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Goals Are For Losers

Psychology


[Adams, pp. 31-32]

I was seated next to a businessman who was probably in his early sixties. I suppose I looked like an odd duck with my serious demeanor, bad haircut, and cheap suit, clearly out of my element. He asked what my story was and I filled him in. I asked what he did for a living and he told me he was CEO of a company that made screws. Then he offered me some career advice. He said that every time he got a new job, he immediately started looking for a better one. For him, job seeking was not something one did when necessary. It was an ongoing process. This makes perfect sense if you do the math. Chances are the best job for you won't become available at precisely the time you declare yourself ready. Your best bet, he explained, was to always be looking for the better deal. The better deal has its own schedule. I believe the way he explained it is that your job is not your job; your job is to find a better job.

This was my first exposure to the idea that one should have a system instead of a goal. The system was to continually look for better options. And it worked for this businessman, as he had job-hopped from company to company, gaining experience along the way, until he became a CEO. Had he approached his career with a specific goal in mind, or perhaps specific job objectives (e.g., his boss's job), it would have severely limited his options. But for him, the entire world was his next potential job. The new job simply had to be better than the last one and allow him to learn something useful for the next hop.

Did the businessman owe his current employer loyalty? Not in his view. The businessman didn't invent capitalism, and he didn't create its rules. He simply played within the rules. His employers wouldn't have hesitated to fire him at the drop of a hat for any reason that fit their business needs. He simply followed their example.

The second thing I learned on that flight-or confirmed, really-is that appearance matters. By the end of the flight, the CEO had handed me his card and almost guaranteed me a job at his company if I wanted it. Had I boarded the flight wearing my ratty jeans, threadbare T-shirt, and worn-out sneakers, things would have gone differently.

Throughout my career I've had my antennae up, looking for examples of people who use systems as opposed to goals. In most cases, as far as I can tell, the people who use systems do better. The systems-driven people have found a way to look at the familiar in new and more useful ways.

To it bluntly, goals are for losers. That's literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose ten pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal-if you reach it at all-feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary. That feeling wears on you. In time, it becomes heavy and uncomfortable. It might even drive you out of the game.

References

Adams, Scott, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Portfolio/Penguin, New York, 2013.

Revision: 20160913
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