal and meaningful goals – sometimes not taken into account.
  • The focus on getting to someplace or acquiring something we think we need to make us happy (such as the new car, more money, and positive recognition from others) not only takes  us out of living life in the present moment (due to focusing on a future state), but places us deeply embedded in self-involvement. There is nothing “wrong” with being overly self-focused, but with that state of mind we hold a shallow view and experience of life. A more expansive, stimulating, alive, and joyful life includes looking about, seeing where there is a need, and lending a hand (our personal gifts and talents) to help solve a problem and make a difference in life. Showing kindness and compassion to others is a ‘here and now experience’ that is deeply satisfying.
  • With a focus on acquiring a future condition or object, we may forget to appreciate that which we now have and are grateful for. Gratitude is another deeply satisfying experience we miss in being unconsciously driven to achieve a goal that we think will bring us happiness.

The Claim: What We’ve Been Taught Doesn’t Work  

In a recent communication by Dr. Alex Loyd, he states that the prevailing ‘blueprint for success’ goes something like this:

1) Decide and focus on what you want.

2) Develop a plan to get what you want.

3) With your willpower put the plan into action until you get what you want.”

According to Loyd and others, this three-step process using willpower as the action focused ingredient is really a blueprint for achieving less than optimum results. The reason is that we hold unconscious limiting beliefs and act from patterns learned primarily in childhood that do not support our intentions to succeed to the degree we desire.

Dr. Dan Gilbert, a doctor from Harvard, did ground breaking research in this area on the campus at Harvard. He released the research and wrote a best-selling book about it – Stumbling Into Happiness. The conclusion of Dr. Gilbert’s research at Harvard was, “Expectations are a happiness killer.”  What the research actually shows is that external expectations of an end result create failure in your life in virtually every way imaginable. The instant you have as the number one goal of your life an external circumstance, an external expectation, it instantly puts you into a chronic state of stress until you either get or don’t get the external thing that you want.

Loyd states, “Virtually every success program I’ve ever seen, from The Law of Attraction, to Positive Thinking, to The Seven Habits, to ‘name it and claim it,’ to affirmations, etc, etc, tells you not only to focus on the end result, the external circumstance, but even more to wallow in it, to marinate on it constantly. Say 100 times a day: ‘The ten million dollars is already on the way to me.’ ‘My tumor is already healing.’ ‘My big breakthrough is about to happen’ etc., etc.”

The problem with these methods, according to the actual research conducted by Dr. Bruce Lipton from Stanford University Medical School, and Dr. John Sarno, MD, PhD, from NYU and Harvard, is that “human hard drive viruses” (referring to a false interpretation believed to be real that became inserted and stored in our subconscious minds) rule our world; and trying to override them with the conscious mind is like going up to a computer program and saying “play a different message!” Even if the computer were able to hear us, it would not know what we were talking about because it was already programmed differently and would just keep putting out what it had already recorded.

According to Loyd virtually everyone he’s ever met has failure programming. In order to truly be successful, states Loyd, you have to accomplish three things:

  1. You have to Deprogram
  2. You have to Re-Program
  3. Consciously Overlay a Blueprint for Success in Your Life

How best to do that? There appear to be a number of modalities that all suggest the process they outline works well. Some of these include Psych-K, (Rob Williams), Healing Codes (Dr. Alex Loyd), and Voice Dialogue (leading to an Aware Ego and developed by Hal Stone, Ph.D., and Sidra Stone, Ph.D.).  I have no personal recommendations on the effectiveness of these or other techniques that are intended to help us reclaim conscious power over “old tapes” that seems to run us. But I also agree that the intention of discovering ways to reclaim our power over unconscious limiting beliefs is critical to our success in living life both passionately and successfully.

In my own life as a child wanting to be loved in a particular way and not getting it, I made a decision that “I must be doing or have done something wrong.” Was that the truth? No; my parents were parenting the best way they knew how. But my decision led me through a lifetime of having to deal with guilt and “not good enough” thinking. The only way I knew how to deal with this was to work hard and try to get approval in any way I knew how. Only any approval I did receive did not solve my internal pain of feeling lonely in a hostile world, most of which I was consciously unaware of. I came to believe, and act out, “I was a failure.” Fortunately, today I have predominately overcome that false belief, in some part through a method suggested by Byron Katie that asks the question, “Is it the truth?” When looked at objectively for a period of time, I discovered it was not the truth, even if it might have felt true.

So what are we to do? Just meander through life taking what comes, dealing with circumstances we’re not happy about, or accepting our “fate”? Absolutely not. We humans have been given the responsibility, and ability, to create, shape, and achieve outcomes based on our desires and passions. While I do believe there are different “levels” of desires, some being only self-focused while others may resonate with a heart-based calling to help or serve others, that distinction or choice can only be freely chosen by the individual. (While no desire is either “good” or “bad,” I suspect most of us are pretty much in agreement that selfishly taking from others for personal gain is not as lofty a desire as a compassionate and well meaning doctor volunteering her time serving the sick in a third world country.)

So how best to resolve the dilemma of staying present, attending to the moment of Now, overcoming false or limiting beliefs, and creatively shaping our futures in ways that maintain and bring about greater goodness?


The Gift of Being Human: Creativity

The ability to freely choose and create outcomes in our lives is truly a unique gift we humans have. While Michelangelo had the right skills, tools, commitment, passion and persistence to carve out many wonderful statues, we can do the same, in our own way, when we are authentically aligned with our life purpose, passions, and skills. But the question I ask is this: “If making and attempting to achieve goals is not the best way to go about our business of creating, what it the alternative?”  And we still need to address the dilemma of how to effectively monitor our unconscious conditioned thoughts turned into habits, and use the power of our minds– free of negative or limiting beliefs– to create and achieve those outcomes we desire. Let me offer three suggestions from my personal experience to help gain that skill and ability.

