If You Want To Be Massively Successful, Do NOT Set Ambitious Goals, According To Studies
This is why Steve Jobs said “You can’t connect the dots looking forward”…
Author’s Note: This article was written over 60 hours with love and care using the blockbuster mental model.
The conventional model to having great success in your career is setting and ardently pursuing big, hairy, audacious goals (BHAGs), even if you have no idea how you’re going to achieve them when you start.
Want to build a billion-dollar company? Set the goal and work backward from long-term goals to medium-term goals to short-term goals to today’s to-do list. Then take action, measure your progress along the way, and constantly course correct so you’re always on the most direct path (that you’re aware of) toward your ultimate goal.
Want to cure cancer? Set the goal and work backward. Measure your progress.
Want to find the love of your life or be happy? Set the goal. Rinse and repeat.
This goals model is so obvious in our culture that it goes without saying. It’s central to our collective success recipe. Goals give motivation, meaning, and focus when we feel lazy or distracted. We can’t accomplish big things without them—at least so we’re told.
However, recent research is finding the exact opposite to be true. When it comes to BHAGs, goals are often OBSTACLES to LARGE feats of innovation rather than enablers. Furthermore, goals can sap motivation.
In this article, I will share some of the most compelling research about the downside of goals, including…
In Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned, artificial intelligence researchers compellingly present research for a new model of success and innovation. I have now read the book three times, and it’s had a profound impact on how I view the world. Out of the 1,000+ books I have read, I consider this one to be in the top 10.
Researcher Robert Root-Bernstein studied the habits of every single Nobel Laureate ever and found a fascinating pattern that goes against everything we were taught about the benefits of specialization.
Another researcher found that people who are too focused on goals are actually less lucky.
Together, these paint the picture of a completely different model for success and innovation. By the end of the article, you’ll:
Understand what this new model is and how to use it.
How to more effectively use goals without the downsides.
Let’s jump in…
Study: Most Nobel Laureates Are Not Specialists
After spending months studying the habits of every single Nobel laureate across every single discipline across all of history, researcher Robert Root-Bernstein found a fascinating pattern…
Nobel Laureates have significantly more and deeper interests than average scientists.
Whereas average scientists view their hobbies as having nothing to do with their work, Nobel laureates don’t look at their hobbies as hobbies. They look at them as fundamental parts of their creative process.
A camping trip isn’t just a camping trip. It’s an opportunity to get perspective on their work while looking at the stars. Art isn’t just art. It’s an opportunity to hone their visualization skills and therefore think better. Just as every moment, personal or professional, is potential material for a comedian, so too is every moment potential fodder for a Nobel laureate. Everything we learn or experience is fodder.
When we look back at many of the most creative people in history, including Nobel laureates, they seem to operate in a completely different way. They pursue curiosities, sometimes purposely not thinking of immediate applications. They embrace serendipity. At certain points in their career, they were even considered aimless or seen as lazy under-performers. I write about Einstein’s winding journey in How To Rapidly Double Your Brain Power With The Einstein Technique.
We see a similar pattern among many of the most innovative companies and founders in the world as well…
Our Great Innovators Share These Three Traits In Common
Over my last several years of writing about great innovators, I’ve seen that they almost universally share three uncommon commonalities. They…
Are modern polymaths
Explore their curiosities and meander
Follow the 5-Hour Rule (spending at least five hours per week on deliberate learning)
All while conventional wisdom recommends that people become specialists who are razor-focus on their goals.
When Michael Dell was asked to name the one attribute CEOs will need most to succeed in the turbulent times ahead, he answered, “I would place my bet on curiosity.”
Under Eric Schmidt’s leadership as CEO, Google grew from a few hundred employees to over 32,000. After years of experimentation, he found that two qualities mattered more than anything else: persistence and curiosity.
Jeff Bezos believes Amazon’s success is directly correlated with the number of experiments they perform.
Elon Musk famously spent hours a day during his childhood exploring his curiosity by reading books across physics, programming, philosophy, spirituality, and science fiction.
Many of Apple’s greatest innovations directly come from Steve Jobs’ meandering curiosity. Learning calligraphy helped Apple pioneer typefaces on the first personal computers. Jobs’ love of music enabled him to spot the opportunity to launch the world’s first truly successful MP3 player.
Self-made billionaire Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett’s right-hand person has collected the most valuable mental models across the biggest disciplines for his entire career.
I write about this surprising pattern more deeply in The Founders Of The World’s Five Largest Companies All Follow The 5-Hour Rule.
Learning that following my meandering curiosity and love of exploration could be a strength rather than a weakness if harnessed correctly has been life-changing. So has learning about the hidden downsides of goals…
The Surprising Downsides Of Goals That No One Talks About
Since I can remember, I’ve been a deeply curious person. I love reading across disciplines. I love meeting interesting people and peppering them with questions. I love understanding things at a deeper level that may not have an immediate and obvious connection to my goals.
On the other hand, I love setting and achieving ambitious goals. Since I became an entrepreneur at 16, I’ve believed that if you want something bad enough, you get specific about what you want and when you want it, you keep visualizing it, and then you take massive action, you can have it. And the worst-case scenario, “shoot for the stars and hit the moon.”
The tension is that my curiosities are rarely on the direct path to my goals, making pursuing them hard to justify. Therefore, I’ve often relegated my curiosities to the hobby zone. Telling my team that I would read a book on evolution or network science felt like I was letting them down, even if those have paid huge dividends for my business over the long term. Earlier in my career, I hid my curiosities from my bio and resume, because they didn’t give a clear story of someone who was ambitious and focused.
Previously, I saw the holes in the goals model as personal shortcomings. Now, I have a clear picture of how only using the goals-only model can backfire:
Downside #1: Goal obsession can lead to being unlucky
One of the best examples of how goals can lead to myopia is a famous study conducted by UK researcher Richard Wiseman.
In this study, Wiseman gave people who considered themselves lucky and unlucky a newspaper and then asked them to look through it and count the number of photos inside.
Here are the average results of how long it took people:
Unlucky people: 2 minutes
Lucky people: seconds
How was this even possible? On the second page, there was a huge half-page ad that said:
Stop counting. There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.
Amazed by the results, in his next experiment Wiseman placed a second large message halfway through the newspaper:
Stop counting. Tell the experimenter you have seen this and win £250.
Once again, the unlucky people missed the message. They were too busy counting.
To summarize the surprising results, Wiseman writes:
And so it is with luck — unlucky people miss chance opportunities because they are too focused on looking for something else.
They go to parties intent on finding their perfect partner and so miss opportunities to make good friends. They look through newspapers determined to find certain types of job advertisements and as a result miss other types of jobs.
Lucky people are more relaxed and open, and therefore see what is there rather than just what they are looking for.
The goal paradox is that the people who most fixedly pursue a goal might also be the worst at recognizing opportunities along the journey.
Downside #2: Achieving goals can leave you feeling empty
The most common reaction of the human mind to achievement is not satisfaction, but craving for more.
—Yuval Noah Harari
As the saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for because you might get it.”