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.
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.
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.
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.
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.