Goals Gone Wild

Goals Gone Wild cover photo
Hopes Kikonyogo/CC 2.0

Every month, the blogging mafia convene: if you know what’s good for you, the first post of the year better have something to do with goals and resolutions, and at least one mention of the phrase ‘new year, new me’.

I’m sorry! They’ll break my kneecaps if I don’t do what they say!

My compromise is to write a post about why goals… kind of suck, really. For inspiration, I turn to what might well be the most brilliantly-titled academic paper of all time: Goals Gone Wild.1

There’s a huge body of evidence behind the practice of goal setting, which is why everyone refuses to shut up about it. But Lisa Ordóñez and her Harvard Business School co-authors aren’t worried that goals don’t work. Oh no.

They’re worried that they work too well.

Tunnel Vision

The first 'Goals gone wild' failure mode: tunnel vision

Goals narrow your focus. That’s what makes them so powerful. The unhappy corollary is that you’re blinded to everything else; like those horses that are heavily into BDSM headgear. You can make good progress trotting along straight ahead. But there might be lots of delicious hay off to the side, or interesting horses to meet, or shortcuts to your destination.

It’s not just missed opportunities passing you by. Keeping the blinkers on can also be dangerous. With no peripheral vision, you’ll never see the pickup truck that T-bones you, consigning your fate to the knackerman.

This is not a problem if you only have one goal to maximise, and everything else can go to hell—like an artificial intelligence single-mindedly converting the universe into paperclips. But humans (and horses) are not built like that.

Everyone has a range of values, which are often in tension with one another. Do you want to run fast, or to eat delicious hay, or to be safe from pickup trucks? I’m going to go with ‘all three, in moderation’. It makes no sense to focus myopically on one goal, at the expense of the others. But that’s exactly what happens in real life.

The classic mistake is building wealth and climbing the career ladder, while completely neglecting health,  relationships, or community. Psychologists have found that the stronger the drive for financial success, the lower the satisfaction with family life, for example. You make a lot of money, then you get T-boned by the divorce papers or the heart attack.

When circumstances change, you have to be able to change with them, rather than slavishly sticking to your prior beliefs. This is what Emerson meant by “a foolish consistency”. If an inflexible goal locks you into a zombie-like path dependency, you’ll shuffle along until your brain falls out your nose.

Goodhart’s Law

“I have had it with these motherfucking snakes in this motherfucking grain!”

—The British Raj (probably)

The government of colonial India was worried about the number of venomous snakes in Delhi, so they offered a bounty for every dead cobra. The program was wildly successful in bringing in snakes… perhaps too successful.

As it turned out, the entrepreneurial locals had created a thriving cobra-breeding industry. The juiciest part of all: when the Brits scrapped the program, the breeders released their slithery charges into the wild, making the original problem even worse.2

This is an example of Goodhart’s Law: when a measure becomes a target, it’s no longer a good measure. It’s hardly surprising that people use sneaky ‘munchkin’ strategies to try and game the system for personal benefit. What is surprising is that it’s all too easy to Goodhart yourself.

The second 'Goals gone wild' failure mode: the cobra effect/Goodhart's law
sssstop sssssetting sssshitty goalssss

I found this out the hard way, in my attempt to read 100 books in a year (full post coming later in the month). I made myself finish quite a few books I wasn’t enjoying, purely because I wanted them to count towards my ‘number’. Goodreads started recommending wafer-thin novellas to get me across the line, and I probably read more light-and-breezy stuff than I otherwise would have. This kind of behavior might technically help me meet my goal, but at the expense of the actual underlying purpose of the exercise.

Confusing the measure with the target is a common problem in personal finance. Money is a lump of shiny metal, or ones and zeroes on a computer server. It’s very handy stuff, but it should only ever be a means to an end. If you spend most of your life trying to increase your net worth, without having thought about what that number represents, you’re doing it wrong. There are no pockets in a shroud, etc.

The One-Man Circlejerk

“Giving yourself credit for something in advance does the opposite of encouraging growth: it breeds atrophy.”

—Ryan Holiday

Merely visualizing a goal can be surprisingly useful. Your brain doesn’t really understand the difference between abstractions and real life. Once you have a concrete vision firmly in mind, it makes it seem achievable in the world outside your skull.

This failure to distinguish between imagination and reality is why it’s so fun to fantasise about all the cool stuff you’re going to achieve. It feels real. When you proudly puff out your chest and tell everyone about your noble ambitions, it’s even more pleasurable still.

The third Goals gone wild failure mode: the dangers of reification
this is MY YEAR you guys!!

Ryan Holiday calls this the ‘danger of reification’. You start to get a little hit of pleasure every time you think or talk about your goal, which substitutes for actually doing the work. You’re already patting yourself on the back, without having so much as lifted a finger.

Everyone knows someone who constantly talks up all the amazing things they’re going to do, and never follows through. Chances are, they’re stuck in this failure mode.

Prediction Errors

“We toil and sweat to give [our futures selves] just what we think they will like, and they quit their jobs, grow their hair, move to or from San Francisco, and wonder how we could ever have been stupid enough to think they’d like that. We fail to achieve the accolades and rewards that we consider crucial to their well-being, and they end up thanking God that things didn’t work out according to our shortsighted, misguided plan.”

