Letting Go of Goals: Freedom From Flawed Assumptions

In a previous post I invite you to consider giving up on goals. It is possible to be successful and happy without setting goals. And, letting go of all the baggage that surrounds goal-setting can lighten your load. 

One source of that baggage is some sloppy thinking that plagues the self-help genre.

Linking happiness to wants

The main problem is banking our happiness on the answer to a single question: What do you want?

The definition of happiness as getting what we want dates back to the early twentieth century. It was a meme of the New Thought movement and the basis of many early best-sellers in the success genre: James Allen’s As a Man Thinketh. Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich.

This lineage continues to the present — Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret. The works of Deepak Chopra, Tony Robbins, Wayne Dyer, and many more.

Much of this literature boils down to one assertion: Happiness means getting what you want by setting goals and taking action to achieve them.

If you buy in to the “law of attraction,” you get by with a lot less: Just visualize what you want and watch it “manifest” effortlessly in your life.

Getting what you want in life is not so easy, however. Nor is it a direct path to happiness. The goal setters and law-of-attractors simply assume that:

  • You know what you want.
  • You can get what you want.
  • Getting what you want will make you happy.
  • What do I want? is the first and most important question to ask.

Poke at these assumptions, however, and each of them crumbles.

Assumption: You can know what you want

But who, exactly, is doing the wanting? Who are you?

This is the question the Buddha started with. He didn’t ask what he wanted. He asked who he was.

After years of meditation, he concluded that all of our inner experience — thoughts, feelings, urges to act — are in constant flux. We have no permanent identity. To say that we have or are a self is ultimately untrue. Our true nature is anatta, which literally means “unselfed.”

Moreover, human beings are desire machines. Desires fuel our goals, and the mind manufactures desires endlessly. They shift from moment to moment, contradicting and warring with each other.

Philosopher Jacob Needleman reminds us of an image for this reality:

In religious literature the desires — physical as well as emotional and mental, the wishes, hopes, fears and so forth — are often symbolized by animals. It is as though within man there were a thousand animals, each seeking its own food and comfort. Some of these animals are, moreover, the very food that the other animals seek…. By identifying himself with these animals, man forfeits the possibility of inner unity and wholeness, a possibility which represents another level of existence for him.

What we gain by focusing on what we want is not happiness. It’s a direct glimpse of our inner chaos.

Soren Kierkegaard wrote that “purity of heart is to will one thing.” Someone at this level of development can truly want. But most of us are still feeding our animals.

Assumption: You can get what you want

Walking around constantly expecting life to give us everything we want is not only comically entitled and ridiculous, but would make existence a hell of perpetual frustration — ERIC BARKER

Getting what I want usually translates into I’ve got everything in place: I have the job I want, the lover I want, the friends I want, the home, the car, and all the rest.

This approach to happiness is fundamentally about control. And yet there’s so much that we don’t control: Friends and family members die. Jobs end. Lovers leave. Health fails. Money disappears. 

Seeking to get what we want can send us on a fool’s errand — trying to impose permanence on impermanent events.

Here we benefit from the Buddhist practice of reciting the Five Remembrances, which reminds us of the only thing we can hope to control — our own behavior:

  • I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
  • I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
  • I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
  • All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
  • My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

Assumption: Getting what you want will make you happy

Human happiness is a hot topic among researchers. And, the research does not support clear links between happiness and getting what you want.

Dan Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist, wrote a book about this: Stumbling on Happiness. It is a joy to read — folksy and rigorous at the same time.

In this TED talk, Gilbert presents the gist of his findings:

  • We tend to assume that happiness means getting what we want.
  • However, we are notoriously poor predictors of what will actually make us happy in the future.
  • We don’t find happiness; we create it based on enjoying our existing conditions in life.
  • We can often create happiness even when we don’t get what we want.

His bottom line:

The lesson I want to leave you with from these data is that our longings and our worries are both to some degree overblown, because we have within us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity we are constantly chasing when we choose experience.

Assumption: What do I want? is the first and most important question to ask

Actually, there are many other options. For example:

  • Who am I?
  • Who do I love, and what do I care about?
  • What am I committed to creating? (courtesy of TK Coleman)
  • How will I contribute? 
  • How can I help? 
  • How can I make a difference? 
  • How will I serve?
  • Given that I will die, how shall I live?
  • Given the scope of human suffering, how will I respond?
  • What is the world asking of me? 
  • What’s missing from the world that’s valuable and that I can provide?
  • What have I received from others? What have I given to others? What difficulties have I caused others? (core questions in Naikan reflection)

Those questions nudge us toward self-transcendence — something bigger than becoming a rich rock star or using the law of attraction to manifest a new Porsche in the driveway.

Focusing on getting what we want is simply one option for a life purpose — and perhaps a superficial and ultimately uninteresting one at that. 

As Huston Smith noted in his book The World’s Religions, “The self is too small an object for perpetual enthusiasm.”

Assumption: Getting what I want will benefit others

At times, I wonder if the authors of success literature have read beyond their genre.

Do they know Macbeth?

Have they read The Great Gatsby?

Do they understand the concept of tragedy — that sometimes our goals can corrupt us? That getting what we want might hurt other people and even destroy us?

Consider the ethical scandal that resulted when Wells Fargo imposed unrealistic quotas on employees, demanding that they sell high numbers of new accounts to customers. Employees responded by opening up thousands of fake accounts in customers’ names.

Those quotas were goals.

Reading the success literature, we get the impression that human beings live in a moral vacuum — that actions have no consequences.

Self-help writers too often ignore what Stephen Covey calls “the law of the farm”: You sow what you reap. Or: Whatever you do to others, you do to yourself.

Yes, those are clichés. And they are priceless.

It’s not enough to ask what we want. Let’s also ask if it aligns with the greater good, the Tao, and the Dharma.

Spiritual teachers are wise to remind us of moral standards: in Christianity — love, charity, and service. In Buddhism — compassion and the bodhisattva ideal. In Hinduism — ananda and karma yoga.

All of these teachings lift our eyes to the horizon beyond satisfying our isolated individual desires — beyond setting goals.