I don’t often pick fights, but when I do, I pick them on Twitter, apparently.
The Law of Viral Inaccuracy says that the most popular version of a meme is likely to be optimized for shareability, not accuracy to reality nor the intent of the original person saying it. On Twitter, this takes the form of people parroting short phrases as if everybody knows what words mean. One of the phrases I felt a need to critique is Dilbert creator Scott Adams’ “systems, not goals”.
This blog post is adapted from a tweetstorm I wrote.
The term “pre-success failure” from Scott Adams’ book is a gem. His related idea that you should have systems and not have goals is absurd. (have both!) Scott cites Olympic athletes as examples. 🤨
Take 3 guesses what goal an Olympic athlete has… 🥇🥈🥉
Systems don’t work without goals.
You need a goal in mind in order to choose or design what system to follow, and it’s literally impossible to evaluate whether a system is effective without something to compare it with. Implicitly, that’s a goal. (Scott Adams uses a somewhat narrower definition, but of course people just seeing his tiny quote don’t know that!)
We know certain Olympic athletes had good systems because they got the medals. They designed those systems to optimize for their athletic performance.
Lots of other Olympic athletes also had training systems, but their systems didn’t work as well—as measured by their goals.
I’m part of a team that runs a goal-setting workshop each year called the Goal-Crafting Intensive (where part of the craft is setting up systems) and the definition of goal that we use in that context is:
Goal = recognizable desired state in the future, that causes you to act differently in the present so as to realize it.
🛣️ no recognizable state = “trajectory”
😣 not desired = “should”
👀 not future = “regret”
☁️ no action = “dream”
🤠 actions just for show = “signalling”
This is a very spacious meaning for “goal”.
It doesn’t require:
📅 a due date (usually embarrassingly over-optimistic)
#️⃣ a numerical metric (which is just a proxy for what really matters)
🏁 a state of finality (it has to be in the future, but it can be ongoing)
From this perspective, it’s impossible not to have goals, so the real questions are:
And it’s in “how am I relating to my goals?” that we get to the topic of “pre-success failure”. Scott doesn’t actually define the term, but it seems to be roughly “feeling bad that you haven’t already achieved your goals” His prescription for avoiding this is “have no goals”.
This is a great hack, and one that I’ve noticed myself and many other people doing, without even realizing it. As I wrote over 5 years ago:
Not getting what you want feels immensely worse if you can’t pretend you didn’t want it.Self-authorship: writing your own story
But as long as you operate this way, you’ll never get clarity on what you deeply want, which means you’re unlikely to ever get it. If you have taste, it’s also possible to just follow your nose, but that still can only access adjacent things you want, not things further away.
Is there another way to avoid having pre-success failure? That’s a complex question! One is to note that you probably actually do it all the time on smaller scales: when you decide to go get a snack, you don’t suddenly get upset that you haven’t already gotten the snack. (If you do, that’s probably a bigger bottleneck for you than anything in this debate about systems & goals.)
Another approach: recognize that what you want is already what you want, & that acknowledging you want it & strategizing about how to pursue it doesn’t mean that you have to say something’s wrong about your current situation.
The curious paradox is when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change—Carl Rogers
So: some people say “instead of goals, have systems”.
I say “have both”. Most goals aren’t achievable without systems, and systems can’t be evaluated without comparing them to the goal they’re intended to serve.
Since you can’t not have goals, you might as well learn how to have them well!
#1: You may feel aimless once you’ve achieved your goal.
This is the corollary of pre-success failure—thinking that you’ll suddenly feel happy, satisfied, complete, etc., once you’ve achieved your goal. If you expect to feel this way and you don’t, then you may feel cheated or confused. Instead, aim to feel good while working towards your goals.
There are ways to learn to feel happier & more satisfied with life, but they involve things more like meditation, gratitude journals and emotional processing, along with making a few key decisions like which people to live with and work with. In general, if you don’t feel good now, accomplishing something won’t fix that.
Caveat #2: Getting fixated: let your goals evolve as you learn more.
I do think it’s worth at least once try finishing a goal that no longer seems good, to make sure you’re not just dealing with some generic aversion to finishing things, and to learn how to generate enthusiasm.
But in general, expect your goals to shift and change. You might realize that something is actually gonna be way more work than you thought, or less valuable than you thought, and decide to do something else. You might join forces with someone else who has a similar thing they’re working on, and create something neither of you would have thought of on your own.
Caveat #3: sometimes becoming goal-oriented can create a kind of narrow-minded focus that blocks out awareness of other careabouts, including relationships. I used to think this was a necessary learning phase… now I’m less sure about that! May still be for some people.
In any case, inasmuch as your way of being in relationship is trapping you in shoulds, & you can instead find a way to tap some sense of what *you* really want to do & do that instead… that that’s key to developing self-authorship.
I’ve recognized for awhile that unlike most to-do list apps, my app Complice could be described as a Deliberately Developmental App: it helps people mature psychologically. In terms of Kegan stages:
3→4: Choosing & focusing on personal goals (vs managing task inbox) helps people break from being reactive to default societal expectations, and get more clear on what they deeply personally want.
4→5: Fluid goal approach (vs rigid plans) helps people break from being subject to their own goals, and improvisationally orient to how best to live their values in light of long-term vision.
Caveat #4: You may not want to pursue your goals ruthlessly!
You may, for instance, want to pursue them curiously, or playfully, or sensually… or sneakily!
What you want to achieve is your goals. How you want to live is your values, and they’re at least as important as goals. Joe Edelman coined this distinction and talks about how it’s more important not to sacrifice your values for your goals than vice versa.
For example, you may have a goal of getting more physically fit, but it may be important to you to do so while also upholding your value of not judging or shaming yourself for how your body currently is, nor forcing yourself to do things you don’t want to. This means finding forms of movement that excite & delight you and make you feel good!
Or, you may want to get more sales for your business, but not in a way that involves nagging people to buy your product. This means finding creative ways to continue to bring prospective customers’ attention to what you’re offering…
…like I’m doing right now by publishing this article and also linking to the online New Year’s workshop I’m hosting soon!
This season is a common time for people to think about their goals, their systems, and their values. If you’d like a boost to your capacity to reflect on any and all of that, come to the Goal-Crafting Intensive workshop I’m hosting this weekend & next weekend. We’ll explore some of the topics above and much more.
It’s got four core modules (Goal Setting, Planning, Execution, Reflection) and it features a mix of
We’ve been running the GCI and iterating on the format & content for three years now, and in celebration of the turning decade, this year we’re adding some additional content on long-term (10y+) visioning.
We’ve got 4 sessions, two in late December & two in early January, cleverly scheduled to fit most timezones. To learn more & sign up, click here.
Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Intend, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.