Another New Year is once again upon us and millions of people around the world are settingW big, ambitious goals and resolutions for themselves (including yours truly).
While I’ve long been a fan of goal setting, my ardor for it has cooled a bit. I still think they’re useful and I still set them, but through conversations with organizational/personal development experts, as well as various books I read last year, I’ve come to think that focusing too much on goals can actually get in the way of living a truly flourishing life.
So instead of being goal-focused this year, I’m trying to be more vision-focused. It’s an approach I’d recommend you take as well. So what’s the difference? Let’s dig in, and together get going on a year full of promise and progress.
The Difference Between Goals and Visions
Goals are specific and quantifiable. They have an endpoint. Once you’ve achieved a goal, you’re done with it. Goals tell us WHAT we need to do in order to get to a desired outcome.
We’ve all seen examples of what ideal (specific, measurable, attainable) goals look like:
- I will lose 10 pounds by February 29, 2016
- I will deadlift 500 pounds by March 31, 2016
- I will read 30 books by the end of the year
- I will save 20% of my income each month this year
- I will attend two conferences in my industry by November 31, 2016
- I will write 500 words each day
- I will volunteer two hours each month
A vision, on the other hand, is a broad, all-encompassing idea of HOW you want your life to look, feel, and be in the future. When you close your eyes and imagine your ideal life, that’s a vision. Unlike goals, it’s open-ended. There’s never a specific moment when you can say, “I achieved my vision.” It’s an ideal that you strive for and may get close to achieving, but because it’s an ideal, you’ll never entirely arrive at it.
Visions are often harder to put into words than goals because you have to describe a world that doesn’t yet exist. When you put your vision into words, the end result is a “vision statement.”
Vision statements can be short and pithy, or long and verbose.
When companies come up with vision statements, they usually go for the former. For example, Microsoft’s vision statement at one point was: “A computer on every desk and in every home; all running Microsoft software.”
John F. Kennedy laid out a longer vision for the space program in his speech at Rice University in 1962. He didn’t just announce a concrete goal (going to the moon), but painted a picture of a country that was deeply interested in the mysteries of the universe and dedicated to using technological progress to ascend to a brighter future.
When you come up with your own personal vision statement, it can be something as short as, “I will be physically strong and skillfully capable in all aspects of my life so that I am able to improve the lives of my family and everyone I encounter.” Or it can span several pages in which you describe in detail what your ideal life looks and feels like.
Whether short or long, what all vision statements have in common is they describe how an ideal life would be.
The Benefits of Focusing on Visions Over Goals
Having goals or a vision isn’t an either/or proposition — you should have both. But there are a few reasons why you should focus more on your vision than your individual goals:
Goals Lack Deeper Meaning; A Vision Provides Purpose and Significance
I love goals. Whenever I set goals for myself, I make measurable strides in my life. But something I’ve noticed is that when I become too goal focused, things in my life actually start to feel off. When I embed my goals within an overarching vision, however, I consistently start making more lasting and meaningful progress.
Goals are great for telling you WHAT to do, but they don’t provide a WHY. By themselves, goals don’t provide any meaning. If you’ve ever achieved a significant goal in your life, but felt surprisingly empty, this is the reason why.
Here’s an example from my own life: When I started law school, my goal was to be the top ranked student in my class the first semester. I became consumed by this goal. The summer before I even started law school, I was reading study guides on my first semester courses, going through self-directed programs on how to write answers to law exam questions, and even doing flash cards. When the semester began, I stuck to a strict study schedule that started at 7AM and often ended at 8PM. Weekends were often spent studying and working.
And all the hard work paid off — I got all A’s and one A- in my fall classes. At the beginning of the second semester we had to go to the front desk to find out what our class rank was. Because of that A- I knew there was a chance I wouldn’t be first. I was nervous as all get out when I was standing in line waiting my turn to see if I achieved my goal. My heart was pounding and my palms were sweating. When I got to the window, I told the secretary my name, and she wrote a number on a folded piece of paper and slid it across the counter. I took it to a little enclave so I could open it in privacy.
When I saw that nobody was around, I unfolded the slip of paper.
I had done it!
Yet the thing I remember most about that moment was how unexcited I actually felt. I had achieved this thing that I had worked countless hours for and I was completely underwhelmed. It was actually a big letdown.
When I look back at the experience, the reason I was surprisingly disappointed after I achieved this hard-sought goal was that it wasn’t attached to a deeper, more significant vision. If you were to ask 1L Brett why he was working so hard to be first in his class, he’d have said something somewhat vague like, “So I can get internships at the top firms in town and land a high-paying job after law school.” The reality was I had no clue WHY I wanted to be first. I didn’t even have a significant reason for why I was in law school. I had enrolled simply because it seemed like the next step in the ladder of my life. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be a lawyer.
Being first in my class, let alone being at law school at all, was thus disconnected from a broader, more meaningful vision for my life. Consequently, when I achieved the goal it felt utterly insignificant.
Again, goals are great at providing specific outcomes to aim for, but in and of themselves they can’t provide meaning. Goals can’t tell you WHY you’re doing something. They just tell you WHAT to do. If you’ve been achieving goal after goal in your life, but still feel empty, it’s likely because you’ve made goals the ends in and of themselves, and don’t have a more significant big picture of why you’re laboring at those means — you don’t have a vision for your life.
