Goal-Free Living

January 26th, 2006 by Steve Pavlina

I recently read the book Goal-Free Living by Stephen Shapiro.  The main reason I read it is that I’m a big believer in the benefits of setting goals, and the title of this book obviously suggests a different approach.  When my wife asked me why I was reading such a book, I told her, “I’m reading it because the author probably disagrees with me.”  I often get more out of reading books that have a different philosophy than mine, since they force me to rethink my own position and keep me from going mentally stale.

Having read the book though, I think the title is a slight exaggeration of the actual content, but not to the point of being misleading.  The author makes it clear that he isn’t against goal setting in all situations, but he cautions against over-reliance on goal-setting and suggests that it’s better to have a compass for life than a planned path.  Overly rigid goals that create excessive attachment are indeed something to be avoided, so I certainly agree with the author there.  Overall I liked the book, and I agree with its philosophy to a certain extent, although I’d move the slider a little more back in the direction of goal-setting as opposed to living goal-free.  And that’s simply because I think most people are living too goal-free and could use more focus and direction in their lives.

Although the author and I would use different language to describe it, I think the main problem he points to is attachment.  When you become attached to fixed goals, you lose the flexibility to adapt to present-moment opportunities, which is a suboptimal approach.  You develop a sort of tunnel vision where you’re so focused on what you want that you become blind to things that might be even better.  Consequently, becoming too committed to your goals can actually lower your awareness.  This is especially true in business.  Even the act of setting business or career goals can blind you to creative opportunities that lie outside the scope of your business/career.

Opportunity blindness was indeed a problem for me at one time.  A few years ago, I was very focused on my games business with lots of clear goals, and this approach certainly helped me build a successful business.  But I was too focused on goals like releasing new products and achieving a certain sales volume, and although they seemed like worthy goals at the time, they kept me stuck on my current path.  When I finally relaxed my goals and gave myself space to live goal-free for a while, I saw it was time for me to pull out of the gaming industry and start this personal development site.  And that’s exactly what I did.  But to pull it off, I had to terminate some goals which were very difficult to let go because I’d already invested so much into them.  Now with the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear I made the right decision, but it wasn’t an easy decision at the time because I was too attached to my old goals.

However, I don’t think opportunity blindness is a problem with goal-setting itself but rather with goal-setting’s potential side-effect of lowering awareness.  Goals can help expand our awareness or contract it.  The key is getting those positive awareness-raising benefits without allowing the awareness-lowering effects to tag along.

When my wife and I set a goal to buy a house a little over a year ago, that was an expansive goal for us.  It opened us to new opportunities, and a few weeks later we were moving into our new home.  If we hadn’t set that goal (which was fairly specific and had a tight deadline), I can’t see how we possibly would have achieved it.  The alternative of throwing more money into rent wasn’t desirable at all.

Another expansive goal I set was to reach the point of having a sustainable positive cashflow from StevePavlina.com of at least $3000/month.  That was one of my big goals after launching the site.  Initially I thought I’d do it with product sales, but someone told me about Adsense, and I quickly saw its potential after testing it.  My goal didn’t change, but I adapted my plans to fit the new facts, and I succeeded in achieving my goal last year.

But there were other goals I set that lowered my awareness.  One of them was to write a book about running an independent software company.  I began writing this book around the same time I started this site.  I thought I’d need the income from the book to help me get this site going.  But instead of helping me, that goal only held me back from fully committing to my new direction, and after a few months I canceled it.  I would have been better off not setting that goal at all.  That goal was looking to the past instead of the future.

I find goal setting extremely valuable, but even after doing it for about 15 years now, I’m still making new distinctions.  When I set the right goal, it works wonders.  But when I set the wrong goal, it just gets in my way.  My understanding of the “right” goals are that they serve to expand my consciousness and cause me to stretch as opposed to tying me to the past or restricting my opportunities.

There are times in life when we need clear goals and other times when living goal-free is better.  For example, when I started this web site, I set a lot of clear goals.  Some of those, like setting traffic and income targets, really helped me stay focused.  But after reaching the point of sustainable positive cashflow, I consciously decided to relax my goals a bit and spend a few months living goal-free to allow some new ideas to incubate.  As I come out of this period, however, I’ll once again be returning to more focused goal-setting.

Proper goal-setting is like having a conversation.  You need the right balance of talking and listening.  If you talk all the time, you derail the conversation.  If you listen all the time, you become a passive observer instead of an active participant.  When you realize you’ve been talking too much, it’s time to spend more time listening, which is equivalent to goal-free living.  But when you’ve been passive long enough, it’s time to take a more active role and start letting the universe know what you want.

The conversation metaphor also fits with the intention-manifestation model.  Talking = goal-setting = putting out intentions.  Listening = goal-free living = manifesting.  You need both sides to be balanced.

There is a time to talk and a time to listen, a time to set goals and a time to live goal-free, a time to intend and a time to manifest.  That’s my version of Ecclesiastes 3:1–8. 

So how do you know when it’s the right time to set goals vs. to live goal-free?  The key is to figure out whether you’re in an expansion or a contraction phase in your life right now.  For details on that, read Cycles of Life.


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