Can Goal Setting be a bad thing?

I’m still working my way through The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman. And just finished the chapter “Goal Crazy”.  Burkeman suggests that we have an unhealthy focus on goal setting.  He suggests that the dark side of goal setting can lead to destructive behaviours and even death.

He makes reference to the 1996 disaster at Mount Everest where 8 people died in a 24-hour period.  The main reason the people died was that they didn’t follow the protocols and turn back when they should have.  There are strict protocols and timings when you can ascend and when you should descend.  Instead of turning around when they should have, they kept going up. 

Why?  Most likely because they were so close to the top that they didn’t want to turn back before they got there.  Climbing to the summit of Mount Everest is a long process.  It involves weeks and months of preparation.  To turn back might mean they lost their only chance to get to the top. 

There was a backlog of people on the mountain that day and it was taking longer to get to the top.  When the turn back time came around, some of the climbers decided to push on and ignore the protools. 

It could be that because of goal setting, they pushed themselves to reach their goal at all costs.  They reached their goal and got to the top.  But, unfortunately, it cost them their lives.

This kind of behaviour isn’t restricted to people scaling Mount Everest.  You can see it in people setting a goal to earn a certain amount of money.  And they focus on it to the exclusion and detriment to everything else.  Like their marriages, their families, and their health. 

When I was training for my first marathon, I developed IT band issues.  The muscle running from my hip to my knee would get so tight that it made running or walking painful.  For a while, I tried to muddle through it, because I had a goal of running a marathon and it was coming up soon.

Eventually, I went to see a physiotherapist and got it treated.  But the hardest thing was considering not running the marathon.  I had already seen myself as a marathon runner.  I didn’t want to stop.  But, I followed the physiotherapist’s advice and exercises.  And in the end, I was able to run the marathon.

A lot of runners push themselves through the pain.  And end up hurting themselves.

It isn’t that goal setting is bad.  But to focus on your goals to the exclusion of everything else might be.  You could pay a heavy price for reaching your goals. 

Focusing only on the goal also closes you off from seeing opportunities.  It can give you tunnel vision.

Sometimes working towards a goal is a stepping stone for something else.  Maybe something better.  But if you only focus on the goal or destination, you could miss something important on the way. 

© 2021 Peter Gruner

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