When Goals are Deadends

When Goals are Dead-Ends
by Charles Faulkner

Living in the Age of Goals

We live in the Age of Goals. We’re in the 25th year of Management by Objective (MBO) and at least the 55th year of goal setting thanks in large part to Napoleon Hill, Earl Nightingale and Norman Vincent Peale. According to an old middle eastern adage; “You shall not reach Mecca, for you are on the road to Medina” and on this most goal setting is based. After all, it is quite reasonable to ask; If you don’t have a plan for where you are going, how are you going to get there? Most everyone is, by now, familiar with the Harvard University study in which the 3% of the graduating classes (Ted Kennedy’s being one of them by the way) that had written goals out performed the other 97% (who didn’t) in terms of money, power and recognition.

So what’s the matter with goals? To paraphrase the apocryphal politician on the subject of whiskey*: If you mean by goals, the obsessions of men’s minds that cause them to neglect themselves, their families and friends, inflaming them with unlimited greed and lust for power, then I’m against them. But if you mean the beacons of light that guide men and civilizations to higher principles and great works of industriousness and self sacrifice, then I’m for them. As Shakespeare told us through Polinius, “The problem is not in the stars, but in ourselves.”

W. Edward Deming is now 91 years old and for at least 60 of those years has been trying to point out to any business leader who would listen, that goals, while they seem like a high and fine way of organizing human attention, they can easily become traps. Goals, especially highly specific, numerical, and time defined ones; create performance reviews, employee rankings, short term thinking, internal competition and fear in the work place, office politics, and organizations more concerned with their own survival than the quality of their products, all of which work against the essentially systemic nature of a business. Goals break a business into quarterly reports, regional offices and organizational charts and obscure the importance of treating a business as a complete and living human system.

Let’s make use of Deming’s brilliant insights on our more personal scale. When we have a goal in consciousness, something we are focusing on, we immediately limit ourselves in two ways: 1) We respond to all the opportunities of life and all the potentials within us with the necessarily limited vision of our conscious minds (recall George Miller’s discovery of 7+2 units of conscious attention). We decide with our limited conscious minds what is to be done with all of us; mind, body and spirit, relationships and resources, life experiences and present predicaments. 2) As we move closer (or further away) from our consciously chosen goal(s) we measure our life satisfactions or lacks by that goal instead of responding to the ever-changing world of possibilities around us.

Not that goals are unnatural. George Miller, Eugene Galanter and Karl Pribram in their book “Plans and the Structure of Behavior” explained their work was modeled on a single human nerve cell that showed goal oriented behavior. In a human being, goals are ever shifting and changing in response to external and internal conditions. You might awake in the morning and review your To Do list and after your coffee (a goal not even on your list) proceed to work on the highest priority. You are absorbed in your work, except when you stop to answer colleagues’ questions (goals also not on your list) until pangs of hunger (another goal) drive you to a restaurant where you order food and drink you’ll enjoy (more goals), possibly flirt with your lunch partners and/or serving person (unplanned goal in response to the moment) and plan future goals. Returning to your office you find urgent notes to call so-and-so to resolve an unexpected difficulty to which you find a brilliant solution (goal) and then there’s the meeting to get two staff members to patch things up (goal) and on the way home listen to news or that new tape (more goals) and so on finally to bed to feel the cool sheets (and perhaps warm company) (planned goal?) and drift off to a good night’s sleep (also an unlisted goal). Goals, goals, goals, ever shifting and changing throughout your day.

The To Do List made its first historical appearance in Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, generally regarded as the first how-to-succeed book. Through the American Civil War, success was essentially thought of in terms of being an industrious Christian of a fundamental persuasion. Then success authors and lecturers began to turn their attention to more and more specific kinds of success, particularly those measured in money.

The real innovation of these success schools might be the idea of keeping a goal in mind when your mind might rather go on to another, reducing success from the development of character to the achievement of a particular end. A comparable analogy is the for-profit corporation which emerged out of the railroad industry about the same time; an organization created for one purpose make money. On our individual scale, it’s like creating a person with only one goal or skill**.

Goals, in a human being and a human society, in fact in the entire biological world, emerge, interact with one another, change, are satisfied (or not) and slip into the background as more urgent or current goals emerge. NLP co-developer, John Grinder noted that as we seek satisfaction [of our goals], we depend on incongruence to guide us. After all, when we want something, it is because we currently lack it. There is an incongruence between our present state and our desired state.

When we bring our individual and collective resources to bear and close that gap, we experience the resolution of that incongruence. We experience satisfaction. And then, another incongruence, that is, a goal, emerges. In the words of the poet Deborah Holland, “When our ship comes in / We will be overjoyed / Count all our blessings / And dream of another place.”

We never reach a point where all of our goals are satisfied and we never will. It is not in our nature. You might have good job, and you’ll want a nice home. You get a nice home, and you’ll want children or a great home or a better job or a new car or a new spouse or even a plane. There is always something else to want.

Goals as Things
It’s been said you can tell what a society values by what it’s willing to pay for. On this basis, professional athletics (with their salaries and endorsements) are among the most valuable people on earth and our children (with their schools) are among our least. Variations on this common place theme will be found easily (and pointed out) in this election year. What is more interesting to explore is how this is a natural result of a goal(s) orientation.

The goal of professional sports is to make money. Winning tournaments or games are secondary goals useful for drawing larger crowds or media coverage and therefore more money. Since the games and scoring provide highly specific, easy to calculate, numerical measures, it is easy to determine individual athletes’ scoring contributions and for them to demand compensation accordingly. The individual athletes’ drug usage, sexual adventures, condescending attitude towards fans and the rest are considered outside of this goal unless they affect the athletes’ ability to play (can’t do that behind bars) or ticket sales.

