The Goals of Life or Should We Live a Life without Goals? Part 1

ImageOne of the common assumptions of modern life is that we all need to set goals.  It is said that our goals should be purposeful and measurable.  Furthermore, we are told that without such goals, we are doomed to live a life of meaninglessness.  Minus thoughtful goals, we will be like Alice in Wonderland where since Alice had no purpose or direction in Wonderland, it did not matter which direction she went.  Heaven forbid it!

But could modern wisdom be wrong?  Could common assumptions about the importance of goals be another of life’s many canards?  In my blog this week, I would like to explore the role of goals in our lives and look at whether or not they really are useful or are they simply another tyranny of a materialistic society that wants us to be running like rats on a treadmill.  Forever and forever scurrying through all eternity trying to achieve more and more and enjoying life less and less!  (By the way, I love exclamation points because they get rid of those annoying green lines that Word places in phrases that it does not like.)

Let us start our discussion by breaking goals down into two fundamental categories.  The first category concerns “goals for others.”  These are goals that we set either by malevolence or benevolence but they are destined to impact the lives of others.  Missionaries (depending on who you ask) may be thought of as having benevolent goals.  Dictators and tyrants (depending on who you ask) may be thought of as having malevolent goals.

The second category concerns “goals for ourselves.”  These are goals that we set to help us achieve either current or future objectives.  Thus, if I want to become set goalssuccessful, I may set a goal of going to college and obtaining a degree in law or politics or business.  This will be a future goal.  A more current goal would be to find some means to raise enough money to pay for my college education.  The element of time is somewhat flexible in determining whether it is a future goal or current goal and the distinction has created many an argument between people.  The indisputable element here is that we pursue these goals to benefit our own well-being. There is no altruism or charity in this category of goals.  Having said this, all distinctions are really like water. They are very fluid.  I am using these two basic categories to facilitate discussion and not with any hope of creating a uniform or indisputable and universally accepted definition.

Proceeding on with our discussion, we can identify under these two categories of goals, four specific goals that many would say are the four most important goals in the world.  I am not going to challenge this assumption.  For our discussion of goals, I will accept that these four goals are extraordinarily worthwhile objectives.  Furthermore, they are four in both of our major categories.  The four specific goals are:

  • Happiness
  • Health
  • Wealth
  • Wisdom

I am going to accept each of these goals at face value and forego any discussion of whether they are cause or effect.  I am also willing to accept that whether outcome or process they all are objectives that few of us would forego.  Thus, if a genie appeared to almost anyone on the face of the earth and said:  “Would you like to have eternal health, wealth, wisdom or happiness, there would be very few who would turn any one of these goals down.  We can put these goals into a table as follows.

Goals for Others Goals for Ourselves
Happiness Happiness
Health Health
Wealth Wealth
Wisdom Wisdom

Returning to the original question, “should we live a life with or without goals?” it is obvious that we must first answer a second question:  “Can any of these goals (In either category) ever be accomplished?”  If the most important goals we can set for life are impossible to achieve then it would seem wise to assume that “goal setting” is a waste of time.  Let us consider one by one each of these eight possible goals and see how many (or even if any of them) are really attainable.  What can we honestly expect to achieve for ourselves and others?

 Image

Happiness for Others:

My goal is to help make other people in the world, in my life or in my family happy.  What would you say to that goal?  If you are honest, you would probably say that it was a ridiculous goal and that no one can make anyone else happy.  No matter how hard we try, we cannot insure that the things we do will bring happiness to other people.  Happiness, you may wisely note is more of an inside job.  It depends more on our expectations and views of the world then what other people do for us.  Conclusion:  Don’t waste your time. 

Health for Others:

My goal is to help make other people in the world, in my life or in my family healthy.  This sounds like a goal that someone in a medical profession might pursue.  But how healthy can even a doctor make someone else?  Again, honesty would lead to the conclusion that nature and personal factors have more to do with health than even the best MD or medical practitioner.  Science has made major strides in helping populations become healthier but few are the medical people who could claim that they have made people healthy.  To make someone healthy would be almost an impossible task.  The best we can accomplish is to help prevent certain diseases and to help alleviate the effects of other diseases.  Conclusion:  We can help make people healthier but health is a state influenced by too many variables to be under the control of anyone but God.

