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When Goals Are Important and When They Are Not

People have all sorts of clever words to describe what they want to do: Objective. Target. Plan. Endgame. Outcome. Goal.

If you know me, then you know I was The Goal Guy when I was in the corporate world. I had financial goals, health goals, sales goals, vacation goals, even consumer-purchase goals (I shit you not). I had spreadsheets of goals, precisely tracking and measuring and readjusting my plans accordingly.

These days, life is different, and I no longer have goals. Instead of an arbitrary target, I prefer to have a direction in which I travel. If you’re searching for a sunrise, it’s important to be headed east; for a sunset, west.

I do, however, believe there was a time in my life when goals were direly important: when I was in a hole and needed to get out. Truth be told, most of my goals were ridiculous or irrelevant (purchasing and accumulation goals), but a few of my goals helped immensely (getting out of debt and losing 70–80 pounds).

I liken these latter goals to escaping a crater in the middle of the desert. When I was fat and up to my eyeballs in debt, lingering in that bowl-shaped cavity beneath the ground, my goal was to break free from the sun-scorched basin and find the earth’s surface. I couldn’t even fathom a direction from down there—I simply needed to get out of the hole, and my goals helped me do that. (By the way, I don’t want to give too much credit to the goals, since it was actually my consistent actions over time that got me out of those fat and debt craters, not the goals themselves.)

Once I found the surface, though, I no longer needed goals: I simply needed to look around and pick a direction in which to travel. It was Lao Tzu who once said, “a good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.”

For me, there were mountains to the west, flat plains to the east, sand dunes to the south, and whispering-pine forests to the north, all blanketed by the complete sum of endless blue heavens above. If I wanted to be on the mountain, I’d travel west. If I wanted to get lost in the forest, I’d head north. And so on.

The nice thing about choosing a direction is you never know what you’re going to get: You might head west in search of the mountains on the horizon, but along the way find a beautiful river instead. You might traverse the sand dunes, only to find a village a few miles from the crater. You never know what’s around the bend.

Once I got out of my craters, I didn’t need goals to enjoy my life: my daily habits help me do that.

I discovered sometimes it’s okay to wander in the direction of your choice. If you get lost, so what; would that be so bad? Once you’re out of the crater, you simply need to stay out of other craters. You can always change your direction if you’re unhappy.

Read this essay and 150 others in our new book, Essential.