“…for the most part.”
Leo Babauta, founder of the popular blog ZenHabits, and I were talking just outside the Portland Art museum where the World Domination Summit was being held when he asked me a favor that he probably has long forgotten by now.
See, Babauta spoke at the conference about 3 main topics: Change Habits – Simplify – Live Without Goals. For the most part, we have all heard and, possibly, implemented the first two. For myself, doing those two actions has drastically changed the course I am on in my life in a positive way as many of you may have read over at The Minimalist Path when I ran that site.
However, that last topic of Living Without Goals is something I have disagreed with Leo for some time. In December 2010, Leo and I went back and forth in the comments section at The Art of Minimalism in an article posted by Mike Donghia titled The Unproductivity Manifesto (comments have since been turned off so we can’t see the conversation) which was followed by Leo with his article Achieving Without Goals (A Must Read!). By the way, I am “the minimalist blogging friend”.
This was extremely tough for me to grasp. I have led my life focused on goals and have been able to achieve much by doing so. In fact, my latest project Destination X is all about achieving a goal thus there is a concentration of focus on a goal. So, when Leo brought this topic up at WDS, I was again having inner struggles as I admire Leo for what he has accomplished, but I am unable to agree with him on such a hard and fast approach he has taken in his life.
By no means do I think Leo is wrong despite the title of this piece. My opinion is that goals are a significant part of life that I feel should be implemented. Do I crave for the mindset of living without goals? Absolutely. I just don’t think it is as much a reality as Leo.
What This Article Will Do For You
I am not hear to discredit Babauta. He is an amazing individual that I aspire to be like in many ways. Not emulate, but follow along a similar path. What this article is meant to do is open your mind to the possibility that having one hundred goals may not be for you, having no goals may not be for you, but having one specific goal to focus all your energy and intentions on may be for you.
In the following, you will find 5 reasons I feel Babauta is wrong about goals. In reality, I am not saying my approach is “more right” than Leo’s. I just know what has worked for me. As it would only be fair, I have asked Leo to add his rebuttal to my thoughts below each reason.
I am not here to tell you I am right or wrong about goals. I want to give you the most comprehensive approach to the notion of goals so that you walk away from this article and start achieving more whether that’s with or without goals.
DISCLAIMER: Leo Babauta is a brilliant individual. Yet, we should all accept that from time to time we may disagree even with those we admire the most. By no means are the following opinions correct. They are just a differing set of opinions to Babauta. As with anything you ever consume, take my opinion and apply where you deem necessary.
1. A goal can teach you how to handle your emotions. At WDS, Leo said that he never has the emotional peaks and valleys that come with setting goals. The first argument against this is that being emotional is not inherently bad. Some of my most connected moments with my inner self have come from being extremely dissatisfied with a result. Feeling dissatisfied with a result has powered me on to achieve MORE. Whereas, I have given up on actions far sooner when I do not tie in the emotional valley that came with original lack of success. The second argument against discounting emotional swings and goals is that I have learned to handle other situations, non-goal related, based on the practice of handling emotions in concurrence with goals. Emotions, happy or sad, are a part of who we are. I feel that a part of the power of emotions would be lost if goals were not included in my life.
Leo’s Response: To clarify, I wasn’t saying that emotional peaks and valleys are bad. I was talking about the emotional rollercoaster of failing at goals, when really it’s unnecessary — if you fail at a goal, it really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. What matters most is the doing, and the learning, not whether or not you hit a certain preconceived target. I would agree that learning to deal with emotions is a good thing, but I would argue that you don’t need goals to learn that — we will have emotions even without goals, and learn to deal with those regardless.
2. Focus on a goal can deliver measurable results. Let’s say your basketball coach wants you to be capable of making 75% of shots taken. Your goal is to make at least 75% of your shots because you want to make the team. Sure, you could go out and take basketball shots until your arms fall off, but even then you won’t know how accurate you are if you weren’t setting a goal and measuring said action. If you set a goal of making 75% of all shots unguarded, go out and practice shooting for 2 hours and end up shooting 80% by the end of such training, you wouldn’t need to continue to practice shooting that day as you met your goal. Whereas, if you set no goal shooting percentage, you could be shooting for hours on end and not know if you are meeting the necessary requirement or not. In this case, there is a primary goal of making the basketball team and a secondary goal tied to the primary goal of making 75% of shots taken. Yes, this focus’ more on the data collected from the action, but if the desired goal is not set prior to the action, then you may not be affording yourself the best use of time. In other words, if no measurable statistic was set to make the team, there would be no way of knowing if you are meeting the criteria to achieve said primary goal.