Why are you trying to lose weight? Just because you want to reduce your gut, or because you want to be able to roughhouse with your kids and be around for them for a long time? Why do you want to start your own business? Simply because your current boss is annoying you, or because you want to be independent and set your own career course? Why do you want to read more books? Is it only because you have a vague idea that they’re good for your brain, or because you want to learn as much as you possibly can before you die?
Once you connect your goals to an overarching vision, they become more satisfying both to achieve and to pursue.
Goals Can Cause Self-Defeating Single-Mindedness; A Vision Provides Room For Adaptability
When we become overly goal-focused, it can cause a single-mindedness that can get in the way of our long-term success and happiness. I call this tendency “goal-lock.”
When you set a goal for yourself, you’re setting it based on your current knowledge about your environment and yourself. But things change. Maybe you realize that becoming a doctor isn’t what you really want to do with your life, or perhaps an opportunity arises that didn’t exist when you initially set your goal. If you’re tethered by goal-lock, you’re unable to adapt to these changes and you end up staying on a path that may not lead to an overall flourishing life. Yes, determination is a virtue, but when you’re doggedly pursuing the wrong aim it becomes a vice.
In contrast, a vision allows for adaptability. A vision provides an overarching ideal and aim in life, but then allows for pivoting to different pathways that’ll still get you to the same place. For example, many people decide they want to become a doctor because they want to help and serve others. But there are other ways to help and serve others that don’t require becoming a MD. If you have a vision, rather than a goal, and you decide you don’t want to be a doctor after all, you will feel freer to pivot your life’s course — dropping your chemistry major, picking up history, and deciding you’d rather make a difference by becoming a teacher.
Another way to look at it is that a vision approach to life allows you to apply the OODA Loop to your personal development as a man. As you recall from our in-depth article about the Loop, at its core it’s a decision-making process that allows us to deftly deal with uncertainty. And what’s more uncertain than life itself? To thrive in our ever-changing world, we must constantly re-orient ourselves with new knowledge that we receive about ourselves and our environment. Becoming too goal-focused hardens our minds and prevents us from orienting to the new landscape before us. A vision-focused life, on the other hand, allows you to stay agile and nimble.
Goals Can Lead to Depression and Angst; A Vision Provides Long-Term Vitality
I think most understand why a goal-focused life can lead to depression and angst — if you don’t get something you really want and worked for, an expectation isn’t met and the disappointment can deeply sting.
But the insidious thing about a goal-focused life is that it can lead to depression and existential anxiety even when you do achieve your goals. When I talked to Dr. Jeff Spencer, a former Olympian and current coach to world-class athletes, about the psychological problems facing Olympians and other high performing competitors, he said that many experience anxiety after finally achieving a goal they’d spent their entire lives chasing. An athlete wins the gold medal, does the media tour for a few weeks when he gets home, and maybe signs an endorsement deal. But then things quiet down, and a depressing malaise sets in. The athlete wonders: “Now what do I do with myself?” Without a singular goal before him, he feels entirely unmoored.
As Dr. Spencer told me, for the goal-focused athlete, the seeds of his destruction are sewn in his success. Many simply stop training for their sport. They retire. Others who keep going do so with little heart. Personal problems start popping up; some turn to excessive partying and spending while others get involved in extra-marital affairs.
But a few high performing athletes who achieve their goals are able to continue working and performing with the same intensity and motivation that they had when they first began the sport. What’s more, they’re able to avoid many of the self-destructive behaviors that come with great success. When I asked Dr. Spencer how these athletes did it, he said they had a vision for their entire life.
For these athletes, winning the gold medal or becoming a MVP wasn’t the end in and of itself. These goals were simply ways for them to measure how they were progressing towards their overall vision — a vision that might include reaching their full potential, being involved as long as possible in the sport they love, fully mastering its skills and knowledge, using their athletic success as a platform to become influential in business, politics, or charity work, becoming a coach, and so on. Because they had a bigger vision of what they were trying to achieve, they were able to avoid the funks that come when you fall short of or even achieve your goals.
We would do well to learn from these resilient Olympians. Goals are useful, but when we become too focused on them, they can destroy us even when we succeed. A vision, on the other hand, provides an ideal to keep aiming for even when you’ve completed a goal. While goals can provide short-term direction, a vision is what will keep you going for the long haul.
Don’t Confuse the Tool for the Blueprint
Again, this isn’t a screed against goals. I love goals and think they’re extremely useful in creating a life we want for ourselves. I’m simply arguing that if we really want to live a flourishing life, we need to become vision-focused and put our goals into the context of that vision.
If we’re the craftsmen of our lives, think of goals as a tool (one of many at your disposal) and your life’s vision as the blueprint. It’d be silly for a craftsman to expect that by simply putting his chisel to wood, a beautiful masterpiece will appear. He needs a plan, a blueprint, a rough sketch of what he wants the thing to look like.
As it is with the craftsman, so it is with us.
Goals are fantastic tools for personal and professional development, but if we expect that simply setting goals will lead to a flourishing life, we’ll be greatly disappointed. We need to create a rich, compelling vision of where we want to go and who we want to be in order to provide vital context and meaning to our goals.
So here’s a challenge for 2016: Yes, make goals, but make them part of an all-encompassing vision for your life. How do you want your life to feel, look, and be at the beginning of 2017? Once you know that, create goals (or maybe even get rid of some) that will bring your reality closer in alignment with that ideal. I promise as you do so, you’ll find that your life will be filled with less angst, more meaning, and the deep satisfaction that comes with striving to “become who you are.”
Last updated: November 25, 2017