Goals are inexorable—we all have intentions and desires of wanting to get from A to B. Intentions and desires are distinct from goals but they form the basis of them. Even a minimalist ascetic who seeks to strip their life of all desires cannot do so completely, they carry daily intentions to meet their basic needs not to mention their own long-term plans. Brushing ones teeth for dental hygiene and consuming food to satiate hunger are types of goals however habitual and ubiquitous they are. Whether concrete or not, everybody has goals.

Since goals are unavoidable, it’s better to externalise them overtly than to hold them as mere thoughts in your head. The latter will likely lead to in limbo, wishy-washy goals since at some stage, other thoughts and requirements of the vicissitudes of life pull our attention away from our goals at any given time. Those who have externalised their goals explicitly can return to them as required. Externalising your goals creates direction and accountability.

Why are in limbo goals bad?

Goals which are wishy-washy in nature and mere thoughts with no development are less likely to have a concerted effort towards maintaining the course in the direction of reaching ‘B’. This results in a weaker signal between ‘A’ (the intention) and ‘B’ (manifesting the goal in reality). This is the case no matter how easy or trivial a goal appears to be. With a weaker signal in the manifestation process, a law of averages would state that over time, a person is less likely to make their goals a reality despite the fact that the act of having goals is unavoidable. This means we might as well default to a position of improving the way we can manifest goals into reality for our utility as human beings.

Overtly externalising goals strengthens the signal between intention and manifestation building personal momentum in self utility. This is particularly important if your goals are directed towards helping and providing value for others. Failure to manifest such goals can make others lose conviction in your utility as a person.

Due to the inexorability of goals, it’s important not to be scalded by previous or potential failures simply because a goal is challenging. The bigger and more dangerous failure is attempting to cocoon yourself and attempt to never set goals at all (which is impossible) resulting in the failure of never trying in the first place. Errors of omission are often more grave and damning than errors of commission. If the goal is meaningful and important enough, you can relish the challenges of the process and experience a contentment, drive and focus from placing your energy into a motivated purpose.

The paradox between goals and happiness

If you reflect on your life, chances are you’ll recall at least one instance where you achieved a goal that you spent ages struggling for yet the ‘high’ you experienced once reaching it was short lived. Striving for the goal was long, difficult and even painful yet the high was short and anticlimactic. How can this be the case?

This contrast is the paradox between goals and happiness. Modern life tells us to be obsessed with achieving our goals; it preaches that the path to happiness is a goal-directed life of accomplishments.

Not wanting to be ostracised from our culture or knowing any different, we join the hamster wheels and rat races with the belief that happiness lies on the other side of goal doors. We buy into the social contract that we’ll remain unhappy until we achieve our desires.

But we aren’t rodents—it doesn’t matter how many goal doors we go through, the short-term highs will never prop up an enduring state of wellbeing. Few would call a volatile state of highs and lows contingent upon externalities real happiness.

Yet as we’ve seen, goals are unavoidable. Does this mean that life is one, big journey fraught with an unsolvable paradox?

Goals Doors

Dealing with the paradox between goals and happiness

We grow from our challenges and it’s important to know how to struggle well. But a life trapped in a loop of needing to have goals yet lacking enduring fulfillment from them even when reached seems dystopian.

There are ways of reconciling this paradox.

First, don’t set goals where the targets are quantified benchmarks that are the result of collective sway rather than being goals where the result is in your control.

For example, a goal to become a millionaire is really a goal of other people who believe that being a millionaire leads to purportedly being labelled a success. Reasoning more deeply about this view, a ‘million’ is merely a number—the milestone is not one of objective success. People can be wealthy at much lower sums not to mention wealth is relative in the first place (for example most adults in Japan are millionaires in yen).

The target figure of a million is an abstract benchmark based on rarity of possession of such sums of money among the general population. It’s the type of figure that can also be out of one’s control in achieving within a given deadline, an important aspect of transforming a dream into a goal. Therefore, it can result in a misdirected attitude about what’s truly meaningful and fulfilling in the process of setting intentions that one wants to manifest.

