Giving Up on Goals


The recipe for success

It might seem counterintuitive to take career advice from someone who has made his living poking fun of work. But Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert cartoon series, is a deep thinker (as most funny people are.) His recent Wall Street Journal essay on goals is a great example of inspired career advice.

Adams writes about failing his way to success, and why his failures didn’t discourage him. He tells the story of meeting a businessman on a plane trip to a job interview.  The businessman says that his theory on job search was that you should start looking for a better job immediately after getting your next job.  “For him, job seeking was not something one did when necessary. It was a continuing process. This makes perfect sense if you do the math. Chances are that the best job for you won’t become available at precisely the time you declare yourself ready. Your best bet, he explained, was to always be looking for a better deal. The better deal has its own schedule.”

Adams says that a light went on for him: “This was my first exposure to the idea that one should have a system instead of a goal. The system was to continually look for better options.”

Systems work better than goals in almost every endeavor. I’m an avid cook, and I much prefer techniques over recipes.  Cooking techniques explain why and how achieve a certain flavor or effect; recipes give you step by step instructions with specific ingredients.

(Brief cooking lesson follows; feel free to skip to the next paragraph if don’t care about food.) For example, deglazing a pan after you have sautéed meat or vegetables is a wonderful technique for building flavor. Deglazing means to pour some cold liquid into a very hot pan to get up all the brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Those bits are where all the flavors are, and it is called “fond” (rhymes with “phone”; French for “bottom.”) You can use any liquid to deglaze a pan: water, chicken stock, wine or juice; each will bring a different flavor to the dish. Knowing the technique means you can substitute when you don’t have or don’t want to use an ingredient in a recipe.  Inexperienced cooks are often stumped when they don’t understand techniques – they don’t have the ability to improvise, which is part of the joy of cooking.

Goals are like recipes: they specify an outcome based on inputs. And as such, Adams writes: “To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose ten pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary.” Again, food is a metaphor for the rest of your life.  Focusing on losing ten pounds makes us miserable (take it from the voice of experience.) Learning the technique of eating well (or low carb, or with intermittent fasting) is a way to achieve lifetime health and svelteness.

Adams goes on to explain his technique for getting rich (“The idea was to create something that had value and—this next part is the key—I wanted the product to be something that was easy to reproduce in unlimited quantities.”) He also outlines his most “aromatic failures” to make sure you realize that his ideas stunk and failed most of the time.  It’s that last one that didn’t fail that made him famous, made him worth about $75 million and makes me laugh every day. (Thanks Scott.)

“Failure is a tool.” That’s how Adams describes his approach – and how many others have as well. Thomas Edison is quoted as saying “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” I admit that the thought of failing  – at anything – gives me cold chills.  But I’m starting to re-think my position, especially after this insightful essay by Jon Gordon hit my email inbox today.  The Universe is trying to tell me something: If you haven’t failed at something today, you haven’t tried anything. The definition of success is getting up one more time than you were knocked down.

What have you failed at today?  Celebrate it!

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