Recently my friend Will Spencer sent me this article by Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame). Part of the article is a cautionary tale against listening to advice from successful people re: their methods (for example “follow your passion”). The rest of the article focuses on why Adams prefers systems over goals. “Goals are for losers,” writes Adams, pointing out that the majority of time for a goal-oriented person is spent in a “not yet successful” mindset (having not yet achieved their chosen goal).
I agree with Adams that we should be skeptical of career/success advice and self-help books. For every millionaire who made money on real estate, there are probably at least a dozen who lost their shirt (and didn’t write a book). As for “following your passion,” I had already considered the arguments against (a major theme of Cal Newport’s excellent Study Hacks blog), and generally found them to be lacking. Adam writes that when he worked at a bank, he was advised to avoid loaning money to small business owners who were following their passion; those types of businesses almost always went bust. Good advice, probably, and Newport’s advice on Study Hacks is also mostly sound; I completely agree with his emphasis on deep focus, hard work, effective systems, and attempting to live a meaningful, interesting life.
But for some people (like myself) there is no real choice when it comes to following your passion. If I didn’t, I would literally die of boredom (or at least accelerate my demise; I quickly get despondent and depressed if I am not actively and intensively pursuing writing, music production, and other creative endeavors). I made the choice in my twenties to follow my passion (start a music label and spend most of my time making dance tracks); I would earn money via IT freelancing on an as-needed basis. For me it has worked out so far. Not only is my soul intact, but I have significant savings, passive income streams (music royalties), and plenty of freelance work. Maybe, as Adams suggests, I’m still passionate about making music because I’ve had some success in that area. Certainly it’s nice to have a “win” in your field (money, a good review, a track in the charts, praise from fans, whatever). But most of the time, I create because I feel compelled to create. So my advice to anyone who asks is still to follow your passion. Just expect hard work and be realistic about how you’re going to pay the bills (and yes, you should be skeptical about my advice as well).
So that covers the first part of the article. The second part; where Adams argues against goal setting, made me think. I had never considered goal-setting to be opposed to a systems-based approach, and considered both to be useful tools (or, more accurately, I considered goal-setting to be part of my system).
In my own recent experience, setting and working towards a challenging goal was a positive, empowering experience. I didn’t feel, as Adams writes, that I was in a state of “near-continuous failure” because I hadn’t yet reached my goal. Rather, I felt like I was steadily working towards an important milestone. And that felt great.
But still, reading the article by Adams made me doubt my approach. Did setting the goal lead to success, or was it the system of daily effort that really made the difference? According to Adams I’d be better off tossing out the goal and keeping the system.
Adding fuel to this fire of doubt was the fact that after achieving my most recent major goal (completing the first draft of a novel), I floundered for a couple months. I knew I needed some time away from the manuscript before jumping into revisions, but it didn’t feel appropriate to set another major goal that wasn’t related to the book (after all, all I had was a first draft … I hadn’t actually completed anything yet).
After letting the question simmer in the back of my mind for a few weeks, here’s where I am at the moment:
- in the long run, systems are more effective than goals (and habits, or actualized systems, are the most effective)
- goal-setting can still be useful tool, especially if you are trying to create a new pattern in your life, and change the direction of your inertia
- goal-setting is less helpful in life areas that require regular good habits and/or systems for ongoing success (for example physical health and fitness, unless you are training for a competition or something like that)
- it’s not necessary to have a main life goal all the time; it is important to know where you are going (life purpose, and a clear vision of what you want your life and/or the world to look like)
You could accuse me of over-thinking this process, and you might be right. But the “tweaks” I make to my life system have real and immediate effects (to my productivity and happiness, to the quality of work I produce, to my ability to help others and make the world a better place).
How has goal-setting helped you? When has it felt awkward and contrived? What are your most effective life systems?