As leading positive psychology teacher and author Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar states on the research into happiness, it’s the act of pursuing the goal that’s the most important aspect, not reaching the goal itself. Often when goals are met, particularly quantified, ego-driven goals based on a collective’s opinion, one enters the realm of the Myth of Sisyphus where the short-term high of reaching the goal fades (and may have been an underwhelming high due to attainment of the goal not meeting one’s expectations) and immediately climbs up a new mountain which is steeper due to the need to achieve more of what has been obtained.

Instead, focus on goals which are pure in nature and self-motivated. Don’t focus on abstract quantitative targets that society dreams up.

Quantifiable goals can be ok provided they are not 100% contingent upon other people to achieve nor due to collective sway rather than intrinsic motivation. This explains the flaws in setting goals for specific sums of money purely for self-wealth purposes or ‘needing’ to have a certain number of notches on your bedpost. However, a goal such as doing a 100 crunches a day is entirely within one’s own locus of control so is a valuable goal if intrinsically driven.

Goals and state changes

Certain goals can be set for the wrong reasons by people who believe that reaching those goals will generate some form of state change which supposedly enhances their lives.

Some examples of state changes would be a change in social status or happiness and wellbeing. State changes are in fact extremely difficult if not impossible to measure accurately since they’re usually intangible. They’re also often relative to other states themselves. This in turn makes reliance on state changes more ephemeral and hard to pin down.

It’s the intangible nature of state changes that makes them difficult to obtain directly. So people pursue numerous ‘markers’ associated with state changes with the hope that they’ll lead to improvements but the reality is these markers are at best ostensible rather than being directly correlated with the state improvement.

Furthermore, the state of happiness and wellbeing is of course influenced by many other factors, some of which can be other state changes themselves. For example, if one’s relationships are rocky, this is very likely to have an even stronger impact on day-to-day wellbeing than any form of money above the poverty line. It’s not hard to imagine (and find real life examples) of millionaires and billionaires who fit this category and who feel unhappier than most people due to other stressors or negative factors in their lives separate from financial ones.

To riff off of the example around the topic of finances earlier, there’s a widespread belief that obtaining specific sums of money (the marker) will lead to a proportionate gain in subjective wellbeing and happiness (state change). Much empirical data in recent decades refutes this idea, many studies find a diminishing returns sets in meaning minimal gains in reported happiness tail off at higher amounts of money and are very weakly correlated at very large sums of money. Many studies in fact find that notable diminishing returns set in even before six-figure incomes (in dollars) are reached. Suffice to say, empirically, millionaires are barely happier than those on six-figure salaries based on income levels alone.

Focus on the process

Since state changes are ephemeral in nature, it’s wiser not to set goals thinking that reaching them will necessitate a state change, in effect attempting to ‘capture’ the state and render it static and permanent. This is a misguided, Sisyphean way of pursuing tasks not entirely correlated with a state in mind. It’s creating a new, steeper mountain to push a boulder up after already reaching the top of another mountain because happiness, wellbeing, social status and other ephemeral states ‘must’ be at the peak of the next mountain if only one could get there.

Most of contemporary society’s messages about what leads to positive state changes are not based on truth or experience and are misguided. In addition to reflecting on what’s likely to bring about healthy and positive state changes, it’s useful to hedge against the uncertainty of knowing whether a macro goal truly will generate the state change and success you want through the most important part of pursuing goals – focusing on the process.

By focusing on the process towards goals, you pay close attention to the actual steps that need to be carried out and in turn, become intimately familiar with the actual reality of what the domain behind the pursuit of a goal is like. This familiarity cannot be obtained from hearing or reading about it from a third-party source but has to be directly experienced.

Enjoy the process regardless of the result. This is more likely to occur if your goals are intrinsically motivated. Creating micro goals towards an overall macro goal to the extent that the flow state from carrying out the micro goals almost removes the need to focus on the macro goal will also help you enjoy the process.

