The Hidden Dangers of Goal Setting

Setting goals is important because it helps you expect more from yourself, makes you strive to become better in your life, and it helps you make changes to routines.  Without goals and expectations, it would be hard to measure improvement or to accomplish new feats.  However, what if you realized setting goals was making you unhappy?  I wrote this post, “I’ll be happy when…” earlier in the year.  I’ll be expanding on that post right now, so check it out first!

 The bottom line is that I think too much focus on a goal makes us unhappy.  We’ll be happy when….[insert goal]. This is dangerous because it implies we are only happy for a fleeting moment when and if we achieve a goal.  After we achieve that goal, we have to set another one and achieve it before we can be happy when….[blah blah].

I’ve been thinking a lot over the last couple of years about goals and expectations.  If you have expectations that or too high or a goal that is too lofty, then you are disappointed with yourself. If your expectations aren’t high enough, you may possibly not achieve your full potential and could be cheating yourself. Where are the lines between mediocrity, good, and exceptional?   And what about expectations of others?  If you put unreasonable expectations on friends and family, you will be left disappointed.  Do you hold others to the same standard you hold yourself, or do simply accept them for who they are?  Treat others as you’d want to be treated, but don’t expect them to treat you the same way in return? All these questions are food for thought and a theme in any environment whether it be relationships, a job, or simply within yourself.  There is no global answer, but there is an answer for each individual.

Here’s what I discovered about myself:

I had decided that sometimes goals made me unhappy.  I have always had very high expectations of myself growing up and in school.  It has been great in that I have always pushed myself to the limit and achieved great things in my life whether it be academic, athletics, or a hobby.  In grad school, I learned that maybe I shouldn’t be as obsessed with my grades.  I graduated in the top of my class for Electrical Engineering for my undergraduate degree.  In grad school, I worked incredibly hard only to be just above average.  I was frustrated with my results despite my best efforts and I couldn’t figure out why.  After I started racing mountain bikes professionally, the theme struck me again.  Setting goals were making me unhappy.  If I didn’t get a certain race time or a certain placing or podium finish,  I would feel negative and upset.   It wasn’t until 3 years ago that I was able to change my mindset.  I stopped deciding  “I’ll be happy when” and said, “I am happy now.”  It is frequently in my mind (I forgot about that January post until I was done with this one) because I see goals making people unhappy all around me and occasionally, it still sneaks up and gets me!

When people ask me what my goal is for an event, they expect an answer like, “My goal is to win” or “podium finish.”  Of course, I strive to make that happen, but my focus started to change as I started doing harder and longer endurance races.  The racing was more about battling myself and less about battling other people on the race course.  Where I finished relative to other people was becoming less of priority.  Sure, I love to win a race but there have been times I won a race and I did not feel satisfied.  I would say, “Yeah, I won, but I didn’t deserve to win because that wasn’t my best performance.”  It was then that I realized that doing my best was more important than achieving a specific metric.

Everyone likes to do well when you are being timed, graded, or compared to other people, but deriving all your happiness and self-worth from how much better you are than someone else on a given day is dangerous. It creates an environment where people aren’t as nice to one another because there is always some form of underlying resentment because someone thinks they are better than another because of a simple measurement that doesn’t really matter.

I was beginning to wonder if I was getting less competitive.  My race results are usually top 3 at an event, but I wasn’t sure if I cared.  I liked being rewarded for my achievement and showing that hard work pays off, but when I was head to head with someone in a race, I didn’t really care if I beat them or not. I’m notorious for crossing the line with someone when I was racing with them instead of sprinting them because I would feel weird about it. I did a race yesterday where my friend Stacey and I would go back and forth.  I didn’t feel angry or motivated by it, I would just go my own pace. I was happy that she was riding strong.

I asked myself if I cared if my place was 2nd or it was 3rd and the answer was that I cared, but not by a lot.  I asked myself if I was starting to lose my competitive edge. The answer is that I don’t think I’ve lost my competitive edge, but that I’m competitive with different motives in mind.

Where is all this rambling going? I could go on for pages and pages about the internal philosophy of what a goal means to me, and it’s even more complicated when it involves other people.  What I’m getting at in a very long-winded manner is that setting goals is important to for structure and thinking outside the box, but what if it wasn’t your main focus?

A goal simply helps you commit to a process to become better.  Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous quote: “Life is a journey, not a destination” says it best. The journey and system in place for reaching toward a goal is more important than the actual goal itself.

In my next post, I’ll go outline why I think goals can be dangerous and how to focus more on your process.

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