If Goals Make You Miserable, Eliminate the Misery

Recently, I found a very thoughtful article by Danielle LaPorte entitled “Why I Gave Up Chasing Goals.” The idea behind her article wasn’t that she wasn’t moving forward in her life, but that she viewed the idea of goals as a burden:

I want to feel good more than I want to check accomplishments off my list.
I want to feel good more than I want to please other people.
I want to feel good more than I need to look good.

All the goal-chasing I used to do, partly out of wanting to feel like a cool entrepreneur, was pecking away at my peace of mind and contributing to my already deeply entrenched complex of never being enough. Big enough, loving enough, wealthy enough, strategic enough, evolved enough, popular enough.


She goes on to make another interesting point:

Intentions & goals are tools for liberation. But when we use goal-chasing like a hammer, it can beat up on our self-esteem, relationships, and creativity.

The foundation of a good relationship with intentions & goals is keeping in mind that the primary aim of setting and working toward them is to feel the way you want to feel.

In some ways, I completely agree with Danielle. A goal that makes you miserable as you approach your destination is not really a goal worth having.

In fact, I’d argue that the journey toward the goal is really the important part, because a goal should cause you to change your behaviors in a way that genuinely leads you to a better, more fulfilling place in your life.

The thing is, it’s not the idea of goal-setting that’s the problem here. It’s that people sometimes set completely unrealistic goals, or goals that are based on what other people want, not you.

It is almost overwhelmingly difficult to achieve a goal when the motivation for that goal is external. If you’re doing something solely to please someone else or even just to match what someone else has, you’re going to have an incredibly difficult time achieving that goal. Every step is going to seem like misery and, if you don’t quit along the way, you’re going to not even enjoy achieving the goal because it didn’t really mean anything to you.

Successful goals are internal goals. An ideal goal is one that you would still want to achieve in the absence of other people in your life, because such a goal is driven entirely by internal motivations. You want success for yourself, not because of what others have and not because you hope to change what others think of you.

When you adopt an internally-driven goal, every single positive step feels like a great success and the sacrifice feels worth it.

I’ll give you a pair of examples from my own life to illustrate what I mean.

In 2004 and 2005, I made several feeble attempts to improve our financial state. I did this mostly because I knew that, on some level, people in my professional situation should get their finances in better shape. I made efforts in that direction, but I was simply trying to emulate others that I perceived as successful. There was no internal reason to do it.

In 2006, after the birth of our child, I saw how our financial mismanagement was having a negative impact on the future direction of this little boy’s life and it hit me hard on a personal level. I take my role as a father very, very seriously, and it was clear to me that my financial mismanagement was having a serious negative impact on my performance as a parent. That motivation was enough to force me to get the ball rolling on revamping my personal finances, and today my family owns a “starter” home, enjoys complete debt freedom, and is looking at a future where we pay cash for our dream home.

The goal wasn’t to be financially successful. That wasn’t what drove me. The goal was to live up to what I expected of myself in terms of taking care of the people that rely on me. If I’m not a good father or a good husband, I am ashamed of myself. That’s what drove me to personal finance success. I realized how much I was failing myself by not being smarter about my money.

Throughout my teens and twenties, I made a lot of attempts to “be a writer.” I had longtime dreams of living some sort of Ernest Hemingway lifestyle. It was a comfortable dream, but it was one that I didn’t pursue with any seriousness.

Eventually, I came to realize that to “be a writer” simply means to actually sit down and write about the things you care about, the things that are inside of you that yearn to get out. If it’s good, you’ll figure out how to make it your living, and it will start to become good if you simply sit down and let it out as often as possible.

So that’s what I did. I sat down and just started writing about what was in my mind and my heart. I didn’t worry about “being a writer.” I just wrote about the things I felt I needed to release. The Simple Dollar has been just one of those things. I’ve written stories and novels and many other things. Some have been good. Some have been bad.

The goal wasn’t to be a writer. The goal turned out to be to simply write and pour out the things inside of me on the printed page. Being a writer is just a fanciful role to dream about. Writing is a release of the things inside of me.

I find failure when the goals involve matching what others have done or simply chasing the expectations of others. I find success when I work toward things solely for myself.

The real key to goal success for me is figuring out what it is that drives me internally and tapping into that. If I do that well, achiving my goals becomes something incredibly rewarding, not something that’s a punishing slog.

What drives you? What do you feel compelled to do? What do you feel personally responsible for? What things bring you strong pleasure and joy? Figure those out and you’re going to be halfway toward figuring out life-affirming goals that take you to a better place.

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.