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Goals vs. Direction in Life

By Philip E. Humbert

I've been wanting to write this tip for years, but was never sure if it was an important distinction, or if I was just being weird. At our World Class Life Conference this year, I tested the idea and the response was fantastic, so here goes: For some of us, direction is more important than goals.

At the Conference, I said that goals are good. We are goal-setting and goal-achieving creatures. Throughout our lives, human beings have lots of targets or benchmarks ("goals") and we achieve most of them. As kids, we have goals to ride a bike or to stay up past 10:00, to get our first date, first kiss, first car. As adults, we save for our first home, and so on. Goals are good and we all have them.

For many people, goal-setting is the tool for achieving most of the big things in life. For them, goal-setting works almost every time. If they can define a goal to learn Spanish or buy a Mercedes, they can figure out a plan and make it happen. For them, goal-setting "makes sense" and I wish them well.

But, it doesn't work that way for me, and I don't think goals are the "tool of choice" for millions of other people, either. Call me crazy, but for some of us, direction is far more important than a specific goal.

For some of us, goals feel "heavy." They're too concrete and they seem limiting. They are too focused, too narrow, too linear.

My theory is that for people who tend to be more "left brain" (to use that clumsy analogy), goals are wonderful. People who tend to be engineers, who prefer logic and clear instructions and who enjoy following a good recipe, goals work well. As one client said, "It's just logical!"

However, for those who are more "right brain," goals are too logical. For those who prefer intuition and spontaneity, for people who find the music more important than the words, goals don't always work. Sometimes we want to "wander around and enjoy the process." That can drive goal-seekers (and our spouses!) bonkers, but it can be great fun!

So, here are two key points:

  1. In any given situation, use the right tool for the job. When it's important to arrive at a specific destination, set goals. But when the "goal" is to enjoy the journey, set a direction, stay the course, and see what happens. Sometimes it is important to actually hit a target ("increase sales by 10% or we'll have to let you go") and in those cases you need a clear goal, a specific plan, and daily action steps. But in other cases ("Let's drive to the mountains and relax for the weekend.") you just want a direction and some creativity.
  2. In life, honor your personal style. Some people love setting goals, others don't. If you're a goal-setter, good for you! But if, like me, goal-setting is not your natural preference, consider this your official permission to stop using a tool that doesn't suit you. Relax! Focus on your values, your desires and dreams, and trust your instincts. If you're smart (and you are), if you work hard and keep moving, most of the time you'll "get there" just fine.
Motivational speakers emphasize goals for good reason. Many things in life are linear and we need a great "map" or strategy to achieve them, step by step, over time. But when either the project or your personality prefers to set a direction and use your creativity, intuition and spontaneity to get the job done, trust that. The world needs us "artists" as much as it needs engineers.
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