Leo: There are a lot of assumptions to question here. Why is making the team such an important goal in the first place? Why can’t you just enjoy the game of basketball with friends or neighbors? Is one better than the other? Why conform to the arbitrary goal set by the coach? Is making the team that important? Why is tracking your shot percentage and trying to reach an arbitrary number (that’s really a meaningless number, after all) such an important use of your time and energy? Why is tracking your activity and reaching this number a better use of your time than, say, enjoying the game of basketball, or living in the moment while playing?
3. The journey is more appreciated when you set your sights on “Destination X”. In 2008, my number 1 goal was to make it possible for myself to move to Australia. I achieved that goal and left for Australia in early 2009. On the flight over to Sydney, I thought back on all the struggles, sacrifices, and effort I put into the goal and had a new-found appreciation for my own power, my own control, and my own determination. Yes, I could have woken up every day in 2008 thinking about doing whatever I wanted that day. It was a lot more fun and exciting establishing the goal, knowing what I was working towards every day, and finally reaching my “Destination X”.
Leo: I’ve done goals for many years, and I’ve lived (mostly) without them for almost two years. I can say, through my experiments, that living without goals helps you appreciate the journey more, not less. You used the example of moving to Australia … how do you know that this wouldn’t have been achievable or more enjoyable if you hadn’t set goal? The only way to know is to try it, and I have … my experience is that goals make you focus less on the journey and more on the destination.
4. There’s faith that you will achieve a goal by just being and then there’s faith in focused action that you will achieve a goal. Babauta stated that he wakes up every morning and sets no goal for the day. He has faith that he will achieve as much if not more every day by not establishing a goal. I do believe he is right that we don’t just wake up and be slobs just because we don’t have a goal. However, I believe that we can achieve far greater things by establishing a plan of action towards a desired goal. Does this mean I don’t have days where I wake up and change all of my plans in regards to a goal? Absolutely not. By establishing a goal and plan of attack, I am able to come back to such approach following my reprieve from said goal. What this difference comes down to is just a differing outlook on whether more is achieved by doing whatever you feel like that day compared to having a plan of attack entering the day.
Leo: You say you “believe we can achieve far greater things by establishing a plan of action towards a desired goal” … but where is your evidence for that belief? You’ve achieved a lot with goals, and so have I … but I’ve achieved more without goals. It’s concrete evidence for my belief, but most people haven’t gathered the evidence for their belief in goals because they’ve never tried living for very long without them. I don’t just do whatever I feel like each day … I do what I’m most passionate about, and what’s in line with my values … which is a big difference. I end up working passionately, with focus and energy and motivation, rather than trying to get through a preconceived plan of action (that doesn’t take into account the changing situation) to get to an arbitrary goal that really is a meaningless number or predetermined destination. Why is that number or destination better than where I end up when I do what I’m passionate about?
5. A community is far likelier to back a goal than a way of life. Here I go, spouting a non-measurable statistic. I know, I know. This premise is simply built on my previous experience. When I told people I was saving for Australia, they opted to influence my choices and circumstances that assisted in my goal completion. Prior to 2008, when I would state, “I want to move to Australia,” those around me said, “That’s cool,” and would follow my highly influencing unproductive decision making. If I were in Leo’s footsteps, I think people would love my way of life, but rarely help me continue such way of life as they have no foundation for what ways they may impede or promote such way of life. Will there be people who appreciate such lack of goal focus as a way of life? Sure. However, I can not see them furthering my way of life unless i provide concrete examples (goals) that they can assist me with.
Leo: It’s amazing how much people have furthered my way of life without my having to have goals. People contribute to my life all the time, and I’m deeply grateful for that. But honestly, I don’t feel it’s important to have goals just to get people to help you with those goals — it’s been far better for me to try to help others in their lives, and forget about my goals — and in return, I get much more from others. At least, that’s been my experience. I don’t ask you to take my word for it — I suggest anyone who’d like to find the truth should actually try both methods and see what works for them.
I cannot state enough that these are just my takeaways and opinions from this intellectual debate I have had with Leo. Just because we disagree on approach, does not mean we disrespect or dislike the other for differing minds. Through debates like these, we further our lives towards that which we so desire. If we choose not to debate, disagree, agree, discuss, we choose not to fulfill the dreams we so have.
At the beginning of this article, I stated a quote from Leo at the ZenHabits Meetup which followed his speech. “…for the most part.” This was Leo’s response to my question as to whether actions/choices like quitting smoking or losing weight were a goal. I came away thinking that Leo may not be as strongly against goals as much as he is just trying to bring about a differing perspective to goals. Whether I am right or wrong should not matter. What should matter is that the conventional approach to anything, including goals, may not be the proper approach. Question all and test everything for you may not truly know what approach is right for you.