Things weren’t going well. I couldn’t do another assignment. I couldn’t get myself to write anything. I couldn’t make progress on projects. I was struggling to do basically any work at all, let alone work that proved to be half-decent.

This wasn’t long ago; let me set the stage for you. It was the last few months leading up to my graduation from university. Motivation was nowhere to be found. I had hit this wall that I didn’t know existed.

If nothing else, I was confused — I hadn’t experienced this before.

I did well enough in school, my grades were competitive but not excellent by any means. I got accepted into university, landed a couple internships, and most recently, I graduated and accepted a full-time job offer working at Squarespace. I’m happy with how things worked out.

So, why the struggle with motivation? And why now? What’s so bad about having goals?

Why Goals?

I found myself wondering why I was so goal-oriented in the first place. After some thought, it began to become clear. Consider the system that we grow up in today.

This system begins with the fortunate youth heading off to school to get an education. Once they arrive, one goal is drilled into their head: get good grades.

If they get good grades, then they might just get accepted into the university of their choice. After that comes the career stuff. In order to be competitive, we are told to go get internships, develop marketable skills, and use them to land a full-time job. Don’t forget about graduation.

This sequence of milestones to chase, this pre-approved list of boxes to check — this is what we are told success looks like.

Goal after goal. Step by step. We climb towards the next achievement. Eventually, we reach its conclusion. Then we post it on Facebook.

And hey, maybe this is right. I’m not here to define what success looks like, instead, I’d rather focus on a couple reasons why this way of thinking isn’t effective for long-term motivation. Later on, I’ll also propose a path forward to better address the problem at hand.

Goals Are Temporary

One problem, as Jason Fried puts it in his excellent essay, I’ve Never Had a Goal, is that goals and milestones are temporary. Like most things in life, they come and go.

When you live according to a formula that prescribes you step-by-step goals, you become reliant on them. Then one day, they reach their anti-climatic end and poof — they’re gone.

“A goal is something that goes away when you hit it. Once you’ve reached it, it’s gone.” — Jason Fried

This can be effective in the short-term and has been for me in the past, though hitting each goal is never quite as satisfying as you think. There’s always going to be another goal to chase, another rung of the ladder climb. Eventually, you grow tired of the endless cycle, chasing down the next achievement.

My whole life I’ve picked out objectives and pursued them relentlessly. I’ve followed the formula laid out for me, using goals as a crutch, and now I’m paying for it. For the first time in a long time, I can’t see the next step. And because of that, I don’t feel motivated.

Goals Are Artificial

Here lies the more concerning problem with goals, and the main reason that they stopped working for me. Not only are they not sustainable long-term, but at their core, they aren’t genuine. They don’t really mean anything.

Goals are just artificial placeholders for purpose.

Purpose drives you to produce the best work you can because the results are going towards something bigger than you. Purpose is motivation that doesn’t need a KPI or a finish line. Purpose doesn’t just appear and disappear, it compounds and evolves over time. Purpose has actual, real meaning.

Looking back, I wish I spent a little less time goal-chasing and a little more exploring the things that give me purpose. This exploration isn’t encouraged in the system that we come up in, but it’s necessary. Even if it means less production in the short-term, taking the time to search for genuine motivators is worthwhile over the course of a career and furthermore, a lifetime.

A Path Forward

As I move forward, I’m easing up on the hyper-optimization, goal-driven approach and spending a little more time exploring bigger-picture purpose. What does this look like in practice? For me, it means removing the blinders every once in a while.

In the awesome HBO documentary, The Defiant Ones, Jimmy Iovine has a different take on this; a take that I used to wholeheartedly agree with.

“When you’re a race horse, the reason they put blinders on these things is because if you look at the horse on the left or the right, you’re going to miss a step. That’s why the horses have blinders on. And that’s what people should have. When you’re running after something, you shouldn’t look left or right — what does this person think, what does that person think? No. Go.” — Jimmy Iovine

Now? Not as much. When you put your blinders on and sprint towards the finish line, you’re more productive (it worked for Jimmy), but this advantage also comes with severe consequences including missed opportunities, burnout, and lack of purposeful motivation.

Before you go, don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying you shouldn’t dive into deep work for long hours and strive for extremely ambitious goals. Do all of that, and then some. What I am saying is this: don’t forget to remove the blinders, explore a little more, and rely on purpose over goals when it comes to motivation.

Try it out with me, I think you’ll thank yourself later.

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