—Daniel Gilbert

I’ve never had a job interview, so I haven’t had to field the ‘where do you see yourself in five/ten/twenty years?’ question until this week, when a nice German person asked me to take a stab at it for their magazine.

It’s a strange question. I sure as hell wouldn’t trust the 18-year-old me to decide what my current self should be doing. That guy was a dumbass. So why would I trust my current self to know what 38-year-old-me should do?

Future-me might as well be a complete stranger. I’m sure his preferences and desires will be completely foreign to me, in the same way that it now seems inexplicable there was a time in my life I used to like eating dirt, or Hoobastank.

The fourth 'Goals gone wild' failure mode: prediction errors
the future: not always as expected

One of the best books I read last year was Stumbling on Happiness. The author, psychologist Dan Gilbert, is an expert in this kind of ‘affective forecasting’. He concluded that we just plain suck at predicting how we’re going to feel about things.

It’s hard enough to guess right now, much less several years or decades away. Everything tends to look amazing from far away, because time smears a generous film of Vaseline over the lens of our mind’s eye. Once we get close enough to see the pores, it doesn’t look quite so appealing.

As Gilbert points out, the ability to time-travel—to imagine the future, and take steps to affect it—is a recent development in our evolutionary history. It’s not surprising that we make some rookie mistakes, but it does put us in a bit of a bind.

Why bother striving for something, if you can’t even be sure you’ll still want it once you get there?

Goals as Prescription-Strength Medicine

Goals as prescription medication

Unless you intend to live it up now and die young and penniless, you still need some way of making good tradeoffs between your present and future selves.

You’re not going to believe this, but I think we can find a middle ground between ‘goals are awesome’ and ‘goals are stupid and terrible’.

I like the medication analogy that the Goals Gone Wild authors use. Goal-setting is currently marketed as a benign, over-the-counter treatment for motivation. But it really ought to be a prescription-strength medication, “which requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision”.

Sure, there are countermeasures for most of the failure modes described, but why not just sidestep the problem altogether?

These days, I use goals as sparingly as possible. Instead, I’m a great believer in building general optionality, which opens up your choices along every dimension. There’s no need to try and predict the future, or risk being overrun by venomous snakes. I think optionality is a massively underrated idea.3

UPDATE: My book, Optionality: How to Survive and Thrive in a Volatile World is available now!

I’ll go into a more detailed explanation in future posts. For now, the medicine analogy holds up pretty well: If goals are prescription medication, optionality is the equivalent of eating right, exercising, and getting enough sleep.

You’re not trying to treat any specific condition. It’s an all-purpose tonic that keeps you in rude good health, ready to leap on whatever opportunities make sense at any given point in time. There are no side effects, no overdoses, and no misdiagnoses. Optionality is an idiot-proof way of making better tradeoffs.

This is important, because there’s no such thing as ‘new year, new you’. There’s just you, and me, with all our messy flaws and frailties. Nothing special happens when the clock strikes midnight. I was an idiot last year, and I don’t expect that to change any time soon, except in very gradual increments.

Idiot-proofing things, wherever possible, is a really good idea.

Maybe that sounds unambitious. Personally, I find it weirdly inspiring. On that cheery note: happy new year, and all the best for 2019!


  1. Hat-tip to Sonnie Bailey, who recommended this paper to me, and wrote a great article on this very topic. The original paper is here.
  2. This story is of uncertain veracity, but it was too good not to use. The same thing definitely happened in Hanoi (except with rats) and there are lots of grimmer examples, from the collapse of Enron to the absurd factory targets of Soviet Russia.
  3. This is one of the main themes of The Book, and a big part of the reason I’m writing it.

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5 years ago

Great piece and really useful book – “Stumbling on happiness”! I really liked its ideas.
For me the morning time, especially if you get up earlier than usually means the chance to meet a real you. To listen to your body and mind. To explore what you really want in the silent place. Slow morning allows you to focus on what really matters for you – on your dreams, goals, and feelings. It’s vital to develop your awareness in such a way.
Stay calm and focused!

5 years ago

Have you read “How to fail at everything and still win big” by Scott Adams? His approach is very similar. Basically keep adding skills and keep your options as wide open as possible, as we are very bad at predicting specific outcomes and what combinations of skills might set us up for any given opportunity. I’m butchering it a bit but your post really reminded me of his excellent book.

5 years ago

liking the new old you :*

5 years ago

You’re 38?

5 years ago

Good stuff here. I realized after crunching last years numbers that I’d been high 5-ing at the finish line with a gin & tonic when I should’ve been sipping water. My strategy is not sharing my goals and never let on how good things are going

5 years ago

I totally know what you mean with a high reading goal warping your reading choices towards shorter books…I made the same mistake in 2017 when I did read 100 books but I ended up reading more graphic novels than I wanted and putting off big books that I did want to read. So for 2018, I made a goal of reading 75 and generally just read what I wanted…worked out great. So yes, goals are good but be careful on how you use them. Great post!