Wealth for Others:

My goal is to help make other people in the world, in my life or in my family wealthy.  If I could make enough money, I could donate or leave it to my heirs or to some type of philanthropic foundation.  The skeptic in me would reject the idea that all of the donations in history have had much impact on world poverty.   I could be a teacher and teach other people how to make money or run a successful business. I could also be a consultant or business investment advisor and teach others how to wisely run their businesses or investments.  There is little doubt that we can help people have more money or even use their resources more wisely, but how many people have been made wealthy by the advice of others?  As a business instructor and management consultant for over 30 years, I can tell you that the answer is very few. When I look at the Forbes List of Richest People in the World, I see self-made billionaires, most of who were initially laughed at for their efforts.  I doubt Bill Gates, Sergei Brin, Jeff Bezos, Larry Ellison, Richard Branson or Warren Buffett depended very much on consultants or business teachers for advice.   Conclusion:  We can help people manage their money better but individuals make themselves wealthy. 

ImageWisdom for Others:

My goal is to help make other people in the world, in my life or in my family wise.  In order to see if this is possible, let us first look at Socrates.  Socrates was a teacher.  According to the Oracle at Delphi, Socrates was the wisest man in the world. Thus, we may ask the question:  Did Socrates teach other Athenians to be wise?  This is not a simple or easy question to answer.  Socrates did not accept that he was wise and went looking for a wise man but could not find one.  He never claimed to be teaching his students to be wise, but merely how to question assumptions and conventions.  Is a person who questions wise? How many wise people do you know?  Is wisdom a matter of age or does college teach you to be wise?  I would argue that school and teachers can give you knowledge but only life and your experiences drawn from life can give you wisdom.  Conclusion:  No one can make any other person wise.

If you accept the majority of my arguments so far, I think it would lead to the obvious conclusion that we cannot really make anyone else healthy, wealthy, wise or happy.  These are tasks that are far beyond our ability to have more than a minor impact on.  However, I am not yet ready to dismiss the power of goal setting.  Before I can do this we must turn to the second category of goals: goals for ourselves.  Do we have the ability to accomplish goals for ourselves?  If we can achieve even one of these objectives, then it would be ridiculous to say that goal setting is a waste of time.  In fact, given the seriousness of each of these goals, it would necessitate establishing goal setting as a serious repertoire in our lives.

In Part 2, which I will publish next week, we will look at each of these second category goals and see how much impact we can have on them.  If we really cannot make much of a difference for others, perhaps we can at least set goals that will make a difference in our lives.

Time for Questions:

Have you ever set goals for other people?  What goals have you set for others?  Have you been able to accomplish them?  What helped you or hindered you in this effort?  Do you think it was a valuable use of your time? Why or why not? What would you do different if you could do it over?

Life is just beginning.

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Greg Gorman
    Jun 09, 2014 @ 01:02:00

    These are not goals of attainment these are goals of journey. All one can hope for is to be working successfully toward your goal and finding yourself healthier today than you were yesterday and so on for each of the 4 goals mentioned.
    In addition managers make goals for their employees regularly and the object of this goal is for success of the manager and the company. It has little to do with the goals that you mentioned.

    Reply

  2. johnpersico
    Jun 09, 2014 @ 03:12:55

    Hi Greg, Interesting distinction you make between goals of attainment and goals of journey. I had not heard that before. Perhaps, we can find some validity in goals by (as you note) distinguishing between the two types. On the other hand, if my journey is to get to Arizona, would that not be a goal and is it not also attainable.
    Thus, I am wondering if a goal of attainment could not also be a goal of journey and vice verse. Now I am confused. 🙂 I realize some goals are useful and even attainable but it seems to me that the “goal advisers” do not make a distinction. What are the goals that are attainable and what are not attainable? So you must provide a clear distinction or it is not useful. If you can do this, you might be able to hang out your sign as a consultant. 🙂 I once wrote an article where I talked about valid goals and invalid goals. It actually got published and was one of the ASTD’s most popular articles. I should say I co-wrote it. However, the distinction that I used was based on statistical theory and not conceptual ideas. I think the conceptual model that you point out could be very useful IF we can make a clear definition. Ambiguity is a killer for theory as you know. Take Care. John

    Reply

  3. Joe
    Jun 10, 2014 @ 03:26:05

    Awesome topic. I was thinking about goals as i was job searching and kept getting asked about my goals. I dont really have any goals. Life changes so fast in such a short amount of time goals are pretty useless. Not only does what we want change, but also our perception of what we want changes. My goals would be more to just do what im doing for a few years then try to move up. Then do that for a few years then move up again. Maybe im just boring.

    Reply

    • johnpersico
      Jun 17, 2014 @ 19:36:32

      Thanks Joe, I am glad this provoked some ideas. I think too many people take advice for granted without really thinking about it. No one shoe fits all people.

      Reply

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