This is part 1 of 3 of my life goals series. In these articles, I combined the research from 10 bestsellers on mastery, the Stoics and habit forming, with my own conclusions from many hours of coaching, reflection and mindfulness meditation.
Goals Are Good For You — Kind Of
Most people have bought into the popular notion that you need to have goals to ‘win’ at life. In my teens and tweens, my life goals used to be pretty straight forward:
- Finish school
- Finish university
- Climb the corporate ladder
- Become CEO
- Retire at 50 and live on a tropical island
Then I founded my startup Stanwood over a decade ago, and my goals changed into:
- Grow revenue to support the three founders full time. Once we achieved that, we realized that we didn’t like working together, so I focused on
- buying out my co-founders and subsequently selling the company. This was followed by
- maximizing the earn-out and finally
- surviving the time in corporate until my contract was over. After that, I realized I wanted my company back and did everything in my power to
- buy back my own company. Sounds like bad fiction, but it really happened like this. ;-)
I never thought about what I would do after that.
It was around that time when one of our younger project managers, Wadim, was bugging me about what our big audacious goal might be. The Elon Musk ‘Sending People To Mars’ kind of goal. So I started reading up on goals in “Work Rules” by Laszlo Bock, the SVP of People Operations from Google. There I found that companies need this kind of big hairy goals to be inspired and a goal system of OKRs to achieve them. So I set myself an audacious goal for Stanwood:
Build the largest remote digital agency in the world.
500 people, working 100% from home, no office.
Take this, corporate!
The Problem With Goals
And off we went. We restructured our company into a squad-based organization with three business units and nearly 50 people. The only issue was: We grew too fast and didn’t create the processes to reliably deliver excellence.
My managers had never led a business unit before, and our sales relied on inbound leads from my personal network. I tried to make it up by working 80 hours per week and more. I barely slept. I drank every day to take off the edge. And I let my wife run the family basically without me. -In hindsight, this goal was not driven by rational thought or purpose but purely by ego.
I did what I learned from an early age on: I compared myself to peers and tried to outperform them. First to other startups in Germany. Then to the largest remote companies in the world. -I found out the hard truth about these kinds of achievement goals: You will never feel satisfied. If you attain one goal, it feels great for about five minutes. Then you turn around and ask yourself inevitably: What comes next?
And even worse: If you miss those goals, you feel crushed. Your ego and self-worth is bound to those superficial goals that you have little control over anyway.
This was stupid: I was spending so much time and effort achieving something that was never going to make me happy — and I was burning out hard.
A Life-Changing Encounter
In Spring 2019, I met an old acquaintance of mine at an event. I was asked to give a talk about running a 100% remote company, and he was giving his talk right before mine. He is an executive coach and consultant and was literally giving the theoretical underpinnings of what I was about to talk next. I did not assume “science” had even caught up with what we were doing at the time. Inspired by the book “A Trillion Dollar Coach”, I asked him if he would coach me. That man’s name is Alexander Petrowsky.
In our very first session, I was telling him about my life and business goals, and he set me straight about the futility of these ego-driven, achievement-oriented goals. Since then, I read dozens of books and thought constantly about the nature of goals, happiness and how they fit into the bigger picture.
What Should I Do With My Time On This Planet?
First, I dove headfirst into psychology. I found that the brain chemistry that motivates us to do things is still in cavemen mode:
- Dopamine gives us a small high whenever we do something cavemen needed to survive: Eat sugar, eat food, have sex.
- Serotonin gives us a small high whenever we position ourselves in a social hierarchy: Win a fight, gossip, get praise or put someone down.
Our function in this world — evolutionary speaking — is to pass on our genes. Those two mechanisms work great until we are about to create offspring in our twenties or thirties. But life does not stop there anymore. Today, that we live 90 years and longer, those two hormone mechanisms put us in a wheel of constant struggle. They are impossible to satisfy, and even worse: They hurt us and the relationships around us.
An interesting long-term study from Harvard has been following the lives of 1,000 graduates and 1,000 Boston dockworkers together with the lives of their families since the 1930ies. The study aimed to find out what drives long-term happiness. Spoiler alert: It’s not money, the car in your driveway, your job title or status. They found the best predictor for long-term happiness and fulfillment is the quality of your relationships.
A New Paradigm Of Goals
So what does that mean for our life aspirations? Instead of running after the next promotion or a bigger house, we should look at what we can do to improve the relationships we have with people. And that means to radically shift our focus from ego-driven goals and cheap pleasures to helping and connecting with others in a profound way. BTW: Jesus and the Buddha would approve. ;-)
- The Buddhists tell us that the ego is an illusion, and enlightenment is actually finding out that the ‘Self’ doesn’t exist at all. Rather, we are all interconnected. Or as Dan Harris, author of the book and app 10% Happier, summarized it: The best self-help program was developed 2,500 years ago — a worldview that, oddly enough, held that there is actually no “self” to “help”.
If esoteric is not your cup of tea, look into the talks of Dr. Jordan Peterson, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, clinical psychologist and author of the multi-million copy bestseller 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. He preaches how you should take over crushing responsibility for others as a life goal.
Another ancient school of thought, the Stoics, separate goals into three categories:
- Stuff you can influence entirely — i.e. when you get up in the morning
- Stuff you can influence a bit — i.e. a promotion
- Stuff you cannot influence at all — i.e. the stock market
Turns out, we spend most of our time worrying and running after the last two categories. We hang our happiness on stuff that is largely outside our control. That’s like playing ‘happiness lottery’.
Instead, the Stoics recommend we should focus on the things that are 100% under our control. Like a master athlete or musician, we should focus on the slow and steady improvement of our skill, the mundane repetition, and find happiness in the slow progress of mastery. Focus on the input (effort) rather than the output (achievement) of our actions.
So, let’s put in our 10,000 hours and focus on the small improvements. A minuscule increase in our skill of just 0.1% every day will tally up to an improvement of 40% in a year and over 35x (that’s 3,500%) in ten years.
To sum it up, we should focus our goals on:
- Input (our effort) instead of output (what we might achieve with it)
- Continuous improvement rather than a static set goal to achieve
- Helping and connecting with others instead of achieving something for our ego
Following this path, I defined ten goals for myself that have changed the way I live, lead and care for the people around me entirely. If you’re curious what they might be and how I found them, check out part two of 10 Goals That Changed The Way You Live, Lead And Care For Others and Life Goals Part 3 of 3: Three Methods to Achieve Your Life Goals and Lead a Happier Live.