Goals Process

It’s natural to choose goals aligned with our personalities and proclivities. Prior research along with intrinsic motivation are wise guides in life orientation. But even if you’re pursuing a path in life catalysed by intrinsic motivation in the beginning, you can never be certain that in the mid- to long-run, the path will be meaningful or enjoyable enough to sustain the pursuit towards the destination. Time has its own lessons and your orientation may end up morphing.

This doesn’t mean that you should give up pursuit of a goal as soon as there’s a lull in meaning or enjoyment, most people experience wavering motivation towards goals at some point. Nor should you give up a goal because it becomes very challenging.

However, rigid pursuit of a goal even when you lack innate motivation towards it due to a loss of meaning and fulfilment is bad. No one should be forced to complete something that has since fundamentally changed in meaning and fulfilment compared to at the start of the pursuit.

Let’s take someone pursuing a particular career path out of university as an example. If an architect enters the field as a young graduate but then ends up hating the job after several years of direct experience with it, it’d be wrong for that person to continue to pursue architecture just because they first set a goal to become a senior-level architect when they were studying at university. Their career orientation has morphed down the line despite prior research and motivation towards it as a student. This change in opinion couldn’t be helped as the person needed to experience the vocation firsthand.

However, whether or not that state change point is realised, the best this person can do is to focus on the process towards becoming a senior-level architect rather than mortgaging their idea of being successful as contingent upon being senior-level with no flexibility in what constitutes success until then. Such an attitude can lead to the sunk cost fallacy—refusing to abandon a course of action due to the investment you’ve put in to it even if discontinuing is the best thing to do.

By focusing on the process, the person concentrates on the controllables of the everyday tasks and tackles them with committed awareness and gusto. They’re more likely to surmount the challenges presented and have a spring in their step when they do so. They’ll learn with deep understanding what is and isn’t meaningful and fulfilling for them. They’ll still acquire tacit knowledge of the domain as well as various soft skills peripheral to the job. If after a period of time they come to detest the career, they’ll have still tackled the initial macro goal in an optimal fashion. 

By focusing on the individual steps towards the macro goal and seeking enjoyment when doing so, they will have on average been more content day-by-day when doing the work and can look themselves in the mirror knowing that they gave the career their all with no regrets. They’ll have acquired a range of skills and possible resources such as contacts that may be applied towards future goals in another domain. This is in contrast to treating the career only as a means to an end seeing the day-to-day tasks as chores to tough out in the pursuit of ‘guaranteed’ state changes once the promotion to senior-level architect is reached.

It’s important to get the everyday process right because the process is life itself. The process isn’t just a means to a supposed (and often ephemeral) end but one that makes the most of the time we have. Even if our goal posts change, if we follow the process, we can look back knowing that we’ve made the most of our time.

Simplify and provide value for others

You can have anything you want but not everything. There are inevitable trade-offs based on capacity and time. 

Consider simplifying by reducing the number of goals you have to those that matter the utmost. This allows you to maximise your time and effort towards making those important goals a reality and prevents you from being ‘spread thin’ across too many goals. Not spending ample time or effort towards goals is more likely to lead to substandard achievement of them. The Zen-like aphorism applies here: do something properly or don’t do it at all.

In your set of goals, have ones that aim to provide value for others: as well as being fulfilling, they can provide you with a wider purpose beyond your own needs and with the view of enriching others’ lives in mind, have more people help you get what you want. This collaborative aspect of community-driven goals leverages the power of many versus the sole pursuer.

Goals Others


 There are several key takeaways about goals:

 1. Focus on the process

 2. For individual goals, set goals where the results are within your locus of control and not predominantly contingent upon the actions of others

 3. Refrain from setting goals whose quantified targets are due to collective sway rather than from intrinsic motivation

 4. Simplify the amount of goals

 5. In your set of goals, have ones that aim to provide value for others

Goal setting isn’t merely an act of penning down some aims in a personal development journal. As we’ve seen, there are particular nuances that will help us master both how we set goals and pursue them. One of the beautiful aspects of life is that we have the chance to create our own purposes, whatever they may be. Behind every purpose, vocation, journey and plan lie goals. Master your goals to master your life.