The things every high-achiever should know
In: Happiness14 Aug 2011
What’s not to like about setting goals? It motivates you, keeps you accountable for your accomplishments, and helps you gradually shape your life into that of your ideal. Trying to be successful without goals is tantamount to driving with a destination.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of self help resources out there that help you with setting goals. Almost all of them will ask you about your dreams, ambitions, passions, skills, talents, strengths, weaknesses, and/or desired income. Some of the better ones will ask you about your risk tolerance, force you to prioritize, and help make the case for high risk, high reward. And finally, ONLY ONE resource that I’ve come across discusses the sacrificial nature of goal setting. I’m not sure if sacrifice is a taboo in the self help industry or if it’s just a poor marketing decision for an author to parade this idea around in his/her book, since it doesn’t lend to the good feelings generated by the ‘anything is possible!’ philosophy. So I’ll do my best to fill you in on what I mean by the sacrificial nature of goal setting.
Opportunity Cost and Expectations
In economics, there is a concept known as opportunity cost. By buying a laptop for $1,500, I lose out on all of the other things I could’ve spent that money on (such as a new flat screen TV or a trip to Mexico). Those missed opportunities are the cost I pay for choosing to buy the laptop. For obvious reasons—namely, money being a very limited resource for most people—personal finance experts hit on this point very heavily. Although seldom discussed, this concept applies to goals in every area of your life.
If you want to aggressively work at your career to rise the ranks in your industry after graduating college, it will require very long hours, month after month. If you also had aspirations to backpack through Europe in your twenties and then live abroad for a few years, it’s almost guaranteed that those aspirations will clash with your career. Whichever you choose will be at the sacrifice of the other.
If you want to start a family with the love of your life, you have an obligation to support them with a steady income. If you’ve always dreamed of being an entrepreneur in the high-risk, high-reward tech industry, you have a very difficult choice to make. It’s almost impossible to manage both.
There are dozens more real-world examples of goals clashing in this fashion. This is because—just like with the previous example of money being a limited resource—time is incredibly limited. Time you spend can never be earned back. Therefore, every goal you pursue is often at the sacrifice of something just as ambitious that you may have wanted to pursue.
People who believe the anything-is-possible myth espoused in many feel good, self-help books are in for a rude awakening when they realize that the goals they chose to pursue in life effectively blocked them from pursuing others. Acknowledging this limitation early on will help you better prioritize your life and manage your expectations for the future. And as this New York Times opinion piece comments, expectations are very intimately tied with overall happiness and satisfaction in life. Letting your expectations get too high is a recipe for misery and disappointment.
Survivorship Bias and Other Traps
I can hear a few of you thinking, “But Jon! I see examples of people who really DO have it all! They’re rich, intelligent, successful, abundant, and loving. Why would I not follow the advice of these incredibly successful people?”
This is a good point. There are people out there who are immensely successful, and it appears as if they really do have it all. These guys and gals have dedicated blood, sweat, and tears to building themselves into the success stories they are today. And there is nothing wrong with following their advice on success. But before buying into that idea that this level of success is attainable by everyone (which could cause your expectations to rise to dangerous levels), here are two traps to watch out for:
1) These people might be lying. Why would they lie about how successful they are, you ask? Usually to sell you a product on being successful. Or, sometimes, it’s just a front to bolster their ego.
2) Survivorship bias. The only people who talk about giving it their all and becoming uber-successful are those who lived to tell the tale. For every highly successful person, there are thousands who fell short at some point along the road. And while it can be tempting to blame these failures on their lack of work ethic or some other character flaw, sometimes the randomness of life just smacks you around enough times that you can’t get up again, no matter how dedicated, motivated, and intelligent you are. To believe that anyone can reach very high levels of success despite any obstacles thrown at them is very unrealistic. There is too much randomness in the world for that to be consistently true.
I don’t mean to imply that all successful people fall into one of these two categories. These points are more so for keeping in mind when someone makes fantastical claims about the things they’ve achieved in life (and then try to sell you a product about success). If someone’s success stories sound too good to be true, they probably fall into one of the two above.
While the idea that you truly can have it all with enough desire, faith, and hard work is very motivating and feel-good, it’s unrealistic. In the long run, your expectations (of both yourself and the world around you) will be so high, you will be setting yourself up for a rude awakening when you wake up one day and realize the limitations of the path you took in life.
However, this post wasn’t designed to discourage you from your goals. Never let anything stop you from pursuing what’s most important to you. But at the same time, never forget that by choosing to pursue one goal, you are likely doing so at the sacrifice of other goals that may be very important to you as well. For example, if your most desired goal takes 20 years to accomplish, make sure you understand what you could’ve been doing in those 20 years that you’re giving up to achieve it.
As a personal example, by accepting an offer for my dream job right after graduating college, I will no longer be able to travel through Asia as I had planned to do for two years. If I rate this job as a 10 out of 10 on the scale of what I desire, traveling Asia is an 8.5 out of 10. But here’s the interesting thing. By being aware that I’m sacrificing travel to pursue the job of my dreams—and being completely fine with that decision—I feel liberated. I no longer feel the stress of wondering, “How can I do it all like those successful people I’ve read about?” I’ve let go of the myth of having it all, and I’m totally happy with the decision I’ve made. I feel free.
My motivation and desire to succeed has never been higher, and by cutting out the stress from imposing unrealistic expectations on myself, I’m more focused than ever before. My goal is to give you the same feeling when you set life-altering goals of your own
For more on this subject, I highly recommend the TED Talk that first gave me the inspiration for this post:
I'm Jon Guerrera, a life hacker at heart, and the man behind the scenes here at Living For Improvement. This blog documents all of my successes, failures, experiments and lessons learned as I hack my way to happiness, fulfillment and success.
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Unlimited Drive is the result of four years of diligent research on what drives people to achieve great things. I always wondered how the most successful people in the world could reach such high levels of success and accomplishment. Well, I found the answer and wrote an ebook so I could pass it on to you (for free).
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