why goals can be overrated




I wonder if sometimes we get so hung up on a goal that we disconnect from the dream.

Human beings are remarkably lousy when it comes to predicting the things that will make us happy. Which is ironic, given how many of us state that our main goal in life is to Be Happy. But when happiness is your goal, it becomes just like any other goal. You’re busy chasing it down — it belongs in the future. What about now? Has your ‘real life’ started yet?


There’s happiness, and there’s hedonism. Hedonism is awesome in its own right – if anyone tells you different, they’re lying – although, as with any force of nature, you must treat it with respect or pay a heavy price.

It’s a high and a buzz and a thrill, and arrives in fabulous outfits, but it is not deep joy.

Joy is harder.

It’s in our nature to pursue meaning, to find and make meaning, and deep joy is an indirect benefit of that. Which means it’s often bittersweet. It comes shaded with loss and pain.

Meaning seems to come out of struggle. Something happens to us, our life takes a zig when we planned for it to zag, and we’re forced to figure out what to make of it all. We have to decide how to tell the story, even as it’s still unfolding. How you explain your past shapes the present and creates the future. The beginning of any story contains the seeds of that story’s end.

The phoenix will rise from the ashes, but first it has to burn (that part sucks) and be in the ashes (that part also sucks). But even in the ashes, it knows that it’s a phoenix.

If it tells itself that it’s a sparrow, the story turns out differently.


The danger of a goal is that we get so focused on the end result, the destination, that we ignore what the journey is trying to tell us. So we get the goal, only to discover that it’s meaningless – and we’re not happy. Or we get so afraid we won’t achieve it — so paralyzed by fear, disappointment and potential humiliation — that we stop. We get stuck. We give up on the wrong things. We go after things we don’t care about. We get comfortable and complacent and find ways to justify our choices – and we’re not happy.

What if you made the journey a goal in itself? Or what if you knew that wherever you are, is exactly where you’re supposed to be, in order to go after whatever it is you think you want? Or what if the journey is trying to tell you that what you really want – is something else? Maybe it would free you up to relax, to play, to pay more attention to the moment, to take more enjoyment in the process and less investment in the outcome (which actually makes the desired outcome more likely. Go figure.)

The journey is real life.

The destination is a pausing place.


The meaning of any story develops through conflict. There is a beginning, a middle, an end. A set-up, a complication, a resolution. A separation, an initiation, a return. The hero is called to action, but can’t achieve what she wants to achieve until obstacles, problems, confrontations and bad guys force her to change in some way, to restore a missing quality to her character. That’s the adventure.

It’s this same lost-and-found quality that makes her success inevitable, even if it doesn’t arrive in the form she expected. You go after one thing, but win something else.

It’s the lesson, the shift in paradigm, the transformation. It gives your experience
meaning and makes it sacred. It makes your life a story worth telling in the first place.

And then you rise.

Jun 12, 2012

12 comments · Add Yours

I don’t think that goals in themselves are the problem. As you point out in your post, it is how we use them that has become the problem.

Goals that come out of our vision of our ideal life, can create a journey that feels fulfilling, fun and inspiring while we are in each moment. Otherwise our vision just becomes a distant wish.

I think one of the things that would help, is if people took the time to ask themselves “how will achieving this goal make me feel?” And “how will the journey towards this goal make me feel?”

If we get clear on that, it is easy to identify if a goal should be dumped or if it is worth including it in our present moment.

I think once we reconnect goals back to feelings, as our navigation tool, instead of just being mechanical actions striving for something in the future, we can enjoy feeling fulfilled and happy in the present moment and at the same time be creating an even better future.


lol I’m a type “b” person living in a type “a” world. there is so much info online about setting goals, reaching your goals, being more productive, finishing that to do list… it all gives me ulcers.

i started writing and drawing because they were fun. i never wanted them to become a job. thank you for putting it all in perspective.


Maybe this is just semantics, but I think the big thing is purpose. When you know what your purpose is, it creates this rich lively context that energizes your present and gives you direction and destination, the feeling that you’re living your life *now* instead of putting it off as you slog toward the future. At the same time, you don’t get so fixated on a specific list of steps on how to get to that future that you fail to see new, better opportunities arising.


Great post Justine … I agree, in this ‘agenda’ driven world, it’s easy to plan and programme ourselves out of life, rather than in to life, leaving little space for life + soul to seep in or for letting the dream dream us for that matter. Seems one approach is from outside in, the other from inside out.


I needed this today. Brilliant reminder. Thank you.


Once again, great post. I love it when the phoenix rises from the ashes. That is always my favorite part. It makes it all worthwhile. All that struggle, all that pain. I love how you added ‘If it tells itself that it’s a sparrow, the story turns out differently.” Yes, I have never heard about a sparrow rising from the ashes. And it is easier to feel like a tiny sparrow when one is in the ashes.

I have Ani DiFranco’s lyrics in my head now for the song “32 Flavors” :

“and god help you if you are a phoenix
and you dare to rise up from the ash”
a thousand eyes will smolder with jealousy
while you are just flying past”


I talk about goals often, I even ‘set’ them, but truthfully, I’m atrocious at following through with goals. When I say goals, I mean the kind you announce publicly or write down on a to-do list. Sure I have certain outcomes I want to acheive in some time frame, but as soon as I put them on my to-do list and write ‘goals for the day’ or for the week/year/etc, it loses its awesomeness.

But you’re right, @Justine, in a way it //is// just semantics..because what I call a goal might not another person’s idea of a goal, and vice versa.

Haha @Erin, I love LOVE that song 32 Flavors by Ani DiFranco. It totally rocks my world.


I have Maya Angelou’s poem echoing in my head: “But still, like air, I’ll rise.”


Great post! When all the smoke clears, I think there’s a high correlation between goals & objectives whose rewards are in part a function of what we are able to give back as part of the journey. Is not achievement…unaccompanied by contribution…empty?


Great post. Performance or process oriented goals are sometimes much better than results oriented ones. Because they help us focused and motivated, and as a result we would often enjoy life more.


Justine, beautiful as always. You are completely singing my tune. After nearly one year on the road researching my desires, discovering happiness = pleasure + meaning, and having a fine time with hedonism — I made my only goal to surrender to the journey. And in doing so, I’ have found life’s most miraculous gifts — pots of gold under rainbows, new friends far ‘n wide, and happiness in unexpected places. Thanks for summing up what I now know deep in my bones to be true. xo


Amazing-this hit me to the core. I am going through a journey and tend to obsess over my goal. Thank you for the reminder.


Add your comment