Meanwhile, our children in their schools are engaged in the less goal-oriented activity of learning. Schools endeavor to make this activity more goal oriented with grade levels and standardized tests, but is there a big, direction-creating goal? To graduate? – To what? To create a better world? – For whom? To live a happy life? – No guarantee. It is unclear to us as a society what educated citizens are for and it shows. Because the results of caring for and educating our children are not available after 90 minutes, because a valedictorian, a school’s version of the Most Valuable Player, doesn’t fulfill any socially rewarded goal, they languish compared to professional sports.

Not surprisingly, the solutions currently offered to correct this imbalance all involve making schools more goal-oriented; arresting students for drug usage, creating special programs for attitude problems and giving standardized tests at every level to students and teachers. All these solutions miss the awareness that schools are only a place, a context, for facilitating the process of learning. Being a process instead of a goal, “it” isn’t appreciated nor valued by this society, as also aren’t parenting, community building, volunteer service, and a host of other relationship-oriented activities.

This is not to say that some people in the United States don’t do them with all their hearts, and comparing the salaries of a social worker with an executive secretary or the respect offered an actor playing a police officer compared to a real police officer or the perks of athletic scholarship students verses academic ones, the discrepancy become all the more vividly clear.

Life Beyond Goals
We all like to think we’ve chosen our lives, or that at least we have a life in our minds that we would choose if we had the money, freedom, skill, education, opportunity or whatever. We’ve been trained in this Age of Goals to keep this secret, or not so secret desire, in mind, to pay attention to it and nourish it with affirmations, visualizations and prioritizations. We direct our attention to it daily, measuring the success of our life by our dress size or salary or sexual frequency or whatever, while life, living, breathing, ephemeral life, goes on all around us.

It’s strange how many people don’t realize that their life experience is their life. With each passing moment, life passes. Each moment is all each of us have. Despite how often we reflect on our past or plan for the future, we only have each present moment. If you use those moments to concentrate your attention on some goal; that was your life, thinking about that goal. If you spend your time moaning about how things aren’t the way you want them to be, (“How dare the universe deviate from my plan.”) that was your life. If you participate in each moment; responding, delighting, and learning, then that was your life. George Leonard in his fine slim book Mastery points out that the achiever is focused on the goal, while the master is focused on the practice. To speak metaphorically, for the achiever, life is a destination, while for the master, a journey. You be the judge which passage will be more rewarding, appealing or worthwhile.

[The most interesting, unstated, presumptuous presupposition of the goal setting sellers and schools is that without their conscious intervention; in the form of books, tapes, calendars, crib sheets and infomercials, you’d forget to have your goals, as if you are without desires or dreams.

Clearly, without their reminders, you’d forget to have their goals; highly specific, numerical, and time defined ones. The ones that limit and reduce our potential. Read this carefully. I’m not saying this kind of goal setting doesn’t work.

Rather it works so well that we are blinded by our own brilliance and fail to notice its profound effects. Industrialization, with its highly specific, numerically measurable, time defined goals, has transformed the face of the earth (railroads, highways, electrical lines, telephone wires, etc.). It has also opened a hole in the earth’s ozone (our life-protecting bio-sphere shield) the size of a continent.

This does not mean we repudiate industry or technology. It does mean we see our current, highly specific personal or society goals as smaller parts of a larger system that needs to be accounted for. It means we enlarge our vision and think systemically, think in terms of process. That, or we drive right into a dead-end.]

We are back to W. Edward Deming. When we create conscious, highly specific, numerically measurable, time defined goals; salary increases, home improvement purchases, 5 year plans, relationship strategies, weight loss targets and the rest, we are breaking our lives into compartments like career, family, health and spiritually and obscuring our essentially systemic nature. It is not an academic point. In our society, pursuit of career often ruins family and health, while the pursuit of family often translates into a lack of career ambition or concern for health (beyond a certain point) is seen as unhealthy. We are encouraged to pursue specific goals that only represent a part of us and often a poorly informed part. Consider how many people you have known who really wanted something that you knew would not bring them what they thought it would, and it didn’t. You may have even tried to warn them. They may even be you.

The mystic poet Jalaludin Rumi wrote; “If you want to increase yourself, increase your necessity.” It is time we necessarily increased our vision and the scope of our goals to include our whole experience, to include “the process” in our thinking as well as our goals. A warning though: as Deming would point out, you can’t make process a goal. You improve process and let new goals, innovations and possibilities emerge. You might think of it as an exercise in creating a human character that would enjoy the journey and the reward, that would create greater goals worthy of human beings.

© 1994-2001 Charles Faulkner, Influential Communications, Inc.

* “If you mean the demon drink that poisons the mind, pollutes the body, desecrates family life, and inflames sinners, then I’m against it. But if you mean the elixir of Christmas cheer, the shield against winter chill, the taxable potion that puts needed funds into public coffers to comfort little crippled children, then I’m for it. This is my position and I will not compromise.” –A congressman on whiskey

** The medical term for such one-skill individuals is idiot-savant.

0 thoughts on “When Goals are Deadends”

  1. Brilliant writing, Charles — I’m glad to see you’re as Genius as ever!

    I couldn’t agree more, and makes me ever more desirous (in other words, I have a goal — horrors!) of writing my response to “The Power of Positive Thinking” (Norman Vincent Peale) to be called, “The Problem with Positive Thinking.” In particular, the automatically generated internal conflict that instantly arises when one thinks, “I am thin and slender” meaning “I sure hope I get to be thin and slender someday” when one in fact is not (yet) thin and slender, for example.

  2. Brilliant writing indeed and spot on!

    Opening my emails this morning and reading this, as I enjoyed my first cup of tea, made for a perfect start for the day. As I read it I could hear Charles’ voice and it took me right back to Winter Park.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Scroll to Top