First, engage in a daily practice of meditation to slow down the onslaught of thoughts and feelings constantly bombarding us, and thereby creating greater “space” into which we can connect to our heart’s true desires and implant intentions. The difference between goals and intentions is this: intentions set us into motion and keep us in the on-going process of living in the moment, while the focus on goals takes us into viewing a future state to which we will never actually arrive, because it is always “just around the bend.” Or if we do achieve the goal, it may not show up as expected, and we tend to become frustrated. Or, the short term value of getting what our ego desire had us go chasing after doesn’t last, and we are on to the next thing. This often adds up to a feeling of discouragement, because we are never really enjoying and appreciating the contentment of the present moment, which is the only real place that happiness exists.

I like what Janet and Chris Atwood (authors of The Passion Test) suggest as an appropriate three step way to follow our passions: own the Intention, pay Attention to it (focus, follow, and act on it), and experience No Tension as a result. That is, allow whatever outcome to be, rather than fight with it and demand a different result.  In addition, the Buddha gave us great instructions as well regarding how best to deal with attachment: notice or watch what our mind is telling us, return to our breath and the reality of the present moment – from which we gain greater “space” in our conscious mind to make a clear choice free from “grasping” – then let go and move on.

Secondly, there seems to be a synchronicity flow of possibility-opportunity-action-success when a pure and inspired vision takes hold. It is almost as if our conscious self is interrupted by a temporary moment of connection to divine wisdom – pointing to a new possibility – and a certain flow of events is set into motion. When in a quiet moment we are “awakened to an intuitive impulse” and a pure energy feeling points with clarity to an inspired outcome we want, something magical seems to happen. This visionary insight, when combined with a “yes” commitment followed by some initial action taking toward achieving the result, sets up a flow of opportunities coming our way. Our job is to step past any fear that arises, and continue to take action until “voila” – the initial insightful vision is realized!

I do believe we can nurture this process as we become more familiar with it over time, even though we cannot control it or force it to happen. For example, Mike Dooley, the noted author of Infinite Possibilities, suggests we sit for five minute in the morning and visualize what we want, and feel it as if already accomplished in that moment. Then wait for ideas to surface, and take action immediately.  I do believe this technique has value if we do not “require” the specific outcome to show up exactly as desired. That said, however, Dooley has also experienced the his vision work to result in the perfect replica held in his mind!

I have made two huge changes in my life using the method of making an emotional and committed vision, although I still struggle with the day-to-day clarity of power to do this as an on-going practice.

For example, in my own life, many years ago, I awakened to a strong desire to finish my graduate degree in Applied Behavioral Science. Seven years had elapsed since I had completed the course work, but I never undertook the action research project and writing it up. (I had convinced myself of many good excuses regarding why I did not undertake it, but the main one was really fear of stepping into something I did not know how to do.) In a workshop on “creating”, I declared in front of the class that I was going to complete my Master’s degree by the end of that year (less than six months away).

As I left the program I thought what a foolish declaration I had made- I had no idea how I was going to even start, let alone finish this degree in the time frame I declared, while working and single parenting two teenagers! With a kind of hopelessness I went to work the next day and my boss, the VP of Finance and Administration, asked me to go and meet with one of the other VP’s who was having difficulty in his department with team members working together toward a common plan. My first thought: “Holy Bonkers, Batman!” – here was my action research project handed to me! The whole project then fell into place: I started out with typical action taking, (gathering data by interviewing the team), followed by team members implementing new ideas, only to find out a month later that my position in the company was being eliminated. On my last day of work I met with the division team, gave a status update, reviewed progress made along with giving final feedback and recommendations. I then gathered my personal belongings and hit the road. It took me a day or two see that being let go was another synchronicity – I now had time to do the writing up of the project! After a few rejections of my project review I put my final (thesis length) draft in the mail on December 31, and my advisor approved it!

The message for me is this: if I have an insightful vision, combined with an energized feeling of “yes!” – I typically go for it.  Synchronicity follows as I take action, and success usually comes “easily” without having to fight with external circumstances.

Thirdly, I have a growing recognition that as human beings we have been given authority to think, say, and do whatever we choose. This was not apparent to me for most of my life, in large part due to the conditioning and limiting beliefs stored and running in my subconscious mind. But as I became more adapt at creating the “space” mentioned above with meditation, soul attunements, and study of various teachings (such as A Course in Miracles in which the act of “forgiveness” releases the negative energy in the moment and replaces it with the “miracle” of connection to our natural spirit of love coming from Source), I have gained back some of that “authority” and can consciously choose to change what I have been thinking to what I choose to think. There are times, mind you, that I must act as the parent to an unruly or critical child who is persistently reciting an old limiting belief, and yell “Stop!” The voice of the child becomes unsuspectingly astonished by my authority, and complies.

So I urge you to consider your “God given power” of claiming dominion over your life . . . your mind, your thoughts, your choices, your beliefs, your passions and your action. You can be the author of your life if you choose to declare your power over idle thoughts, no matter how much you initially might feel stuck in the habit of responding to circumstance in a way that no longer serves you.

And finally, be careful of who is setting goals – your ego hoping to get a quick fix, or you authentic self committed to achieving a meaningful outcome. As well be mindful of whether you are serving only yourself, or adding in some ways of thinking about others, applying your gifts to meet their needs, and making a difference to others – which happens to be the most joyful experience you will experience in life.

About Jim

Jim’s innovative and influential style of coaching and facilitation stems from over 15 years of Management experience in Human Resource and Organization Development. He has written two books, and has coached others in the area of Personal Development for the past 20 years.