The Goals of Life or Should We Live a Life without Goals? Part 2

In part one of this blog we examined the question of whether it was possible to achieve goals that gave other people health, wealth, wisdom or happiness.  Our major conclusion was that this would be a futile effort.  Thus, we turn to the question of whether or not we can set goals to achieve any of these cardinal objectives for ourselves.  Prima Facie, you are probably wondering why anyone would even ask this question.  I think this a critical point to address before we proceed further. I want you to understand that I am not being frivolous here.  I am indeed serious in asking whether we can set goals for happiness, health, wealth or wisdom.   Image

Most of us accept as well established dogma, if not fact, that goal setting is essential to accomplishing our dreams and leading a successful life.  I assure you I am not setting up a straw dog.  I bring in Dr. W. E. Deming as my expert witness and mentor.  Dr. W. E. Deming believed that goal setting could be a waste of time and effort.  He was so adamant that one of his famous 14 Principles even addressed the subject, Principle Number 11:

“Eliminate numerical goals, numerical quotas and management by objectives. Substitute leadership.”

To understand Dr. Deming’s antipathy towards goal setting a few basic points must first be established.

  1. A system can only produce what it is producing unless changes in the system are undertaken.
  2. Arbitrary changes without consideration of the system as a whole will produce random results.
  3. “Pushing” a system to produce more than it is capable of will produce undesirable and unknown side effects.   For example:  asking workers to speed up production or to work longer hours.
  4. Improving a system will improve output and increase desirable outcomes.
  5. Continuous improvement comes from understanding of the process and the various factors that contribute to the process outcomes.

Dr. Deming believed that one of the worst evils in the business world was management arbitrarily setting goals for workers and employees.  We have already looked at the futility of such efforts.  We now turn to the issue of whether or not we can set similar goals for ourselves.  Keeping in mind the five points made above, will help us to more realistically look at the feasibility of setting goals in these areas.

Happiness for Ourselves:

My goal is to make myself happy. This sounds very simple but it may be the most difficult goal of all. How many people do you know who are depressed, alcoholic, suicidal, angry, bigoted, intolerant and worse even homicidal?  Rarely do we see anyone in the news who is happy.  If so, it is a very transient state of being.  Many people are happy today and sad tomorrow.  Happiness seems like a state of mind that can only be attained for a very short space of time.  “The happiest day of my life” can be remembered by most of us, but if we could be happy all of the time, why would any one day stand out?  That they do attests to the fact that truly happy days are very few and far between for most of us.  Happy days always seem to be in the past.  Perhaps that is because we really forget the miseries that often accompanied even the so called happiest days of our lives.

ImageBuddha said about happiness that we can have a false happiness which is a search for things to make us happy.  We can try to find happiness by obtaining more money, more friends or more possessions.  This kind of happiness is transient and our “happiness glow” soon fades.  Things can never make us happy.  True happiness is a state of mind.  It is a state of mind that accepts all things and that simply observes rather than reacts.  True happiness cannot come from changing others or even trying to change ourselves.   Buddha said, “Happiness is in the mind which is released from worldly bondage. The happiness of sensual lust and the happiness of heavenly bliss are not equal to a sixteenth part of the happiness of craving’s end.”

Conclusion:  We can achieve happiness but it is not the happiness of having things or getting medals or being successful.  True happiness is a state of mind.  Happiness starts when striving for results or accomplishments ends.  Thus, setting a goal to become happy might only lead to more unhappiness. The way to accomplish this objective is a paradox since to be happy we must let go of the goal of being happy.  Jesus said to live one day at a time. 

Health for Ourselves:

My goal is to make myself healthy.  We all want good health and we can certainly make ourselves unhealthy.  Can we do the opposite and make ourselves healthy?  I think we can strive to be as healthy as possible but we have to accept the fact that some “health” is beyond our control or at least beyond our current scientific knowledge to impact.   In terms of the five points given above, we do not fully understand the biological processes that create health in human beings.

A few weeks ago, a young woman in our town died of terminal cancer at the age of 32 leaving two young children.  She died only a few months after being diagnosed.  What did she do to make herself unhealthy?  Was it something she ate?  Did she not exercise enough?  I think you could spend your lifetime looking for an answer to these questions and you would never find an answer.  Do your best to stay healthy.  Exercise, eat right, don’t smoke, avoid stress and you might lead a long and healthy life.  On the other hand, you might die in six months from some disease that you never realized you had.

