The Case for Not Setting Goals
When I was 12, I plotted out my entire life on a ream of perforated printer paper. It was a long, skinny timeline of events and milestones: go to college, teach, publish a book. Maybe even get married and have children. I brought the ream of paper to my mother and pointed to each milestone — I needed a witness — then I rolled up my entire life and shoved it into a desk cubby.
I’ve always been a planner. It feels good to make a goal, work toward it, then check it off your list, even if your goal is simply to vacuum the entire house. But life’s richest moments are the ones you could never think to plan. In “What to Remember When Waking,” poet David Whyte puts it this way:
There is a small opening into the new day
which closes the moment you begin your plans.
What you can plan is too small for you to live.
The life we can plan is often no match for the way life unfolds on its own. It’s impossible to plan for meeting an interesting new friend at a party, running into a random bobcat during your morning hike, or taking a dream job you never knew existed. Goals feel good because they give our lives meaning and predictability. But I wonder if that predictability comes at a cost.
Goals create boundaries where so much could flourish without them.
A few years ago, I did meet a new, interesting friend at a party (okay, a conference), and she asked what I did for fun. “Hmm,” I wondered, scanning my brain for a hobby. “Honestly? I work a lot.” She didn’t say it out loud, but her slow nod and half-smile told me, “Well, that’s the lamest thing I’ve ever heard.”
For weeks, I couldn’t get her question out of my head. “When did I stop having fun?” I wondered. I had become so attached to my career goals that I had stopped paying attention to anything else. Sure, I had interests: photography, learning new languages, puzzles, watching movies, hiking. But I rarely made time for any of them because I was so focused on my goals.
Maybe you’ve felt the same way. The messaging around us certainly reinforces this idea: You have the same hours in the day as Beyoncé, for instance. Who has time for…