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Are Your Goals and Your Purpose the Same Thing?

Are Your Goals and Your Purpose the Same Thing?

There is no shortage of preachers when it comes to having goals. Self-help books and audio and video and live seminars abound with goal-setting and goal-achievement as a central tenet of their teaching.

So are goals the same as purpose? Does one lead to another? Do either of them require the other?

Definition of goal

Let’s begin with some definitions. A goal is an object of your ambition or effort. It’s something you want to get done, to achieve, to receive. You may have lots of goals, only a few, or even none at all. Goals aren’t always of your own making either; you can be influenced or manipulated to take on a goal, or even be forced to do so.

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Definition of purpose

Your purpose, on the other hand, is the reason for your existence. If you work that backwards, it implies that if you exist, you must have a purpose. It does not imply however that everyone is clued in to that purpose. Unlike a goal, it can not be chosen or forced upon you, it just is.

You will notice that some people have no goals and yet here they are, therefore even if you are without goals you must have a purpose.

Does having goals automatically mean that those goals support your purpose? No, indeed. It is rather common that people fight who and what they are, often rather vehemently and actively.

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There are even a few gurus out there advocating having no goals. Check out this debate between Leo Babauta of Zen Habits (anti-goals) and Tim Ferriss of the 4-Hour franchise (pro-goals). How can smart people disagree on a topic that is so fundamental to life? There are several answers.

Do you know your purpose when you set a goal?

Setting goals without knowing your purpose is a fruitless and unfulfilling business. Focusing on goals rather than purpose is epidemic in this world, and ignoring purpose altogether is quite common. So if goals stand in the way of the fulfillment of your purpose, they have to go, and they can go as they are not required.

Going goal-free would be a pretty scary prospect to many folks, but this too is not required. Goals have a way of focusing your mind, so if you mindfully choose goals that stand in support of your purpose, they actually make your life smoother and more satisfying.

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An important characteristic of your purpose is it is happening right now. While it is true that your purpose unfolds into the future, the present moment is the only one you control. Goals, on the other hand, are only ever in the future: if a goal is accomplished in the present, it is annihilated, as a goal that has been accomplished is no longer a goal, but an achievement. Don’t get me wrong, achievement is terrific, but it takes the goal out of the picture and returns your focus to your purpose.

How to structure your goal

How you structure your goals has a big impact on whether or not your purpose is actualized. For instance, many people set goals that are fundamentally in the control of others. If you set a goal for a specific person to buy a specific product from you, you may be dismayed. If your goal is to have a certain person love you, you are rather attempting to impress a goal on that other person. Sometimes this succeeds, but often as not it fails and the disappointment can be devastating.

A better approach would be to set a sales goal that does not require a specific buyer or the sale of a particular product. It is better to have the goal to be lovable rather than to be loved. Of course, circumstances sometimes dictate details that must be reconciled, despite not being optimal. It is good to be clear in these situations that our purpose is not tied to this specific goal’s achievement;such a goal may support our purpose in success but it cannot take away from our purpose in failure.

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Sometimes people actually use goals as a way to avoid their purpose, and they use a goal as justification for their failure to pursue who they really are. Consider some common scenarios:

  • “I can’t start a business of my own because I need this job I hate to support my family.”
  • “After working hard all day, I’m too tired to go to the gym.”
  • “My parents have too many needs right now for me to pursue a romantic relationship.”

In these examples, what seem to be worthwhile goals like supporting your family, working hard, and caring for your parents are actually excuses that stand in the way of pursuing your purpose along with goals that support it.

Another thing that people do is use goals to distract them from the present—one they may consider to be unsatisfying or even painful. Remember that your purpose happens in the present, and if the underlying reason you choose some ambitious goal is to consume your focus, it becomes detrimental to your being present here and now. Once you are engaged with a goal, well chosen or not, It takes on a certain lofty status in your world. If you ignore how you feel while stubbornly pursuing this elevated goal, this mythical standing hurts you.

So, start with your purpose. Choose goals that support, it or even choose none at all. Divest yourself of all past commitments to goals that do not serve you. If you do, you will find a peaceful coexistence between your purpose and any goals that you choose to allow to remain.

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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