Conclusion:   We can have a major impact on our health by living properly but no one person or no single effort can guarantee us health.  It is a worthwhile goal if seen as a journey and not a fixed end state.  Some days you will be healthy and some days you will be sick. 

Wealth for Ourselves:

My goal is to make myself wealthy.  I have often pondered the value of this goal.  Since I have never achieved it, though I have often stated it as a goal, I am left with two questions.  First: Did I really value wealth enough to make it a priority in my life?  Second: Would my life have been better had I become wealthy?  My answer to the first question is a tentative no.  I have valued many things more than wealth.  I have always valued time more than wealth and I have always valued my own independence more than wealth.  I would rather be out running or swimming than reading the Wall Street Journal.  I have always had a difficult time taking orders and valuing loyalty to a company whose major motive is making profit is foreign to my nature.  Perhaps (which is why I said tentative) these are the reasons I have never achieved wealth or status.  On the other hand maybe I was just too lazy, stupid or undisciplined to become another Warren Buffett.  I thought I had the brains, but somehow the billions have never come.

ImageThe second question is perhaps more interesting.  “What if I had become rich?”  Would my life have been better?  Would I have been happier?   I have thought about this question more as I have aged and I honestly think that if I had become wealthy at a young age, my life would have self-destructed.  Like many young people who become wealthy and ruin their lives with drugs or fast living, I think it entirely likely I would have been unable to handle the influence or power that money would have brought.  I certainly do not think that becoming wealthy would have led to my happiness.  As I have become older, the goal of wealth has become less important.  I would not change my present lifestyle for all the money in the world.  I am content with my life, my friends and my spouse.  I am also content with growing older and coming to the end of my time.

Conclusion:  Beware of what you ask for, because you may get it.  Few of us are wise enough or strong enough to handle the “drug” of wealth. 

Wisdom for Ourselves:

My goal is to make myself wise.  We have already seen the difficulty of giving wisdom to others. Can we make ourselves wise?  Are there activities or knowledge that we can pursue which will ultimately confer upon us the mantle of “wise one?”  I think you could go to school for 100 years every day and you still would not be wise.  There is an old saying that “knowledge helps you to make a living but wisdom helps you to make a life.”  We go to school and receive knowledge, but the world is full of educated idiots.  We all know people who know how to make a living but haven’t the slightest clue as to how to make a life.

I am nearly 70 years of age now.  I am almost at that time of age when years ago, I would have been considered one of the tribal elders.  By dint of having lived seven decades, I would have been considered wise. Perhaps years ago, that is all it took.  The older you were, the wiser you were.  Today, I see little correlation between aging and sageing.  In fact, if you look at many of the great prophets, they achieved their status as leaders at what today would be a very young age.  Jesus was in his mid-thirties when he was killed.   Gandhi was fifty three when he became the leader of the non-violent movement in India and Martin Luther King was only thirty nine when he was assassinated.  History is full of examples of people who were deemed wise without the benefit of age or education.  Thus, we are back to the question, “how does one become wise?”  If I do not know the answer, I can hardly make myself wise.  Looking at the five points noted earlier, we must address the issue of “what kind of a system can or does produce wisdom?” Until we can answer that question, the goal of wisdom will remain elusive.

“Confucius once said that there were three ways to learn wisdom: “First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” Gaining wisdom, the most prized of virtues across almost all cultures, is an exercise in life learning, careful analysis, and thoughtful action.”

If someone as wise as Socrates was purported to be could deny the mantle of wisdom, perhaps this is one of those goals which is ineffable.  No one I know would claim to be wise and certainly no one I know would anoint me with the title of “Wise Olde Man.”  This is probably a good thing.  If I were known as the wisest man in Frederic, I can only imagine what this would do to my free time.  I can also imagine the effects this would have on my spouse and friends.  I am not generally regarded as being humble now and walking around bearing a cloak of wisdom would be deleterious for my ego in the long run

Conclusion:  I don’t really know the answer to becoming wise nor do I have a formula for how to become wise.  I must conclude that at the present time, I have achieved a great deal of knowledge but the magic of wisdom has still escaped me.  I have found that trying to become wise is an exercise in futility, like looking for the Holy Grail.  Perhaps we would all be better off working to become more humble than more wise. 

Time for Questions:

What goals have you set for your life? How successful have you been in accomplishing them?  What obstacles have you faced?  How have you overcome them?  If you could re-live your life, what changes would you make in the goals you set?  Why?

Life is just beginning.





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: