Are goals good?

When talking about goals, it's good to draw a distinction between outcome goals and process goals. Outcome goals are usually what we think of when we talk about goals: "I want to put on 10 pounds of muscle." They're easily quantifiable and obviously beneficial. Process goals are a little more slippery: "I want to do strength training exercises four times a week." Like outcome goals they are easily quantifiable, but they're not a benefit to their pursuer in and of themselves. Nevertheless, there is little debate that it's better to aim for process goals whenever possible. Outcome goals depend on factors outside our control and thus drain our motivation, muddle our ability to track our progress, and are not always possible.

I'm not here to talk about process goals. Everyone agrees it's great to have them.

Outcome goals, on the other hand, have a bit of a bad rap in the self-help community. We all grew up focusing on outcomes and failed to reach them over and over. People talk about six packs, not sit-ups. So we all set our goals, made up a way to get there, and tracked our progress toward that goal.

Day 1: I don't have a six pack. I want a six pack. Do sit-ups until my abs hurt.
Day 2: Do I have a six pack yet? Whoa, not even close. Do sit-ups until my abs hurt.
Day 3: How about now? Nope? This is taking forever! Watch TV until my eyes hurt.

It's easy to get discouraged when you can't track your progress in any real way. The first signs of muscle definition in the abs take at least a month and they never really show up if you have any fat on your stomach at all. Surely outcome goals have benefits, though?

If you don't use outcome goals, you can lose sight of what the prize actually is. And when that moment inevitably comes when you're flat out of motivation and you just want to go back to sleep for half an hour instead of doing marching planks or whatever to get your core in shape, process goals may not be enough. Would I really forgo sleep just so I can tell myself I worked out today?

I answered that question in the negative yesterday. I just slept right on through. So I'm starting to rethink the value of keeping my eye on the prize. There must be a way to secure the motivational benefits of both types of goals.


Photo is of the Stewart Avenue Bridge over Fall Creek Gorge in Ithaca, NY. Gorges, like habits, take several million years to to form.

Two Types of Failure

There are two types of failure that self-help enthusiasts talk about. There’s the failure to achieve a particular outcome, which is generally viewed as an inevitable step on the bumpy road to success. Then there’s the failure to even try to succeed, which they will tell you is thoroughly unacceptable. I’m here to tell you that both are types of failure are not only necessary, but they’re also good.

People may not try for any number of reasons:

Attachment: They may be attached to certain things in their past and be unwilling to move forward. An example of this is when you don’t ask any women out on dates, even though you’re single and lonely, because you are fixated on a past girlfriend or prospect who has already rejected you. This unhealthy attachment keeps you from looking for new women.

Laziness: Whether laziness is a sin in its own right or a secondary product of other issues is up for debate, but all agree it’s definitely something people are. I would argue that just as to be attached is to dwell in the past, so too to be lazy is to dwell in the present. Lazy people sacrifice large future benefits for small immediate pleasures. Instead of applying to jobs, you watch television.

Fear: Continuing the pattern of temporal emotional stumbling blocks, one may fail to act due to fear of what may happen. Unlike the forward-looking attitudes I encourage you to adopt in order to conquer your attachment and laziness, fear is neither rational nor healthy (even if it is forward-looking). When considering fear, picture yourself as a picky eater (maybe you are one!) who is so afraid that food might not a certain food might not taste good that you don’t try many foods which are probably delicious.

Contrast these three types of failure-through-inaction with failing to get a good performance review because you struggle with being detail oriented. You worked hard, but you failed anyways, and that’s unequivocally a good thing because it teaches you about your strengths and weaknesses. It gives you guidance on how to proceed in the lifelong process of self-improvement. This type of failure may be termed useful failure.

Failure to try, on the other hand, is said to be a useless failure because it doesn’t teach you anything. It prevents you from learning about your strengths and weaknesses and leads to stagnation. I argue, however, that failure to try is useful, and the fact that so many people seem to struggle with attachment, laziness, and fear suggests that the self-help literature would do well to consider overcoming these issues with at least as much fervor as it has directed toward discipline and stick-to-itiveness.

Of course, the self-help community understands that most people fail to act in the first place. The seduction community terms the failure to approach woman “approach anxiety,” or AA. The fitness community calls those who fail to work out “couch potatoes.” The education community refers to students who don’t do their homework “unmotivated.” This language is problematic when trying to deal with the failure to act. The advice for dealing with AA is to approach again and again until the habit is stronger than the anxiety. The advice for couch potatoes is to “Just Do It!” And to call students “unmotivated” is to lay the blame for their inaction on external factors which it then becomes the job of the parents, teachers, the system, the material itself, or any number of other actors to motivate them. None of these are responsible for the students’ torpor. Not only is this unfair to those other actors, but it is unfair to the students who are taught that they don’t have within themselves the power to change.

Instead of using language that is at best pandering and at worst coercive, let’s face the inertia problem with the same optimistic zeal we direct toward ‘useful failures.’ To say that we don’t learn anything when we fail to try is self-evidently false. We learn that not doing anything doesn’t solve anything. And to understand our personal challenges is to gain the ability to face them. If those challenges appear before we even start down the self-help road, then that doesn’t make those challenges any less real than the more tangible challenges we’re told we should expect to face along the road.

I’ve faced attachment, laziness, and fear. I’m facing them even as I write this, and I’ll probably be struggling with them for years to come if not my whole life. Having weaknesses doesn’t make me weak. Failing again and again doesn’t make me a failure. Losing the battle within day in and day out doesn’t make me a loser. It makes me a learner. It gives me experience. It gives me strength.

It took me twenty years of people telling me I was wasting my time to learn the value of stagnation. I learned my triggers, distractions, fears, and demons. Imagine how much more quickly I could have accomplished that if I had been taught to focus on those challenges instead of ignoring them. I was told, “get to work,” not to ask myself, “what is keeping you from working?” Just as the last century has seen a movement to de-stigmatize alcoholism, mental retardation, and poverty, so too is it time to de-stigmatize attachment, laziness, and fear. The attached aren’t “obsessive” or “creepers.” The lazy aren’t “slugs.” The fearful aren’t “cowards.”

They’re just all students.


Photo is the Witch's Cauldron, another crater on the island inside Crater Lake, OR. You can see me running down it if you look closely.